Saturday, January 9, 2021

Shifting shape of Christianity. . .

According to a Barna survey, between April and May, 32% of practicing Christians disclosed not going to church in person or online. Eighteen percent are donating less to their places of worship. Though the recent Supreme Court ruling insisting that churches not be treated differently than other public venues is an affirmation of sorts, it was not a unanimous opinion and it may not adjust the suspicion with which some inside and outside the church view worship.  Many of those have still not returned.  Many congregations face uncertainties about what is allowed and what is not.  Many judicatory officials have been hesitant to speak out in favor of the opening of the churches.  Many pastors and parish leaders live in the limbo of quickly changing rules and fear of media scrutiny.  All of this is no small problem for the greater landscape of American churches -- the lack of confidence with respect to in person worship and the reticence of parish and judicatory leaders to respond robustly to the challenges to in person worship.

The more I read from sources like Barna, the more I am convinced that the reshaping of Christianity will occur and is now occurring not on the basis of doctrine or belief but on the ability of the screen to replace in person worship.  For most of Protestantism and Evangelicalism, the screen works well as a surrogate for in person worship -- perhaps too well.  For many of those who once attended these churches in person, the screen has become the norm.  In these churches, the worshipers may well go an entire year without having worshiped in person and have learned that there may not be a compelling need to be there in person.  On the other hand, those churches with a sacramental life that compels the people to be in person are much less likely to find the screen a suitable substitute.

Many of those churches without a sacramental life that expects in person participation have for a long time been shifting to a more digital presence.  In one sense, it could be said that social media have become the sacrament of life and worship for these churches.  With a vibrant presence on the various platforms and boasting a large following, it is easy to see how the once huge campuses may give way to slimmed down physical facilities in favor of a beefed up online presence.  It will certainly be less expensive to these churches and will, in the end, require fewer and different kinds of staff than what had been normal for them in the past.  It is appealing also because these churches are always on the prowl for things new and delight in living on the cutting edge of change and technology.  This shift would allow them to focus their resources more on adaptation -- something more difficult and costly to do with brick and mortar facilities.  Quite like the expanded online options the major retailers are now employing, these churches are marketing themselves to take advantage of the new patterns and assumptions of a post-covid life in which the home and the screen are the center of everything.  I am certainly not the first to suggest this.  

The problems lie for the liturgical and sacramental churches -- they have split personalities and some of them want to live in the same world as those congregations spoken about above while at the same time trying to maintain a healthy and vibrant in person life.  This is precisely where Lutherans live.  We are caught between our instinct to follow the next best thing that we see happening in the Evangelicals and our confessional and sacramental identity rooted in a community physically gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord.  We want both but we cannot have it.  I am of the opinion that this will be the showdown moment without our churches -- both locally and nationally.  There are those who find few theological problems and many benefits to online communion and worship before a screen.  After all, what is the difference between going to a building to watch things happen on a screen or staying at home and watching the same things happen on a screen?  Some of these people have already been using online and at home or drive by settings for the Eucharist, so what will keep them from expanding this kind of so-called virtual church?  I am not sure that there is much a denomination can do except show these churches the door.  But do we have the backbone to say to those who have such an opinion that they are not one with us?  Where it will all come down is a mystery to me and I have no ability to predict the response but I fear the day of reckoning is coming.  As usual, the shift will happen less on the basis of doctrines in dispute but practices in conflict -- although, as you already know, I believe that practice is doctrine in action so they are both intertwined.

2021 will be an interesting year for a variety of reasons.  A Biden administration will slow down pro-life efforts on a variety of fronts.  The viability of Christian colleges and universities will become an even more critical question as moves are in place to force compliance with social justice stances through the use of government funding or guarantees.  Congregations and denominations will become effectively smaller as those who have been away stay away.  Vaccines may ease the pandemic concerns or expose even more fully how politicized and with what suspicion people view the medicine of it all.  And some of us -- Lutherans, for my part -- will have to decide whether social media platforms can be surrogates and substitutes for in person gatherings.  I, for one, am not sure that our online video will continue as it has been -- in part because I do not want to give our people the choice between being present and watching those who are.  We will see what happens. . .


Janis Williams said...

I am of the opinion that our church (LCMS) will face more stresses than ever before. We definitely will be facing one another along the lines of practice vs doctrine. People who are not willing to look different or strange, act differently, have less or no online dependencies, etc will be the ones deciding for doctrine over practice. Family life will be more important to these people. Community amongst the church family should and necessarily will become stronger.

Changes won’t be immediate. People who have stayed away during this time will likely stay away, with a few exceptions. People who have continued to attend church will thin out, as some find the pressures of the permanent changes, current and coming, insurmountable. Those who have remained, and will continue will look less and less like those who prefer church online.

Practice may become much more orthodox (small ‘o’), and the churches look more like the Orthodox (appearance, not doctrine) as they continue to meet in person. Not a bad thing, I think.

We live in one of the most exciting times for the Church. The promises of Christ have not changed; let us walk boldly into what may come, since He is in control. As Jonathan Fisk says, “you are immortal now, and He won’t be long (in coming).”

Carl Vehse said...

As American Lutherans see their U.S. sink into the antiChristian abyss of the Demonicrat-communist kakistocracy, one wonders what the effect will be on the churches in the U.S., especially the pastors and congregations of the Lutheran Church. Such concerns bring up the question of how German Lutheran pastors dealt with their country sinking under Hitler's Nazi regime in the '30s and '40s, and the resulting persecutions, imprisonments, and executions of fellow pastors.

That question was addressed in an article by William S. Skiles, "Protests from the Pulpit: The Confessing Church and the Sermons of World War II" (Sermon Studies, Vol. 1 No. 1, 2017). Skiles studied 255 sermons written by 14 different pastors (some well-known). In his conclusion, Skiles stated, in part:

"Throughout this article, I have provided evidence that Confessing pastors infrequently, but publicly, expressed opposition through their sermons from a position of religious authority. In our sample of 255 sermons, 31 (or 12%) of the sermons contain oppositional messages against the Nazi regime and its ideology, delivered by 12 different Confessing Church pastors....

"At the same time, if we look at the sermons preached by location and subject, we find that of the five sermons preached against the Nazi persecution of the German churches and Christians, we find that all were preached outside Nazi Germany....

"In fact, one may well argue that the true significance of this research is that it reveals the vast majority of sermons (88%) did not criticize or in any way oppose the Nazi state. As emphasized earlier, Confessing Church members were united only on a single point: they wanted the Nazi regime to stay out of the affairs of the German churches. They were all committed to halting any National Socialist infringements into Christian theology and practice—this was a religious struggle. In other words, they were not interested in a political struggle, but sought to unite to oppose Nazi efforts to undermine church autonomy. Based on this research, and given that only 12% voiced criticism of the regime, one might conclude that the Confessing churches simply provided parishioners with a way to retreat from the political sphere in the Third Reich, and in doing so, that the churches actually discouraged dissent."

Unknown said...

We as Lutherans should promote the encouragement of the brethren, from Paul’s writings, without the gimmicky, Church Growth methods. We should find more ways to be welcoming to outsiders, encouraging to be part of the family of God. Even before the pandemic, a number of families I have noticed have seemed to be focused on themselves. They are afraid that if they don’t give enough attention to their children, they will turn to drugs, or hang out with the wrong crowd. We need to say that under Christ, we are all in this together as one family. That is the best way I can say it.

Unknown said...

Ironically, While I read your post this morning, I happened to be listening to this John Foley setting of Psalm 122:
David Van Haaften

Carl Vehse said...

"Theologians around the country have finally come forward to publish their findings on church attendance over the internet.

"'Yes, faithful church attendance over Zoom still counts,' said theologian Corby Mcgillicutty of Emory University. 'But it will only allow you access to heaven over Zoom. Don't worry though-- it's basically the same thing. Heaven isn't a building! It's about being with the people you love, worshipping forever! You can totally do that over Zoom.'

"... Unfortunately, initial reports indicate the 5G connection beyond the Pearly Gates is a little spotty."

Excerpted from the Babylon Bee's "Theologians Find Going To Church Via Zoom Will Only Get You Access To Heaven Via Zoom."

Carl Vehse said...

Shape-shifting is also occurring in the Roman churches.

In his January 10, 2021 apostolic letter, "Motu Proprio," the Roman Antichrist decreed:

"I therefore decree that canon 230 § 1 of the Code of Canon Law shall in future have the following wording:

“Lay persons of suitable age and with the gifts determined by decree of the Episcopal Conference may be permanently assigned, by means of the established liturgical rite, to the ministries of lectors and acolytes; however, the conferment of such a role does not entitle them to support or remuneration from the Church”.

"I also order the amendment of the other provisions having the force of law which refer to this canon."