Monday, December 3, 2012

In the Flesh

Having heard and appreciated some of Pastor Michael Youssef's teaching on Christian radio, I took a rare free Sunday to visit his church, Church of the Apostles in north Atlanta.  I was struck by several things during the service yesterday.

One, I was glad they did not show Pastor Youssef on the large screens during his sermon.  Most large churches (which this certainly was) show the pastor on large screens so congregants can see them more easily.  This always distracts me from looking at the actual preacher, and in a way dehumanizes them in my experience.  I was glad to look at Pastor Youssef and not a digital representation of him. 

Second, the song worship was a mixture of old hymns and newer contemporary Christian music.  It reinforced to me the fact that traditional hymns are merely contemporary songs that have survived the test of time.  There was a time when "A Mighty Fortress" was a brand new song and probably scrutinized critically by the old fuddy-duddies in Luther's cathedral.

Third, having heard Pastor Youssef preach several times on radio it was thrilling to be there in person.  He let loose with a great sermon yesterday, and there was no way to bottle it up and transmit it to radio or television as it was experienced live.  I know people listening in the near future will be blessed by the message, but I maintain that physically attending church with other believers is a unique experience which must be sought out at all costs if Christians are to enjoy the fulness of the benefits belonging to the family of God.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Having a "Come to Jesus" Moment

I was discussing virtual church with some folks over the weekend, and found myself actually defending it!  I have been a consistent source of curmudgeonry in class this semester, as I perceive the virtual church is conducting a hostile takeover of the brick-and-mortar church I love so much.  It is not that I have been wholly opposed to churches engaging in online ministry; it is simply that I saw virtual church as merely supplementary, or a "remedial" form of church useful only so long as people finally saw their way to "real" churches Sunday morning.  The very fact that I am in this class and fascinated by my friends' snazzy videos and insightful blogs belies my interest in online ministry and how church life may be drastically different in the not-so-distant future.

So when some folks were discussing virtual church (at my insistence), it became aparent to me that felt defensive as I listened to their banter.  "What's the point, it's not even real anyway."  "People are just too lazy to get out of bed Sunday mornings."  "No way people are paying attention to their computer screens as much as in the real sanctuary."

All things I've thought or said since taking this class.

So while I'm not sold out on the virtual church being "as good" as traditional, locational, physical church houses, I cannot allow others to tear it down: 1) to the point of being completely ineffective, and 2) without ever having looked into the matter themselves. 

God keep us from jumping to conclusions before considering as many factors as possible.

Proverbs 18:13:  "He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him."

Monday, November 19, 2012

Save Room for Dessert

As we head toward Thanksgiving, I am reminded of various people's approach to the holiday meal.  Some love the sweet pies, cookies, and cakes, and others go mainly for the heavy stuff: turkey, ham, dressing, etc.  Others have developed a healthy balance between the two extremes, craving the muscle building and vitamin rich solid dishes, while still leaving some room for dessert.

I have come to think of face-to-face vs. virtual interractions in the same way.  I see face to face communication as more difficult to achieve, requiring more time and intentionality, and taking longer to digest.  In a word, solid "meat."  On the other hand our access to virtual communications makes them easier to achieve, and more "instant:" they are in and out of the system much faster.  In a word, "sweets."

For healthy communication to exist, we need a solid diet of face-to-face communication as a foundation; the most basic building block of human interraction.  But with the availability of social media, we must not forget to "treat" ourselves with facebook posts, tweets, and texts.  All analogies break down at some point, so I will stop short of calling Google hangouts the "vegetables."

Happy Thanksgiving, and whether we meet with our friends and loved ones face to face or virtually this holiday, may our conversation be seasoned with grace.

Monday, November 12, 2012

What Uniform do You Wear?

We are exploring avatars and the effects of uniforms on people's actions in The Virtual Church with Professor Ralph Watkins.  The book Infinite Reality shows the effects of the digital world on people's minds and feelings.  If people use taller avatars, they behave differently than with shorter avatars.  If their digital selves are more attractive than they perceive themselves in the "real world," they act with more confidence and openness in the virtual realm than in real life.  Even in the immediate universe, uniforms are shown to have a measurable effect on people's actions and behaviors.  In a 1970's study, people were randomly dressed in nurses' uniforms or KKK robes.  The people in nurses' uniforms displayed mardedly more compassion and concern for their fellow man than those dressed as Klan members, even though most if not all of the participants were neither nurses nor Klan members in real life.  Football teams wearing dark colors are given more penalties than their festive colored opponents on the field.  People wearing darker colors such as police or military uniforms select more aggressive pastimes to engage in; whether in the digital or physical world.

The point is not that virtual reality will completely reshape human thought processes, but that humans have always behaved different depending on their circumstances.  People are like social sponges; taking in their cues for behavior and interraction from their surrounding environments.  The virtual world is not a place to be especially on guard against behavior modification, it is simply another place among many.  The virtual world will not change its inhabitants; it will provide a medium for our true characters to be revealed.  The virtual world is one example in millions of how we adapt to changing circumstances in our daily lives.  In fact it does not create new behaviors or thought patterns; it simply reveals who we are.  

Monday, November 5, 2012

All Dressed Up And Everywhere To Go

This week I want to argue that getting ready for church Sunday morning is a function of ultimate Christian eschatology.  Just as our donning of the righteousness of Christ is taking on a foreign garment to cover our sinfulness (Luther called us "snow-covered dung,") so preparing for Sunday morning service is a testimony to our eschatological hope.  When we put on the shirt/tie/coat, or blouse/skirt/dress, we are dressing up and presenting ourselves not as our normal, everyday selves, but as people greater than we now seem to be.  We are pointing from the lesser to the greater. 

No, I do not mow the lawn or wash the dishes in these clothes, but I hope for a better version of me in the future, and that is why I am "dressing up;" to point to a future hope.  That is why families dress up for portraits.  The family looking its best points to the future hope of more love, better communication, and sacrificial service on behalf of its members.  We are not looking our best because we have already attained the prize, but to represent our hope and trust that by God's grace we shall one day be the individuals and family God is calling us to be.

So it is in the Church of Christ.  Our dapper suits and friendly smiles need not be hypocrites' masks if they are given in the spirit of mutual charity and hope.  The way I am treating you at my very best is but the smallest inkling of how it shall be in the future when we have been transformed by Christ himself, "in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye," to be the individual and collective children of God he is making us into.  And when this ultimate hope has been obtained, so shall we ever be with the Lord. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

My argument agin' the virtual church

As this post is the written form of an argument I am making in a debate today, I am waiting until the last second before class to post it.  I am arguing that the Virtual Church is not a faithful representation of Christ's church on earth.

My argument is centered on Christian eschatology.  We have an ultimate hope of seeing and touching our Savior Jesus Christ.  We have an ultimate hope of rejoicing in the presence of the angels in Heaven.  We shall be bidden, if we are so bold, to touch the scars in our Lord's hands and examine the spear wound in His side.  Though we shall be raised in spiritual, incorruptible bodies to the glorious presence of God, we shall be in bodies nonetheless.  Therefore we will be physically present with Christ and the saints of all ages.

The Bible commands believers, "Forsaking not the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is . . ." (Hebrews 10:25)

While virtual church may bring together those who cannot  physically attend a local church, it may also serve to separate out those who will not.  It can be a ready-made excuse for those too lazy, too interested in TV football analysts, and too self-centered to invest several hours a week building up others; meeting with their spiritual family.

I am not arguing that the Christian church should be absent from online and social media conversations regarding faith, spirituality, and practice.  I am saying as long as their are physical buildings with flesh-and-blood Christians attending them, worshipping and fellowshipping, then people interested in participating in the family life of God ought to get off their physical backsides and get to stepping into the Lord's house Sunday and whenever else the doors are open.  God forbid we allow the awesome tool of online communications become a barrier to giving and receiving physical touch from other believers.  God forbid a quick text ever subsitute for a shoulder to cry on.  And God forbid a happy Facebook post ever substitute for high fives, singing, and clapping.

As long as we have the freedom and means to assemble ourselves as disciples of Christ, we must not allow the Internet to temper or interfere with true Christian fellowship.    

Monday, October 15, 2012

Hugs Through the Screen

In The Virtual Church with Professor Ralph Watkins we have done a lot of discussion on "Facebook" vs. true "Face Time." (I realize FaceTime is an Apple app, but here I mean people seeing one another in person, face to face, no cameras or screens between them.)  We have wrestled with whether virtual interactive communities can truly replace old fashioned get-togethers in building relationships and dialogue.  We have come to the conclusion that online resources cannot ultimately be an alternative to person-to-person meetings, but that the two forms of communication can certainly compliment one another.  The new Christian yearning for human contact can step out of her online Life Circle and meet her peers for coffee at the local bistro.  The man with a Sunday morning over-the-road delivery can hear his church's worship service on live streaming through his iPhone.

I experienced the complimentary nature of online and face-to-face meetings this weekend as I traveled to my home church in Port Orange, FL to check in with friends and thank members for their support.  Going in I knew some of the joys and pains in peoples' lives because of texts, emails, and Facebook posts.  Seeing folks in church, we were not starting from scratch catching up on each others' lives.  We were able to achieve a deeper level of conversation because we already had one another's back stories as starting points.  I knew who the youth leaders were, who was in college, who recently had a baby, who was undergoing chemotherapy, and who had changed jobs or even careers.  There is something fun about "catching up" with people that we miss because we have so much of their lives available to us online, but it leads to much deeper and more meaningful conversations.  It also invites my wife and me to remain loved and integral members of a faith community from which we live a seven hours' drive away.