During this moment when COVID-19 has sent some of us to our homes surrounding us with the need to Zoom our days away and sit in front of eye-damaging screens, I ponder the pros and cons of a technological age that could possibly become the new normal for many folks. My wonder goes to our churches that find themselves gathering around Facebook live instead of in their pews. Pastors and church staff learning how to edit videos and splice together meaningful services all at the same time trying to make it feel like “church”. Though technology is what we are forced to use in the current moment, is this new way forward? Will this stick and become a part of how we do church?
I along with many millennials think of my cell phone as essential. I also think that without the Internet I may go into complete shock and never recover. But as we’ve seen in the media and public discourse, millennials are 1.) often confused with Generation Z and 2.) are falsely accused of always being reliant on technology (I do remember life without cell phones and the annoying ringing of dial up Internet.) “Young people equal technology…that will get them to church,” some say. And I think in many ways that is true. It’s easy to click a link and sit in on church. We see faces, hear sermons, maybe even sing all the while we are sitting in the comforts of our homes…probably in our pajamas…and it’s convenient. But as I watch my nephews hold their phones in front of their faces while people try to interact with them or as I see society and young folks getting clouded with Instagram feeds and influencers, I wonder, is this the way we should be thinking about how church should be? It is in my view that no matter the age, people crave community … eventually physical community.
Technology has a way of creating false realities of happy go-lucky, trendy people who take vacations and spend their time baking elaborate recipes and wearing local designer outfits. It has a tendency to whitewash the realities of our world … will technology do this to the church? It has the potential, if not already, to create a false reality of the what the church is and can be.
But during this time, I have seen creative ways of doing church. People are experimenting with new ways of technology and bringing accessibility to those who may not be able to attend church or who are differently abled. I see pastors doing new things that they never would do before and they are adapting. I see virtual choirs, bible studies, and webinars addressing social justice issues that this virus has brought to the forefront. These innovative ways that create community around changing the world is inspiring and can be motivation for a new way of being the church in the world.
But is this creativity a privilege just like technology? And does this surge in church usage of technology continue to buy into capitalist ideology when we see Facebook, YouTube, and other online streaming services profit from it (most of us are guilty of this)? A technological surge and its future in ecclesiology needs to be critiqued on the basis of privilege especially when it comes to the work of the Church. Those with the financial means, the opportunity, and the necessary skills are the people who benefit from technology and in turn, experience this new-fangled way of doing church. If we are to be the Church for the least of these, for the vulnerable, marginalized, the “other”, technology should be made more accessible, cheaper, and geared toward the true calling of the gospel – loving our neighbors and doing the work of empowerment.
Techy church evangelism, however, has been a way for the Church to promote its messages and reach a multitude of different audiences that otherwise would not ever be exposed. But then we have to ask the question of what types of messages are being proclaimed, what type of unhealthy theologies are being promoted, and what agendas are set when reaching the masses. Because of the quick and wide range of accessibility that technology offers, it is really a both life-giving and death dealing tool. As people are sitting in their homes isolated from society, it is the perfect situation for harmful theologies to enter into someone’s own spirituality. If we go tech, I foresee both an increase in theological harm and theological comfort. The question here is how do we create positive and challenging spaces for people when isolation creates mental unrest and vulnerability?
So yes, there are benefits to technology; however, it may bring more complications than people realize if this is the way we want to the church to move. It can enhance the audience, but it can dilute the community. It can bring in “young people” but perpetuate the continual distancing of our physical selves from one another. It can be accessible but only to those who have the means and the power. It sparks creativity but does that creativity preach the gospel or create false, white-centered realities? And if it brings the gospel, whose gospel is it bringing…the gospel of technology or the gospel of God?
Lee Catoe is the Managing Editor of Unbound and the Associate for Young Adult Social Witness for the Advisory Committee for Social Witness Policy in the Presbyterian Church USA.