Do we still need the analog church?

December 18th, 2018

I grew up in the church singing the familiar song, complete with hand gestures, that goes, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple. The church is not a resting place, the church is the people.” Having now served in congregational settings for six years, I have witnessed the pros and cons of building ownership. Yes, a lot of energy, time, and money gets spent on landscaping, roofs, and HVAC systems that invariably die around either Easter or Christmas in expectation of larger crowds. But those buildings are also holy places, rooted in a community and hallowed by prayer, where we worship, eat together, and host other groups like 12-step meetings or after-school tutoring programs.

Last month, Jonathan Merritt wrote in The Atlantic about “America’s Epidemic of Empty Churches,” discussing the various ways that churches are dealing with buildings when they can no longer afford to inhabit or maintain them. Some have become luxury housing, others breweries or special event spaces. Congregations with more space than people or a building that is only occupied on Sunday mornings have also gotten creative, turning parts of their buildings into co-working spaces or community centers featuring meeting rooms and commercial kitchens.

As Merritt points out, even though seventy-percent of American citizens claim Christianity as their faith tradition, congregational participation continues to decline. Sunday mornings are no longer sacrosanct, and I’d imagine you’d find many of that seventy-percent on a walking trail, out at brunch with friends, or simply relaxing with family after a long and demanding work week. Additionally, the growth of streaming services and online faith communities offer another way to interact with a church-like community.

While some larger churches might livestream their services online, others have taken the concept even further. Last month, celebrity pastor Judah Smith announced the launch of Churchome Global, an app-based faith community where users can interact via forums and submit prayer requests. But is the internet an acceptable substitute for gathering together in person?

Far from a Luddite, I greatly value my own online communities of other clergy women and Episcopalians. When I was going through a difficult time last year, friends who I’d only interacted with online sent me small gifts, cards, and let me know they were holding me in prayer. Livestreaming services is also great for individuals who are homebound, ill, or caring for others, but being the church together requires face-to-face interaction.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Laura Turner writes that “being together is the whole point” of church, even though it might be easier to stay at home or interact through an app. For those of us in liturgical traditions, the season of Christmas focuses on incarnation, that God became human in a body like ours. The incarnation tells us that bodies are important, and it’s crucial that we be together in our bodies.

As a priest in a tradition that emphasizes the sacraments, something happens when we are embodied together. Yes, we can pray over the phone or through videochat together, but I can’t hold your hand. I can’t draw the sign of the cross on your forehead with my thumb fragrant with oil. We can’t break bread and drink wine or share communion in our separate homes.

In an increasingly individualistic and lonely culture, physically gathering in community is countercultural. It often requires sacrifice of our desired schedules and interacting with people whom we might not like that much. It’s hard and messy, but it’s holy. When I’m given the opportunity, I meet in-person with my online communities, knowing that being with one another is precious. The church is the people gathered collectively in our bodies. We encounter God-in-Christ together and through one another. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, not in pixels and soundbites.

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