Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Limits of our Technology. . .

There are those who have suggested that this pandemic may have been a good thing.  They suggest that it has forced churches to get out of their buildings and into the lives of their people.  They point to their glowing statistics on social media platforms and to the way that worship has left the sanctuary and taken up residence in the home.  They have invented everything from virtual communions to a prayer life and devotional community created by technology. 

We as sacramental and liturgical folks have been severely tempted by the prospects of transferring what we had been doing in person to some sort of virtual or online version.  Not a few have either suggested or actually adopted the practices identified above.  Zoom has been suggested as an answer to a host of questions about meetings, conventions, Bible studies, and the like -- not as something we must do in an emergency but as a regular part of what we also do in person.  Nearly everyone with a smart phone has become a video producer and the infrastructure of our social media must have been tried by the abundance of videos and live streaming events in which we tried to do something when we could not do what we had been doing on Sunday morning.

I hope that I am not the only one who is concerned about this.  What was once an urgent need because of extreme circumstance quickly becomes the norm and routine down the road.  We should be talking about this and proceeding more cautiously.  The Church is not a building.  Everyone knows that and no one is suggesting otherwise.  But neither is the Church a social media group or virtual assembly.  We cannot received an enfleshed Savior through the means of grace via the virtual media of a screen.  It is not possible.  It is not a matter of what we want to do but what cannot be done.  And I am not merely talking about online communions.  Nearly everything the Church does requires bodies together in one place.  Nearly everything about who we are as Church requires community and not isolated individuals in front of a screen.  Although some would argue with me, I think prayer also fits within this discussion.  What we must do when we have to dare not become normative -- not even prayer prayed over Zoom or Facebook or YouTube or Vimeo or even the phone. 

The sad truth is that the people who once worked at home because they must, just may begin to work at home as the ordinary shape of their jobs changes.  Personal interaction with folks who work at home is limited to what technology can offer.  A Zoom meeting or conference call among folks who know each other well already is something far different than strangers tuning into a virtual meeting.  Individual work before a screen can happen anywhere but the community around the water cooler or coffee pot or the things you learn by looking into the faces of your co-workers or hearing the tone in their voices or seeing their body language cannot be communicated on virtual platforms.  These are the very people for whom the Church as another technological tool, demand, or option is the least helpful.  As easy as it is for those to tune in, it is even easier for them to tune out and no one is the wiser.

The sad truth is that we are all probably so happy to get back to -- as close as we can -- to our old routines, we will probably forget this discussion.  But whether or not another pandemic comes along, the practices will continue among those who think that they are effective, a credible substitute for personal interaction, and a replacement for being there.  Imagine how that would impact not only the life of the Church but the understanding of the Church if what we do for those who cannot attend the Divine Service would become the norm for everyone!  CDs of the worship service, videos of the service, phone devotions and prayer, and our social media presence can be tools of the ministry but used with discretion and with a clear understanding of what they are not.  Technology is not our savior nor is technology our enemy but it will be our undoing unless we are clear about the limits of technology to aid and assist us in the work of the Kingdom. 

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