Church in changing times

In 2008 Phyllis Tickle published a book entitled “The Great Emergence” in which she spoke of massive transitions that have come along about every 500 years in the history of the church and provide for upheaval in church and society. Tickle uses the analogy of a rummage sale to make her point. Every 500 years or so the church has a big rummage sale and gets rid of a lot of clutter. In the book she argues that we are now experiencing one of those massive events.

I belong to a group of clergy who read the book together and discussed it at length. There was general agreement that indeed we are experiencing a major upheaval in church and society. We recounted how the printing press played a pivotal role in the Protestant Reformation. Once people could have a copy of the Bible in their own hands, they were freed to read and interpret it themselves and were less dependent upon a church hierarchy to give them an official version of the meaning of faith.

Somewhere in our conversations one of my colleagues said something that reminded me of a conversation I had participated in many years earlier in which we were discussing television evangelists. Someone was arguing that the mainline church had missed the boat when it came to television and should have been quicker to take up the media. I remember arguing that the cost of production-quality television was simply too expansive. To have embraced television as the primary media of Christianity would have meant that millions and millions of dollars would be diverted from mission and ministry to media. The mainline church, I argued, would have sent itself to oblivion and ceased its ministry through such extravagance. The counter argument was that television produced positive revenue. The televangelists were getting rich off of their sermons. It was one of those conversations that doesn’t end in a resolution, but I remember thinking that I didn’t have any desire to be a televangelist and the work of such a person didn’t resemble at all what I thought of as ministry. I didn’t want my professional life to be caught up with staff meetings and production meetings and lighting checks and sound checks and rehearsals. I didn’t want worship to be dominated by entertainment-quality music and the role of the pastor reduced to being a kind of master of ceremonies. I didn’t want to have to work to the clock to the extent that long readings of scripture were eliminated and the preacher abandoned the lectionary for a couple of short quotes of scripture. I didn’t want to have the same theme for worship every week: the only way to escape eternal punishment in hell is to declare Jesus as your Lord and Savior.

In later conversations, I would simply say that my career involved doing a lot of work that the televangelists don’t do. I provided the face-to-face counseling, I comforted the grieving and performed the funerals. I officiated at the weddings and dedicated the children. I held the hands of the sick and dying. I prayed with those who were troubled. I did all kinds of work that televangelists never did with their media-focused ministry.

Given all of the conversations and thoughts of over four decades of ordained ministry, it doesn’t surprise me that there are a few voices in today’s society who will say that online is the future of Christian worship. The cite the low cost of producing online worship and point to the few who have garnered huge groups of subscribers and followers and predict that the future is media focused and that institutional churches with their insistence on in person worship and meeting together at the same time are relics of a fading past.

In a sense, it might be true. Retiring has quickly made me feel like I am a relic of a fading past. It is obvious that the pandemic has forced a radical shift in the way that churches constitute themselves and most congregations have embraced online worship as one of the components of their ministry. As a worshiper, however, I have to say that watching others engage in a form of worship on a computer screen is spiritually unsatisfying. It doesn’t feel like the development of meaningful relationships. Also, quite frankly, it feels like congregational leaders are putting less energy and effort into creating meaningful worship. Much of what I have seen online has been a bit thrown together with less than professional editing and sudden transitions. It is hard to feel like you are praying with others when the screen image is stock footage of sped up clouds moving across a blue sky or a close-up of a somewhat contorted face of someone trying to keep their eyes closed to show that they are not reading the prayer from notes. After a career of carefully choosing the words of prayers and producing thousands of prayer manuscripts, I think that there is still value in crafting language to express the concerns of a community rather than speaking only of one’s personal concerns in prayer.

Somehow having a video posted on the Internet that I can watch at any tome from any place is a poor substitute for gathering for worship where we pray together, hear scripture together, listen to a choir together and build community together.

One of our professors often said, “You can’t be the body of Christ all by yourself.” Often, when I am watching worship online, I feel very lonely and isolated. I don’t feel like I am connecting to a community. I don’t feel like we are being the body of Christ - the church.

I suppose it is possible that I am simply a product of the past. As a minister who spent his entire career focusing on relationships and building community through in-person ministry, I am not at home in the Internet age. As a seeker of wisdom and truth, I don’t know my way around a post-truth culture. If so, I’m comfortable with that. Just as I allowed television to pass me by so that I could minister in the midst of a congregation, I am not worried about the Internet leaving me behind. I suspect that there are still many ways that I can serve people while others figure out the future of online worship.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!