Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson
May 25, 2020
Memorial Day, observed the last Monday of May, is our national holiday that commemorates the service of men and women who died in the U.S. military. It was originally known as Decoration Day because on this day, people decorated the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers and offered prayers of remembrance. As we prepare for Memorial Day this year, while in the grasp of COVID-19, I cannot help but wonder whether we will celebrate another war dead – a casualty of this global fight against a global pandemic. That casualty might be the church, for I fear that church as we know it is dead.
In recent months, churches have had to adapt in-person worship experiences to virtual, online opportunities as a result of COVID-19 and social distancing mandates. Livestreamed worship, Bible Study via video conferencing, and social media services have become normative. Our devices ping and ding daily to alert us of various worshipping opportunities. On a recent Sunday, I watched segments of 13 different worship services around the country. It was glorious watching colleagues teach, preach, and sing from various locations that included emptied sanctuaries and even the front porches of their homes. Like many of you, I sang, prayed, and praised, all from the convenience of my kitchen counter.
How then will we ever go back to what was before? How can the local church compete with what technology has enabled and made commonplace? It can’t, and for many, it won’t. And if we understand the impact of technology, then we recognize this phenomenon. Technology can have a deterministic effect, meaning that its influences and outcomes are fixed and predictable. This was the belief of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. He offered a deterministic model that studied the impact of technologies on society, asserting that its influence could be described as a tetradic structure. Specifically, McLuhan noted that all mediums or technologies would accomplish four impacts. Technology would Intensify something in culture; Obsolesce something else; Retrieve a phase or factor long ago pushed aside; and Reverse itself when pushed beyond the limits of its potential.[i]
What does this look like when we consider the church? I would argue that virtual worship has intensified our sense of individuality and autonomy. Just as I chose from a banquet of worship experiences, so too are others enjoying the freedom to pick and choose the worship that they want. Freedom and autonomy are what I believe will make obsolete church as we have known it. Through virtual worship, we are free to select our spiritual nurture from the comfort and convenience of our homes and devices. As consumers, we can choose what appeals to us: as much or as little, as long or as short. Thus, in-person, gathered worship where someone else chooses what we consume and dictates the length of time for consumption will no longer suffice. While older generations who were socialized on in-person worship will return, I believe that others will stay away, concluding that such worship is outmoded.
This Memorial Day, as we remember our war dead and our loved ones, we can also remember the institutional church that had been crusted over and in decline. But looking to the lessons of history and trends of technology, we can be hopeful for the emergence of a reincarnated church that is virtual and vibrant; focused and intentional.
Regarding the aspect of retrieval, virtual worship necessitated by social isolation has led us to recover personalized spiritual practices. Prayer, reflection, and simplicity are just a few of the practices that have found new prominence as we move through these extraordinary times. And ironically, when virtual worship is pushed to the limit and reversed, we will see a demand for communal worship, but it will be virtual communal worship. We see evidence of this reality even now as we are drawn to chat room participation. We want social connectivity while maintaining the conveniences that virtual worship affords.
So, if we accept the premise of technological determinism as applied to the virtual church, we will see the death of church as we have known it. For some, this may be a frightening thought, but for me, it holds promise. Phyllis Tickle, in her book The Great Emergence, noted that “about every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at the time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”[ii] Western Christianity has been approaching this five hundred year period of upheaval for several decades, as evidenced by the decline of the mainline church and rise of different expressions of faith and worship. But the result of this upheaval presents the opportunity for rebirth. Tickle’s historical reflections demonstrate that three consistent results are made manifest.
First, a “more vital form of Christianity” emerges.[iii] We see it emerge as the gospel becomes more available and accessible. Churches who enjoy a congregation of 100 on an average Sunday are reaching far more people virtually. Digital and on-demand capabilities allow people to watch and share worship services far more widely with others. Second, “the organized expression of Christianity which up until then had been the dominant one is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self.”[iv] We are seeing this as well. Churches whose worship lasted 90 to 120 minutes have scaled down to services lasting 45 to 60 minutes. Understanding the attentive limits of a virtual community, we are forced to focus on what is critical to convey and as a result our impact is greater. Therefore, as Tickle notes, the faith is spread. People who would have never darkened the doorsteps of our churches are hearing the gospel online and responding to it. This is truly good news.
This Memorial Day, as we remember our war dead and our loved ones, we can also remember the institutional church that had been crusted over and in decline. But looking to the lessons of history and trends of technology, we can be hopeful for the emergence of a reincarnated church that is virtual and vibrant; focused and intentional. And we can trust that this church will reach more people and bring more souls to Christ. This is our hope. We pray it so in Jesus’ name.
The Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson is the Director of Operations for All Girls Allowed, a faith-based, non-profit that restores life, value, and dignity by sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, building schools, churches, and women’s centers, and mobilizing churches and partners for global impact. She was previously the Director of Lifelong Learning at Yale Divinity School. Her newly released book “Meant for Good: Fundamentals of Womanist Leadership,” is available through Judson Press.
[i] Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers, The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1989), Location 60-65.
[ii] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008), 16.
[iii] Ibid, 17.
[iv] Ibid, 17.