Might embracing digital incarnation renew your church?

March 24th, 2021

One of the ways Christianity thrives in every age is through employing the emerging technological paradigms to foster faithful inculturation.

The apostles used the written word delivered through the flows of the cursus publicus (Latin for “the public way”), which was the courier and transportation service of the Roman Empire. The first disciples used a complex web of older and emerging technologies: oral tradition, written word, road systems, and mail courier.

Christians have always adapted the emerging technologies for the expansion of the faith. Paul’s uses of these technologies helped the first scattered churches communicate and multiply. Early Christian adoption of the codex preserved and spread the Gospels. Johannes Guttenberg’s printing press fueled the Reformation. Billy Graham’s use of stadiums, microphones, and speakers in his evangelism crusades, gave birth to the first modern megachurches.

The traditional church utilizes multiple layers of technology that would have been considered strange or even idolatrous to generations past (electricity, projectors, microphones, PowerPoint slides, etc.) It is hypocritical to judge emerging technology while gripping tightly to our own. Critically evaluating the technology of a new generation and the technology of our own inheritance is essential.

Like the great cloud of witnesses before us, we have utilized technology to sustain our churches throughout the pandemic. We have discovered how to reach people across the United States whom we would have never reached before. Even as the vaccine begins to outpace infection rates, many of us will continue to connect in this way.

Yet, very few have gone far enough. We need to think of digital technology less as tools to livestream our services and more as a new missional frontier to be explored.

In our new book, Fresh Expressions in a Digital Age: How the Church Can Prepare for a Post-Pandemic World, Rosario Picardo and I propose embracing a posture of Digital Incarnation.

The Mission-shaped Church report from the Church of England in many ways set the trajectory of the fresh expressions movement regarding evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. The report highlighted a statement in the foreword of the revised edition of Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered. “Do not try to call them back to where they were, and don’t try to call them to where you are, beautiful as that place may seem to you. You must have the courage to go with them to a place where neither you nor they have been before.”

Regarding no-longer-Christians and not-yet-Christians in a post-Christendom digital age, how do we go to the place where they are and go with them on a journey toward Christ? Emerging generations are digital natives, and the technosphere is a new mission field. How do we journey together into that world? What would incarnational mission look like in the virtual space?

The church should not be “digital-only.” Instead, every church that survives COVID-19 will need to be a blended ecology of analog and digital in the digital age. There is no supplement for good old, cell-swapping, molecule-exchanging, face-to-face, flesh-and-blood community that “makes our joy complete” (2 John 12). However, we must also take just as seriously the fresh exchange of bits, bytes, and distanced contact mediated through the multitude of digital flows. Real people gather there, forming real community, being real church.

This is not Gnosticism. I’m not arguing for a disembodied spirit-Jesus who was not real flesh and blood and is not currently enfleshed in his still embodied, resurrected wound-bearing glorious self. I’m all about blood and sinew, sweat and stink, incarnation. In fact, a limited understanding of the incarnation has become the stumbling block for church leaders regarding digital church planting, evangelism, and online communion.

One aspect of Jesus’s identity is his death-conquering, risen, and embodied self (Col 1:18). However, the New Testament also talks about a Jesus not bound by time and space. A Jesus who passes through walls. A Jesus mistaken for a gardener by one of his most faithful disciples (John 20:15). A Jesus who is not recognized until bread is broken and the cup shared (Luke 24:30-31). A Jesus who shows up in blinding light on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3). And the “Spirit of Jesus” that guides, compels, speaks, and confronts (Acts 16:7). A Jesus who is both one with and distinct from the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:16-17).

The critical struggle here is that the church has confused incarnation for extraction, in that church can only happen when people gather together physically in a building, usually at a time and place that, of course, we church people have predetermined, to worship in a way that is appropriate to us. That’s all well and good, and very important. But that’s not the only way incarnation can happen. There are other forms in which the Spirit takes on flesh among us. There are different forms of koinonia, and there always have been from the genesis of our faith.

There is a continuing incarnation in the form of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. This visible community, where the word is rightly preached and the sacraments duly administered, is a form of incarnation. It is this gathered community that the Bible calls “body of Christ,” “olive tree,” “bride of Christ,” and so on.

Yet there is another ongoing incarnation of Jesus—the universe itself (Eph 1:23), of which Christ is the Lord, not only of the communal dimension but also the cosmic dimension (Col 1:15-17). Jesus “fills everything” (Eph 4:10). He is not limited to being the head of the church but is the head of the universe. His living presence has been downloaded into every aspect of creation.

The universe itself is the first incarnation. It is also an ongoing incarnation. It is not a finished product but is always in the process of becoming creation, re-creation, new creation. Somehow this unfolding incarnation interacts with humanity and our societies and cultures. It is affected by us, responds to us, convicts us, and changes us, as we are affected by the life of Christ filling the world.

We also individually are an ongoing incarnation of Jesus. As Origen said, “What good does it do me if Christ was born in Bethlehem once if he is not born again in my heart through faith?” Every day Christ must be born anew in us. We are all “Christians in the making” in the language of E. Stanley Jones. And as Christians, we are a little microcosm of Jesus in any space where we are, including digital space. We share our life in the divine dance of the Trinity.

So, the idea is ridiculous that Christian community can only happen in a church building, with a professional cleric overseeing the ritual. Analog fresh expressions have been challenging these assumptions for centuries. However, digital forms of new Christian community are an evolving idea in this thinking.

So what do we do when we find ourselves in a culture in which physically gathering in buildings is essentially a practice from the past? An insidious lack of relevancy was apparent pre-COVID-19, but the virus accelerates it, and the implications of this are far-reaching. Returning to packed-out arenas and church buildings is unlikely for many areas in our country.

The “word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1:14). Would it be too much of a stretch to imagine that the “Word became bits and bytes” and made its home among us? Is the incarnation of Jesus limited to the space of place, or is the spirit of Jesus at work in the space of flows as well? What would it look like for Christians to tabernacle in digital space? What would it look like for us to “take on” digitization to form community with those outside the reach of analog forms of church (Phil 2)?

Taking on this posture has brought renewal to my church, and I hope it will to yours as well. If you want to explore this further, check out Fresh Expressions in a Digital Age, and stay tuned for my next post!

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