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 ...1
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