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. . .