Alan Cross has been one of my favorite bloggers for years – insightful and incisive. He writes at Downshore Drift. We are glad to have one of his posts here at Voices.
I walked into the massive building with my young children and was immediately overwhelmed and similarly impressed. We were visiting a megachurch on a weekend that I was away from home and we brought our children to the childcare center. Behind the long desk was a bank of closed-circuit televisions that broadcast the goings on in each classroom. We gave our children over to the smiling people behind the desk and they gave us an electronic buzzer that lights up, like the ones they give out in restaurants when you are on the waiting list. If the thing started buzzing or lighting up, it would either mean that my child needed my assistance or that my table was ready. I walked out of the very efficient childcare center with my buzzer and looked over my shoulder as my children disappeared down a hall into church childcare utopia.
I was talking with a friend of mine recently and he was telling me that at his megachurch of 5000, they had barcodes for the kids, security cameras in every room, and buzzers that light up and tell you if your child is acting up. He said that this was all necessary because there was no way that you could know or really trust the workers who were caring for your kids and that this gave the parents a sense of safety and security. I remembered my experience with the buzzer that lit up and I nodded. Yes, it did make you feel secure – in a sense. And, a little uneasy, too.
When the church is massive, actually knowing the childcare workers/volunteers and trusting them is pretty hard, especially when you have rotating schedules and multiple services. So, massive security systems are needed to support the large gatherings of people who don’t and can’t possibly know each other. They help provide a sense of comfort and security to anxious parents along with the needed protection for the children. Parents might not personally trust or know the people, but they can trust the video camera and the barcode and the buzzer. But, here’s the rub: If we are in a situation where we trust the technology more than the people of God, then does that environment actually facilitate real, Biblical church or does it diminish it and replace it with something else entirely? As Jacques Ellul once said, “Every technological step forward has its price.” At what price do we create situations where we must barcode, buzzer, and security camera our children because our churches are so large that there is no other way for us to feel safe and comfortable?
At what price do we multi-site and video-venue our worship gatherings? At what price do we try to gather more and more people in larger and larger assemblies under CEO type leadership? At what price do we make the worship of the people of God a stage show full of experts, celebrities, and uber-talented people and effectively admit that our system is not reproducible, so it has to be franchised? At what price do we digitize our relationship with God? Marshal McLuhan in 1964 said that “the medium is the message,” meaning that the medium embeds itself into the message, changing the inherent experience and even the meaning of the message itself. What might that say about the relationship of our rapidly changing media to the gospel? McLuhan tells us that a medium is “any extension of ourselves.” When we extend ourselves through technology and the size and scope of our gatherings, we end up altering the environment in which the message is experienced in some way, even unknowingly altering the message itself. But, McLuhan says, there is also a corresponding amputation. Like Ellul said, there is a cost to every technological advancement. There is something that gets left behind because the new medium has somehow altered our experience of the message, bringing unseen changes. Roderick Munday says about McLuhan’s thesis, “The medium is the message, because media creates its own environments, which are beneficial to some messages whilst being hostile to others. “ Which messages benefit? To which messages is the new medium hostile? Answers to those questions often take time to emerge.
I am no Luddite. I use technology like everyone else and we try to thoughtfully incorporate it into our worship experiences. Large churches can also accomplish great things. But, are we sufficiently thinking these changes through? How is the message being affected by the rapidly changing medium? I see the megachurch as a new technology for church. 80% of the megachurches in existence in America are less than 20 years old, which means that they are likely still in first generation leadership. This entails approximately 1% of the history of Christianity. There are benefits, to be sure. But, what are the costs? What is being amputated? What is being altered? Do we have enough data to know? The biggest issue is not necessarily the growing size of these churches and the attendant technology that goes along with them (including barcoding and buzzering children), but the growing perception among many Christians that this is what church actually is – that without massive size, a rockin’ band, a celebrity preacher, video screens, and buzzers for the kids, that somehow “real” or “relevant” church didn’t happen. In my experience, that expectation seems to be rapidly enlarging. But, what is being amputated?
Are we amputating a Biblical picture of the church while exchanging it for a weekly, highly stylized and resourced religious event? Is the concept of the Body of Christ being replaced with a crowd of people passively gathering to hear a message that helps them with their individual lives? The medium has been entirely altered. Yet, are we to think that the radical and recent alteration of the medium has not also affected the message or at least the perception of the message by uninformed hearers? Church growth experts tell us that the methods change but the message does not, but McLuhan tells us that is not true. When you drop off your child with people you don’t know who tag him, buzzer him, and put him in front of a camera and you then find a seat in a darkened concert hall where you watch a man on a screen deliver a generic message that is supposed to be helpful for your individual life, what has been amputated from the historic Christian experience of the church?
I don’t pretend that the experience of church before the recent technological changes was any more pure. The church has always had its issues and limitations in how we gather. I am not calling us to return to some traditional view of church because Jesus and the Disciples sang hymns out of the hymnal. But, I am suggesting that we consistently attempt to reflect a Biblical vision of the church as the Body of Christ instead of letting every new medium become the message. And, we should disciple new believers (and old) to participate in that vision and desire it more than their own entertainment or comfort. If our forms/media fundamentally alter the experience of church in a way where the actual experience of the message has changed, then perhaps those forms are not valid. Maybe they don’t actually fit with the message.
It has been said, “What we win people with, we win them to.” I think that is true. A better, more Jesus centered, Biblical ecclesiology is needed. We need more theological reflection on the rapid changes that are occurring, not because we are afraid of change or because all of the change is bad (some of it is very good and needed), but because we have a strong and powerful vision of what it means to be the people of God gathered together and sent out into the world as followers of Jesus. Hopefully, we can be disciplined enough for technology to serve that vision instead of fundamentally altering it to conform to the new media.