Monday, November 18, 2019

A U-Haul Truck. . .

Living in a highly mobile community, there are U-Haul places all over the place.  From trailers to trucks, you can't drive more than a few miles without seeing a franchise.  The cost of them varies.  When too many trucks and trailers are coming to a place, the cost of them goes up.  When too many of them are leaving, the cost of bringing them in drops.  People are moving in and moving out all the time and the surest sign of it are the U-Haul trucks and trailers waiting for folks to rent and the U-Haul trucks and trailers you encounter driving down the road and parked in the neighborhoods of this city.

There are about as many churches in this city as there are U-Haul places.   I fear that perhaps we view them like the franchises that provide us with the move by yourself equipment.  They are not ends in and of themselves but simply tools to help us get where we want to go, safely but also cheaply.  Could it be that the reason formal association with religious communities and attendance at worship is in decline is because those who are interested have found self-help resources elsewhere?  Perhaps the internet, video streaming, and social media?

Most folks have some sort of desire to see a destination to their mortal lives but increasingly the Church is seen as less and less essential for this journey and other resources or tools equally helpful in getting you where you want to go.  Some of this, let us be frank, is the fault of those churches who fail to offer a compelling reason to belong and be there.  Those churches walking in lock step with culture and who adopt as their causes the social and environmental causes of the day fail to provide a reason why one needs to belong or attend in order to participate in accomplishment of these goals.  It leaves these religious communities with fellowship as the sole purpose for uniting with and being a part of Sunday morning and beyond.  This fellowship is not the encounter with the divine but the support and encouragement of like minded folks who seek the same things.  Even this aspect of what they offer is hardly compelling.  Social media is the ordinary means of fellowship in the digital age.

Those churches who offer help to achieve other goals (personal edification and contentment, improved relationships, and guidance to accomplish goals of employment and experience) offer a similarly less compelling reason to belong or attend.  In this instructional purpose, live-streaming and podcasting are at least as effective as putting on clothes, driving to a location, and sitting through other things before fast forwarding to the reason that brought you there.  For these communities, the digital age raises serious questions about the need for assembly, a building, or an institution.

Sin and forgiveness, life and death, chaos and order, and our encounter with God where God has made Himself accessible are categories that make it difficult for virtual churches to compete with the Church gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord.  The more orthodox the message, the more difficult it is to substitute digital access for being there, belonging, and participating in what God is doing.  It is harder to classify these churches as U-Hauls that take us where we want to go and much easier to see them as destinations. 

For those who would insist that the Church itself is transitory, how can we reconcile this with Jesus' promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against her?  Is not the vision of St. John in Revelation the glimpse of the Church as she shall be from the vantage point of how she is here and now?  The Church is not some means to an end but an end.  What we see now is not what shall be forever, of course, but that does not mean that the Church will be replaced with something other. 

Inherent in this is the understanding that no self-help vehicle can help us get there.  Only God working among us through the means of grace can do that.  We do not come at our own volition but at His bidding.  We do not come where we desire but where He has made Himself available and accessible.  We do not do what we want but are captive to God's own purpose in order to receive His gifts.  No digital footprint or virtual reality can displace the need for this Church and for what goes on therein.  The whole idea of who the Church is and what God is doing in the Church begs us to set aside technology for truth, virtual reality for that which endures forever, and our own agenda for the purpose of His kerygma. 

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