In his classic book Understanding Media, revered Canadian philosopher and media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote the following prophetic words: “When the technology of a time is powerfully thrusting in one direction, wisdom may well call for a countervailing thrust.” Over the past half decade, even as digitally mediated communication has encroached on nearly every aspect of life, McLuhan’s “countervailing thrust” has begun to take shape.
The list of those pushing back against the digital age’s most nefarious side effects includes journalists like Rana Foroohar; professors like Sherry Turkle, Cal Newport, and Shoshana Zuboff; and lawyers like Tim Wu. Senators Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Mark Warner (D-VA) among others have also become critical of how certain aspects of digital technology are eroding public discourse and potentially causing their users cognitive and psychological harm.
Even some of Silicon Valley’s leading lights have begun vocally resisting where technology is taking us, virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier and former Google ethicist Tristan Harris among them. In Christian circles, perhaps the most notable critics of the digital age are Tony Reinke with his books 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You and Competing Spectacles, and Andy Crouch with his book The Tech-Wise Family.
All of these voices, and others like them, have written persuasively about the negative effects of digital technology on our brains, our relationships, and our work, arguing that users should take a more careful and intentional approach to technology use in order to mitigate its harmful effects.
Jay Kim, a pastor at Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, joins the “countervailing thrust” against ubiquitous digital technology in his new book, Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age. But instead of analyzing how Google and Facebook have impacted individuals, Kim provides a thorough and convincing critique of the church’s often uncritical co-opting of the digital infrastructure of the internet, smartphones, and social media. He looks at how this phenomenon has shaped—and in some cases, corrupted—evangelical churches, and then asks what should be done in response.
The Red-Hot Pursuit of Relevance
In laying the foundation for the book, Kim quotes McLuhan’s call for a “countervailing thrust.” This is especially necessary, he writes, “when it comes to the way the digital age and its technological tools are changing the way the church gathers to worship. We need … a shakeup of the way we think about, plan, and engage in worship.”
Indeed, one of Kim’s most critical arguments addresses the way many evangelical churches, in their “red-hot pursuit of relevance,” have turned to celebrity pastors and rock-concert styles of worship, replete with fog machines and strobe lights. To illustrate the folly of such an approach, Kim tells the story of Jake, an electronic dance music (EDM) artist who, upon attending a church that used a smoke-machine and laser lights, admitted, “I didn’t feel like I was cool enough to be there. I don’t think church should be like that.”
According to Kim, young people like Jake are unimpressed—even repulsed—by the church’s quest for relevance. What’s more, this quest has come at the cost of something far more important: transcendence. What millennials and Gen Zers like Jake crave in the digital age—what all of us crave, really— are authentic communities that prioritize transformed lives over splashy techniques for transmitting information and manufacturing “experiences.” Essentially, what people want and need, to invoke the title of Kim’s book, are analog churches.
Later in the book, Kim shares his own impressions from preaching at a multisite church. As he was about to assume the pulpit, the service coordinator reminded him, “Jay, don’t forget to look directly into the camera at the back of the room so the campuses feel connected to you.”
Kim explains that even as he tried following this recommendation, he felt shaken. He began wondering whether there was a better way to herald God’s Word. Here Kim makes an important distinction between digital forms of communication (like video sermons) and analog forms of communication that rely on face-to-face, embodied interaction: While the digital can inform, only the analog can transform. By relying on video sermons, Kim argues, too many churches are missing out on the opportunity for preachers to embed themselves in “real time and in real space with real people.”
Of course, underneath the multisite church movement and its video sermons is a conscious decision by many evangelical churches to align themselves with business-leadership models used in corporate America. Kim argues that this has resulted in a trend toward pragmatic and results-based decision-making. Within this model, the language of commodity replaces the language of community, and ideals of compatibility and comfort trump an ethic of commitment. These shifts make the church feel more like a business than the family of brothers and sisters in Christ that Scripture envisions.
As Kim sees it, the world is hungry for an analog resurgence, and the church is uniquely equipped to provide a refuge for the digitally weary. Indeed, some churches, such as The Village Church in Texas and Redeemer Presbyterian in New York, have already moved away from the multisite church model. More recently, Bethlehem Baptist Church of Minneapolis, another nationally prominent multisite congregation, began considering a transition from video preaching to weekly live preaching at each of its three campuses.
It bears mentioning, of course, that Kim is far from disavowing video sermons in a time of crisis, as we face now in these days of the coronavirus and social distancing. To preempt those who might question his stance on video sermons and internet churches when many believe these are our only viable options during the current shutdown, Kim took to The Gospel Coalition to argue that online church, however necessary for a time, is not a long-term solution. “As we temporarily direct our congregations to these online spaces, it is of utmost importance that we clarify this digital reality as a temporary compromise rather than an ongoing convenience,” wrote Kim.
Alongside the blessings of incarnational ministry and live preaching, churches that forgo the multisite model enjoy the added bonus of guarding against what Kim calls “the cult of Christian celebrity.” Events at Mars Hill Church and Willow Creek Community Church—where video sermons furthered the rise of celebrity pastors who eventually crashed and burned—offer a set of cautionary tales. While Kim stops short of calling for the end of all multisite churches, his vision of analog churches that resemble families more than businesses leans tellingly in that direction.
Though Kim’s greatest concern is how digital technology has altered the ways we gather and worship, he also takes care to address its influence on our approach to Scripture. Smartphones, Bible apps, and feel-good verses uploaded to Instagram have fragmented our experience of God’s Word. The result, Kim says, is a generation of believers who view Bible reading as a “fast, convenient, and individual exercise.”
While it is doubtless a blessing to have God’s Word in our pockets everywhere we go, Kim suggests that we have been too quick to give up the corporate reading of Scripture, instead relying on daily devotions to feed our souls. These are essential to spiritual growth, Kim argues, but they are only meant to be supplemental.
As a remedy to the shallow, bite-size manner of reading Scripture that plagues the church in the digital age, Kim introduces several ministries and churches that are creating time and space for Christians to encounter the whole counsel of God—together. Neighborhood Church in Visalia, California, for example, hosts a weekly gathering where dozens of believers meet to read through God’s Word. Kim also mentions a ministry he works with, the ReGeneration Project, which seeks to improve biblical literacy among younger generations.
While these ideas (and several others in the book) provide practical steps forward for pastors and leaders looking to de-digitize their churches, Kim would have done well to include more practical advice, either from his own ministry or from what he gleaned during his research. On the whole, the book is written with church leaders and pastors in mind. Kim’s chapter on the necessity of a more analog approach to Scripture is filled with useful insights for everyday believers, but for better or worse, the majority of the book will appeal more to decision-makers in formal ministry. It would be great to see a book with similar insights targeted toward the laity (Analog Faith, perhaps).
Even so, Kim makes a convincing case for the church to confront the digital age with an analog mindset. His book is a worthy addition to the online-skeptical “countervailing thrust” gathering steam across our contemporary landscape.
John Thomas is a freelance writer whose work has appeared at Christ and Pop Culture, The American Conservative, and Desiring God, among other outlets.
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