Online Church: It’s the Relationships

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Photo by bongkarn thanyakij on Pexels.com

This then is the one thing everyone needs to know about online church: It’s not the technology. It’s the relationships.

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Today, we tend to think of a building as church. Likewise, people tend to think the online platform is church but neither of these are church. Church is a localized assembly of the people of God, dwelling, with a task.

I was so concerned about this that I listed all of the ways people would confuse technology with online church (i.e., the building for the body). [In SimChurch] I wrote:

It is critical that we do not confuse an online church with, say, a website of a real-world church. An online church is not a website (building or place), a podcast (ritualized institution), or a blog (fellowship or activity). An online church is a place where people professing to have faith in Jesus Christ gather regularly to be in meaningful community appointed to build up the kingdom—or more specifically, an online church is the confessing people gathering in a synthetic world.

When my pastor called to speak to me about online church, this was the advice I offered: Don’t worry about the technology right now (yes, it has to work, and be decent, but most people will understand if it’s not perfect), focus on building connections between people. Focus on making sure people can respond to worship, and respond to each other.

– Douglas Estes, writing for The Center for Pastor Theologians, “The One Things that Makes or Breaks Online Church

The reason that I think my online Sunday school and online teaching experiences have been moderately successful thus far is due to the relationships that were already established prior to the outbreak. The creative challenge before church leaders, I think, is to consider how online technology can deepen existing connections while, secondarily, opening avenues for connection with those who are a new to a particular, localized expression of the body of Christ.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

But if there is a silver lining in this crisis, it may be that the virus is forcing us to use the internet as it was always meant to be used — to connect with one another, share information and resources, and come up with collective solutions to urgent problems. It’s the healthy, humane version of digital culture we usually see only in schmaltzy TV commercials, where everyone is constantly using a smartphone to visit far-flung grandparents and read bedtime stories to kids.

Already, social media seems to have improved, with more reliable information than might have been expected from a global pandemic. And while the ways we’re substituting for in-person interaction aren’t perfect — over the next few months in America, there may be no phrase uttered more than “Can someone mute?” — we are seeing an explosion of creativity as people try to use technology as a bridge across physical distances.

– Kevin Roose in The New York Times, “The Coronavirus is Showing Us How to Live Online

Roose’s claim that “the virus is forcing us to use the internet as it was always meant to be used” assumes that the internet’s reason for being at its genesis was to foster connection, sharing, and problem solving. Then, the trolls moved in and divided us, unleashing chaos and infecting all of us, turning the web into an accelerant for hatred and strife. Now, a crisis is moving us back toward paradise. The internet has now been restored, and is being redeemed–for the moment.

Creation, fall, and restoration, precipitated by a crisis. There’s a mythic structure to this story.

But that misunderstands the nature of the internet, or of any broadcasting tool, which is more of an amplifier and signal booster. Tools like the web show us what was already there. During periods of crisis, we fixate on expressions of creativity and compassion. We look for light in the darkness. During periods of stability and comfort, we fixate on the problems and we increase in our despair. We notice the darkness rather than the light.

This shouldn’t be surprising to Christians that a crisis would precipitate a shift in the online mood. We claim, after all, that human beings are created in the image of God, and though fallen, God’s grace still is active even in those who may be alienated or cut off from fellowship. The clues we experience–our longing for connection, our desire to care, our compassion for those that are hurting–are resonances that point us to the divine, to God. When the normal means of pursuing those longings are removed, we seek other avenues to meet them.

We’re marveling at how this global pandemic is causing people to connect, care, and solve problems. But perhaps we should reflect as to why, apart from such a crisis, things get so nasty. The crisis draws our attention to the light. But in times of stability, perhaps we should be more focused on casting out darkness.

Is a Livestream a Worship Service?

As we walk through this season of church under quarantine, I think our approach should be much the same as John’s as we instruct our congregations. We ought to pursue continued communication and teaching using the technology available to us. I thank the Lord that we have been able to gather to watch sermons on Sunday morning. Our family has benefited from short updates from our pastors on Instagram and Facebook. I’ve appreciated the chance to FaceTime with students at our seminary. But we all recognize that these interactions are limited.

We can see each other, but we can’t be with each other. There is a big difference, and we feel it every time we log on. I’ve also noticed that many pastors are preaching shorter sermons and sending out short updates. This is because we recognize that a lecture on a screen is, quite frankly, not the best medium for teaching and preaching complex theology or calling people to deep reflection on the gospel. Since we are not gathering as the people of God communing with each other and the risen Christ, I don’t think we should call our Sunday livestreams a “worship service.” We can use a livestream to call our people to worship and to teach from God’s Word, but we have to be honest enough to say that the television in our living room is designed for amusement, not for deep musing on the things of God, let alone a replacement of the means of grace that God has given to his gathered people.

– Chris Bruno writing for The Center for Pastor Theologians, “Real Presence and Social Distancing

Bruno’s underlying point is the correct one: what we’re experiencing now under quarantine is not the ideal means of gathering together as the people of God. The television, the tablet, the screen is a layer of mediation we are better without. But for the present moment, it is the best medium we have.

Contrary to Bruno, I think it is permissible to name what we are doing via livestream or prerecorded webcast a “worship service,” for it is an avenue by which we can be invited to worship God. But it differs from “church” in the sense that the people called church are literally “the called out ones,” the assembly, the gathered fellowship of the saints. Yes, the church is bound together invisibly as a spiritual reality. The church is universal, dispersed across time and space and geography. But it is also expressed locally and personally, physically and tangibly, when bodies come together, joining in one voice, to lift up praises to God and give thanks for the manifold gifts we have received through the gospel.

Some of my earliest forays into writing about church leadership and ministry was to argue against online “church” for the very reasons Bruno cites. I was thinking about this stuff ten years ago. I was a strong proponent of presence as witness, congregation as demonstration, and baptism and the Lord’s supper as vital events for the people of God and in time, acts of testimony, formation, and narration that remind, renew, and root us in the good news that Christ has come, died, redeemed, risen, and now reigns as we await for that day he will return.

In moments like the one we’re in, let’s see online vehicles for gathering and connection as temporary measures that can sustain us until such a time we can once again gather face to face. Let’s develop a deeper appreciation for human connection, for flesh and blood realities, for encountering the other.

Via digital interface, we only see one another in part. When gathered, we see one another face to face, body to body. Via the internet, we know only in part, but when gathered, we are more fully known, until that day comes in which we shall know fully, even as we are fully known (1 Cor. 13:12). The web helps us to remain connected. When we reconnect, present and in the flesh, let us then rejoice.

Postman’s Advice on Living

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Neil Postman is one of my favorite thinkers, changing much about the way I think about media and modern society, with varied applications to the church, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. His “Advice for Living the Rest of Your Life,” a lecture delivered by Postman, is something I stumbled upon via Austin Kleon (his books!).

The complete lecture can be found here (delivered initially in 1989, and again with revisions in 1993). Kleon cited his favorite bits. I went back to the full manuscript, and decided to quote Postman’s list in its entirety. If you want Postman’s commentary, you’ll have to go to his text.

  1. Do not go to live in California.
  2. Do not watch TV news shows or read any tabloid newspapers.
  3. Do not read any books by people who think of themselves as “futurists,”such as Alvin Toffler.
  4. Do not become a jogger. If you are one, stop immediately.
  5. If you are married, stay married.
  6. If you are a man, get married as soon as possible. If you are a woman,you need not be in a hurry.
  7. Establish as many regular routines as possible.
  8. Avoid multiple and simultaneous changes in your personal life.
  9. Remember: It is more likely than not that as you get older you will get dumber.
  10. Keep your opinions to a minimum.
  11. Carefully limit the information input you will allow.
  12. Seek significance in your work, friends, and family, where potency and output are still possible.
  13. Read’s Law: Do not trust any group larger than a squad, that is, about a dozen.
  14. With exceptions to be noted further ahead, avoid whenever possible reading anything written after 1900.
  15. Confine yourself, wherever possible, to music written prior to 1850.
  16. Weingartner’s Law: 95% of everything is nonsense.
  17. Truman’s Law: Under no circumstances ever vote for a Republican.
  18. Take religion more seriously than you have.
  19. Divest yourself of your belief in the magical powers of numbers.
  20. Once a year, read a book by authors like George Orwell, E.B. White, or Bertrand Russell.

I plan to heed numbers 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 18, and 19. Number 6 does not apply. I’ll consider numbers 3, 13, 16, and 20. I have no intention of applying 4, 14, 15, 17, and 20.

Satan’s Work

You see, I believe the Internet is the work of Satan.

– Kinky Friedman, Texas Hold’em: How I Was Born in a Manger, Died in the Saddle, and Came Back as a Horny Toad, 115

Kinky published these words, in this book, in 2005. He added, “If you require information on a certain subject, go to one of those places, I forget what you call them, with a lot of books inside and two lions out front. Pick a title, sit on the steps, and read between the lions.”

Sound backwards? Kinky knew you’d think so. “This may seem a little like a rather Neanderthal method of education, but at least you won’t be tempted to pretend to be someone you’re not and you won’t get carpal tunnel syndrome. In fact, the only things you’re liable to get are a little bit of knowledge and some pigeon droppings on your coat–which most people will tell you, and most computers won’t–means good luck.”

Twitter was founded on March 21, 2006.

Kinky also argued that “computers contribute to the homogenization of everyone’s brain. The technological revolution is not bringing us closer together–it’s merely making us more the same.”

That was prescient.

And I fully embrace the ironic fact that I’m relaying these thoughts via a computer, on the internet.

The 10,000 Year Clock

Imagine a clock that was designed to keep time long after you were gone. Americans presently live an average of 78.69 years. Jeff Bezos helped fund the construction of a clock that will keep time 10,000 years. Assuming the next one hundred and twenty eight of your descendants live the average human life span, they may see Bezos’ clock tick its last tock.

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Jeff Bezos Shared this Image on Twitter

Here’s more from Wired:

This past winter, inside a mountain on Jeff Bezos’ sprawling West Texas ranch, Hillis and his colleagues began assembling the device. It is housed in a cylindrical 500-foot shaft cut into solid limestone. Visitors will enter through a jade-paneled door and climb a staircase that spirals around the clock’s gargantuan innards—5-ton ­counterweights, 8-foot stainless steel gears, a 6-foot titanium pendulum. If they choose to engage the clock’s winding mechanism, they’ll be rewarded with one of 3.65 million unique chimes composed by musician Brian Eno. But the effort is optional; at the top of the stairs is a cupola made of sapphire glass, which will keep the clock fed with thermal energy and sync it up with solar noon. Left unattended, it will mark the millennia on its own. Bezos, who helped pay for the project, told WIRED in 2011 that “whole civilizations will rise and fall” over the life of the clock. That leaves plenty of time to think about what’s beyond the four-zero barrier.

You can learn more about the clock project by spending time here.

Human beings are geared more toward dealing with and facing immediate threats, deciding matters based on what benefits them most in the moment. But by taking the long view, when considering those who will come long after us, our perspective shifts and perhaps the decisions we make today will be less about ourselves and more about those who are to come after us, our posterity.

We’re a mist, a passing shadow, like grass that is renewed in the morning and in the evening fades. 10,000 years is a long time. But I hope to use this short span for good, and to leave something behind for those who will come after; hopefully something better, something good.

I Could’ve Been a Scholarship Athlete

I was born about twenty years too early. Colleges are offering scholarships for esports. Video games! You can get an education for being good at games like League of Legends and Overwatch. Rebecca Heilweil of Wired writes:

Most parents dismiss video­games as a mind-dulling distraction from their kids’ studies. Little do they know all that button­­mashing could translate into a fat college fund. Over the past five years, esports have grown into an estimated $906 million industry, with recruiters, coaches, and dedicated arenas. Nearly 200 US colleges are offering around $15 million per year in scholarships for the esports elite, and university teams can earn millions more in tournament prizes. Unsurprisingly, Silicon Valley is getting in on the market: PlayVS, a startup that organizes high school esports leagues, has raised $46 million from investors like Diddy and Adidas. Game recognize game.

My favorite infograhic from Wired? This one:

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My brother remembers me being quite good at Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. I could throw that speed ball by you. Ah, glory days.

Power Laces. Alright.

The last issue of Wired magazine had a nice spread on Nike’s Adapt BB, a self-lacing basketball shoe with plenty of smart technology. The shoe releases later this month on February 17, and you can own a pair for $350.

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Image via HYPEBEAST

After pairing your phone with your shoes, you can adjust the fit, switch between  presets, change the lights, and monitor your battery levels. The Adapt is equipped with Bluetooth technology and can be charged wirelessly via a Qi-like pad.

Marty wore the Nike Air 2015. We’re only a few years behind. The Adapt BB looks way better. This 2016 Wired feature tells how the HyperAdapt was first engineered, and has several great shots of a few members of the Nike design team and their work spaces.

With a couple of exceptions, I’ve worn Nike basketball shoes for years. My parents bought me these Air Max 2 CB 94s. Yes, I was a fan of Charles Barkley, who said “Any knucklehead can score.” I should’ve heeded what he said about rebounding.

I wear a size twelve. If you’re looking for ideas for what to get me for Christmas, the Adapt BBs will be out there.

Cutting Cable

Television is changing, as are the ways people consume media.

We’ve heard for years younger generations are foregoing a cable subscription and opting instead to consume media in other ways. Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime have changed how people watch shows, and with the advent of apps like Fox Sports Go, NBC Sports, and WatchESPN, there are more ways to stream live events on a phone, tablet, or other device. Our family has watched the last two Baylor women’s soccer matches on Facebook Live. My kids enjoy clicking the emojis.

This fall our family joined those who have cut the cord and chosen instead a combination of online streaming services. We followed a progression. Here’s how it unfolded.

First, We Canceled Cable

When we moved to Waco in 2016 we had choices to make with regard to our utilities. I wanted a local phone number (at the time, I wasn’t in a rush to have a cell phone), internet service, and to watch sports on television. I began shopping around, and asked a few friends for their recommendations. We ended up with a subscription bundle for a set rate and were locked in for the first year.

But the moment my subscription rate bumped one year later, I called to cancel the cable portion and bought an antenna. I could pick up ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox.

We also had a Roku device, which meant that when our PBS signal wasn’t coming in strong I could stream shows for my kids via the PBS Kids Roku channel. I could save $80 a month ($960 a year), watch most of the major football, soccer, and baseball, and basketball games I wanted to catch, and I listened to internet radio for the rest. Despite the cable company’s offer to keep me at their current promotional rate on the day I called (which was the same as the first year fee), I cut the cord.

The Antenna Phase

I shopped around and finally bought a Leaf antenna. I placed it in the house in a spot that maximized reception and minimized its being an eyesore. I purchased some cable concealer from Home Depot, and kept my wires confined.

The antenna was complimented by the aforementioned Roku device. While I cancelled cable, I kept internet service at home. I’ve already mentioned the PBS Kids app. We could also stream movies or shows through Amazon Prime (which we’ve had for years due to the amount of shopping we do online).

We don’t regularly watch local or national news programs (I subscribe to the local paper). We usually have stuff going on during the weekends. And we do our best to read, play, or create stuff during our free time, with only sporadic consumption of movies or television. The antenna, plus the couple of apps we could use on our television with the Roku device, was plenty.

Subscribing to Streaming Services

Back in August when football season was approaching, I made a decision to explore the costs of the various streaming services. It was unclear how many Baylor home football games I would attend, and knew I wanted to watch them on the road. When the season began I thought they had a real shot at taking a step forward, winning six games, and becoming bowl eligible. It’s still possible.

I compared Sling, Hulu, and YouTube TV. All of these companies have strengths and weaknesses, and vary their packages in ways that are attractive to different consumers. For a little under $30 a month ($360 a year), I chose to go with one of Sling’s basic packages, one that I thought would land the highest number of Baylor football games during the season (I put my chips on the Fox family of networks).

I added an ESPN+ subscription as well. It’s advertised at $5 a month, but I paid $50 for the year (saving $10). So, in the end, my streaming television subscription package costs me a little under $35 a month.

What I’ve Learned

Do I get to watch every sporting event I want to watch? No. I chose not to buy one of the more advanced Sling packages, which would have given me access to the ESPN family of networks. I missed Chiefs/Rams on Monday Night Football (now argued to be the best regular season NFL game in history). But I watched a portion of the replay later in the week on the NFL Network (which is included in my Sling package), and had listened live to the radio broadcast.

Do I enjoy the ability to watch television on my TV and other devices? Absolutely. Sling is accessible on my tablet devices (and even my phone, if I wanted to stream there). I also love it that my Sling subscription works with select apps, including NBC Sports, Fox Sports Go, and others. They’re still working to expand the number of apps that will accept a Sling subscription (like AMC). I love that.

Do I enjoy being a better steward of our finances? Yes. By spending less on television I’m able to allocate funds to other things. And since my streaming subscriptions can be cancelled at any time, I’m contemplating what to do once football season concludes. I’m thinking about going back to antenna for a while and then reevaluating the streaming television market to decide if the enjoyment our family will receive is worth the cost.

A la carte television is a weird proposition for those of us who are used to paying for one big package where we get the channels we want and then a bunch of superfluous channels we never watch. I was hesitant at first. But what pushed me over the edge, eventually, was the cost. I spend less money to get most of what I want. Even if I would’ve bought a Sling bundle with more channels (including ESPN), I still would’ve spent less than cable.

(If you do research and are interesting in signing up for Sling, let me know and I’ll send you an invite code which may offer a price break for both of us.)

What’s Next?

The models will keep changing, as will the options, and I have a feeling that there will be some shifts ahead with how internet service providers offer their products. Time will tell.

If it gets too pricey, I still have my books and my local library, which is plenty to keep my occupied.

How I Limit Social Media, and Why

Social media has undeniably changed the way we relate to the world. Online, we each manage our “personal brand.” News networks feature the President’s tweets prominently on their chyrons. Twitter and Facebook have been scrutinized for their role in public debate, particularly in how they can effect our political discourse. And there is evidence that too much time on social media can have a negative impact on mental health.

I was an early adopter of the major social media platforms. I signed up for Facebook with my college email address, my first Twitter updates were sincerely about what I was doing (things like “taking a walk” or “eating grapes”), and I can remember Instagram before the ads, videos, and the “discover” feature. I signed up for Snapchat when my students began using it. I made some cool videos using the face filters. At least I thought they were cool.

But in more recent years I’ve sought ways to limit my social media usage. Why? Mainly because of what I’ve observed about social media’s effect on me. I’ll admit I’ve wanted to be “online famous” for my photography or writing, but thank God that never happened. I’ve gotten caught in stupid online arguments and I’ve allowed the thoughts and opinions of strangers on the internet to darken my mood. I’ve been jealous of what other people show online, whether it be their possessions or their perfectly stylized life. I’ve sought confirmation of my own biases and nurtured negative views of “those people” over there, who are often the very people (neighbors, enemies) whom I believe I am called to love in Jesus Christ.

Online engagement is spiritually formative. When social media is a habit, it becomes part of the ongoing, continuous process in which we are becoming who we will be forever. And while I’ve done my best to make social media work for me, to tailor it toward life-giving and positive ends, I’ve found there are limits to the various platforms. Each, in its own way, can yield some good, but there are negative side effects that come with daily use.

I started by deleting all social media applications from my phone, and keeping all but one application (Twitter) off of my tablet. That keeps my usage way down.

I only access Facebook on my web browser, and I try to check it only once a day, and to never scroll. I don’t want to be a voyeur, though there is an element of voyeurism in all social media. It’s like one great big never ending episode of “The Real World.” When I do access Facebook, I only peek at notifications and make sure I don’t have any new messages. I sometimes fail in the “once a day” rule, and I still think once a day is too much for me. I also fail, at times, to remain at the top of the feed. I do not like what Facebook has become, but I maintain a presence there because of the friends and family members who have connected with me on the service, especially those I’ve befriended through Christian fellowship.

Twitter is, by far, my favorite social media service. It’s how I track trends and news. But I’m not a fan of the timeline algorithm, and I sometimes get annoyed when political takes trend. I love it when I’m watching a live sporting event.

I limit updates to Instagram to one day a week. I install the application on my phone on Wednesdays, post my image for the week, and then delete the application. I enjoy photography and I have friends who actively use the service, and see the images and words I share as a way to encourage and offer a little slice of life to others.

I left Snapchat for good when my friend Oliver ditched the service. Technically I still have an account, but I haven’t logged in for over one year.

My rules are in no ways laws, and I’m constantly tweaking how I use each service. There is a part of me that would like to simply leave social media altogether, as Jaron Lanier suggests in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. But I can’t bring myself to do it. For one, I’m a writer, and social media is one means of connecting with readers. But also, there is the gravitational pull of social connections. Even though I’m Facebook friends with people I haven’t spoken to in years, I value maintaining the thread, keeping open a channel in the event that if there is a need to communicate, I can.

I also have privacy concerns about online use, or how we freely give mega-corporations information about our lives, with little idea of how that information could be used to harm or manipulate us. That’s a concern of mine, not only for me, but for my family, whom I sometimes share pictures of or stories about. Building a scrapbook, or keeping a journal, may actually be the safer and wiser path.

These days I’ve found that I’m a little more present, a little happier, and a little less anxious. I get most of my news from my local paper, the Waco Tribune-Herald. I call my mom about once a week. I spend time with a small group of friends. And when I attend a sporting event or a concert, I watch, or listen, and try to take it all in. To see it with my own eyes, hear it with my own ears, and to treasure what is happening in the moment.

I’m OK with the transient nature of the experience. I don’t have to capture it. I can just be part of it. I don’t need to tell others what I’m up to. I don’t have to always know what other people are thinking. I don’t need to try and improve my status by sharing my latest take, or my most recent witticism.

I save that stuff for the people I’m with.