A Feature Review of
Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age
Reviewed by Gary Wake
Easter this year was tough. Maybe you got up, got dressed and watched a church service online. Maybe you are a pastor who went to your church and broadcast a service from an empty sanctuary. Maybe you read, or slept in, or hid Easter eggs for your kids. We all did what we could, but it was definitely an Easter that we will remember. We wanted to be with our Christian siblings. We wanted to sing together and shout alleluias and hug and we didn’t get to do that.
In Analog Church, Jay Y. Kim explains some of the reasons we need to be around one another, not just online, but in the pews, singing, kneeling, and praying together. His book would undoubtedly be a different text if he had finished it during our current season, but his argument is relevant for our times, as changed as they have become in just the past few months.
Right now, even small churches that may have not even had a Facebook page at the beginning of the year are trying things like Facebook live, Zoom and Youtube to find some semblance of connection when we continue to try and worship together. Churches are trying drive-in movie theatres as a means of gathering. We know this all falls short, but we try. Kim encourages us to think about the ways we try and how those ways shape what we’re doing.
Drawing on the work of Marshall McLuhan, Kim points out that the idea “the medium is the message” plays out in our worship, our community and our scripture. Though his primary critique seems to be aimed at large, contemporary churches, his message that “We must regularly consider and re-consider what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how it’s being experienced by the people we’re serving and reaching.” (34)
Kim is not a Luddite who thinks there was some ideal world that the church must get back to. He acknowledges the gifts that technology can bring, but for him an analog church is one that relies on the connections between those people who make up the church, those who share their lives together. It is transformative. Digital is informative. We can use digital means to bring information to an analog church, but the goal should be transformation. Learning to become disciples of Christ can’t take place on an app or just through a broadcast service. For Kim, we can’t do church apart from our embodied lives. Apps can inform, broadcast services can encourage, but we must be connected to one another more deeply to develop relationships in Christ.
Kim breaks his discussion into three parts; worship, community and Scripture and looks at how the unexamined use of technologies have harmed the church. In the worship section, Kim discusses how praise bands can make a congregation feel as if they’re not in a service, but at a performance. This isn’t necessarily the intent of those who develop digital tools for worship. Some churches are large, and it can be helpful to see the pastors better as they preach, but using screens to be better able to see pastors can unintentionally create a feeling of distance between the speaker and the congregation. In some churches, the people leading worship are often not even in the same building as those watching, making the congregation seem far more like an audience. Kim calls for a thorough look at how we use technology. He wants churches to encourage presence. He is not asking for removing all digital media from worship, but is focused on how worship services might move from “digital sophistication”, practiced, rehearsed, separated entertainment, to more creativity and artistry that is shared within the congregation. He wants worship to be less focused on the emotional hype that guides some worship services and more focused on the realities of congregational life.
Of course, to do worship properly, the community itself must participate. Kim argues that the story of the tower of Babel reminds us that when we use technology for our own selfish ambition, we lose sight of how to best be God’s people. To be a community of Jesus followers, people must undertake hard, patient work, even when the world is offering quick (and usually ineffective) fixes to most problems. Kim lives in the Silicon Valley, where 90 percent of the population doesn’t participate in a local church. He examines the ways that technology attempts to supplant local community by offering connection to a world community, that is in fact not a community at all.
True community, focused on the truth of God’s grace, requires “the sharing of resources, the giving of our time and energy, and creativity…these ways are in some form or fashion, tangible and physical.” (96) Even now, when so many of us are sharing our time online with our church families, we can feel the difficulty of maintaining those relationships when we are unable to be physically present to one another. Even outside of the church, people can see how even when we can use technology to help maintain a relationship, it is very difficult to begin relationships online without being physically able to meet.
In the section on Scripture, Kim looks at the different ways we currently have to read and hear the Bible. People often use their digital devices to read the Bible, without considering how their phone or computer shapes the way they read and find meaning in the Scripture. Digital devices have various purposes, and it can be very difficult to read without also being aware of notifications, texts, calls, etc.,. Phones in particular are designed to keep our attention. We often pick them up and look at them with no specific purpose. Digital devices can shape our patterns of behavior in ways that are not beneficial for reading Scripture.
Kim calls for deliberate reading of Scripture, in large chunks, not just “favorite verse of the day” soundbite reading. He discusses churches that are doing things like reading through an entire book, readers taking turns so that a Gospel can be heard as a whole. Again Kim is not asking us to do away with some of the tools that technology can provide, but we should still be determined to do the slow, painstaking work of Biblical study and embodiment.
It’s understandable that Kim’s three sections of Worship, Community and Scripture are not always clearly separated. All are part of the life of the church, but he chooses to include the communion meal in the section on Scripture, which at first can seem a little disjointed. But communion is a very concrete example of embodiment, and as such provides a good close to the discussion.
For Kim, one of the central questions of the digital age is “What’s the maximum amount of efficiency and convenience we can achieve?” (173) and communion, when done properly, cannot be focused on efficiency and convenience. He worries that in many churches, communion is a “sporadic appetizer” rather than a base for our “spiritual and communal nourishment” (177). The meal must be in community. During this pandemic, churches are wrestling with how to manage communion when we are trying to maintain social distance. There will be various solutions offered depending on theological interpretations, but very few would believe that whatever solution they come up with will not be able to replace the practice of receiving the communion together at a shared table.
Far too often, it is easy to see that churches adapt technologies before proper consideration of how those tools can affect the congregation. Jay Kim reminds us that to truly be transformed by the life of Christ, we cannot rely only on whatever tools are being offered, but that we must carefully use such tools to aid our slow, patient, imperfect lives in community. Analog Church is subtitled “Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age.” During our current struggles, I think most people would agree with that need, but Kim’s book reminds them of why we are all longing to be back together.