If an alien life form visited Earth to learn about the American church and only read so-called Christian Twitter, I’m not sure they would have any idea that we believe in something called the Incarnation, or the Resurrection, or the Ascension. They would, however, know a lot about evangelical voting tendencies, the women’s ordination debate, abortion politics, and whatever controversy is currently trending.
Our habitual online discourse often trains us to undervalue the vast mystery of God—with all the wonder and worship it inspires—by immersing ourselves in sociological and theological commentary and debate. These conversations matter, of course. But we are in peril of replacing transcendence with immanence. We miss the deeper things of God for the Christian controversy du jour.
There’s a term for this temptation that I’ve only heard among priests: “altar burn.” It refers to a particular hazard of our trade. Pastors regularly handle sacred things—chalices and consecrated bread, but also the Scriptures and the tender moments of people’s lives.
There is an inherent danger in this frequent exposure. We come to treat sacred things profanely. We regard holy things too cavalierly. Amid the noise of a mundane workweek, we forget the complete miracle we are proclaiming.
Resisting altar burn used to be the special struggle of people who regularly preach, teach, and lead congregations. But now, anyone with a keyboard can speak, teach, or argue about God every day, sunup to sundown.
With this newfound ability, we’re all at risk of collective altar burn. The transcendent and utterly overwhelming triune God becomes flattened to a sociological or theological abstraction. Many of us spend far more time on social media than in gathered worship, and that digital space often hinders true repentance, contemplation, or prayer.
It is harder to approach God as the mysterious creator of the Crab Nebula, sustainer of every minute, and redeemer of the cosmos when we’ve spent hours reading the words of strangers arguing with other strangers about spiritual things.
Taken up daily, these activities yield a type of God-talk burnout where we lose sight of what is most unspeakable and most powerful about our Creator. Robust notions of truth, beauty, and goodness thin in our imaginations.
So what is the solution to altar burn? It requires us to re-engage the sacredness, the weirdness, the astonishing wonder of God. It requires silence, stillness, worship, and repentance. It requires speaking of God less and seeking God more.
But how? Social media is here to stay. Nonetheless, we have to learn to retreat—not away from discussions of faith but into those older, slower forms of spiritual conversation with real people and with long books. We have to take up practices of solitude, fasting, gathered worship, and the sacraments—those embodied habits that resist being subsumed by technology. And we need whole topologies of spiritual terrain in our life that we never discuss online—parts of ourselves that we keep for God and our embodied communities alone.
Above all, we need to be aware of the trivializing tendencies of the media we engage with. There is no neutral medium. Technological habits beget our spiritual formation, which beget our devotion and doxology.
“When the door of the steam baths is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it,” wrote fifth-century ascetic Diadochus of Photiki. “Likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech.”
Christians now have an opportunity to keep the “door of speech” constantly open. We dissipate our remembrance of God, even as things of faith are ready at our lips—or rather our keyboards.
Although the application is different, the wisdom of Diadochus still stands. He advised believers to “shun verbosity” for “timely silence,” which is “nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts.”
Learning “timely silence” is a countercultural act, especially when there are good things to say and an ever-ready medium demanding that we say them. But if we don’t resist its demands, our talk of God will slowly replace the worship he alone is due.
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