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GEN-X RISING: Virtual church will never replace the body of Christ Andrew C. Thompson, Feb 14, 2011
By Andrew C. Thompson UMR Columnist
John Markoff wrote an article in the Dec. 26, 1989, edition of the New York Times with the headline, “Computer Mail Gaining a Market.”
Yes, the “computer mail” of the title is e-mail. Mr. Markoff’s now 21-year-old story begins with a statement sure to bring a smile to those who find themselves captive to e-mail in the present:
“Electronic mail, which has taken a secondary position to the facsimile machine through the personal computer boom of the 1980s, is finally coming into its own.”
The article that follows that opening line is prescient, given the years since its appearance in the Times. Mr. Markoff quotes Steve Jobs—who was on the outs with Apple at the time and is referred to as “Steven P. Jobs”—as predicting that the combination of personal computing with new forms of electronic communication would completely transform the way people interact on a day-to-day basis.
But the writer hedges his bets a bit as well. He also cites experts who “still wonder whether electronic mail will ever become as universal as the fax machine.”
Younger readers today might read that sentence and ask, “What’s a fax machine?”
Mr. Markoff’s story seems utterly dated, despite the fact that it was written just a little more than two decades ago. It’s a reminder of how much our lives have truly been revolutionized—not just by e-mail but by the Internet itself and all the techno-gadgetry developed to exploit it for personal use.
Since 1989 the hardware we use has multiplied from desktop PCs to laptops, MP3 players, smartphones, e-readers and tablet computers. E-mail is indeed a dominant feature of contemporary life, but it isn’t the only one. It shares space with interactive websites, blogs, Twitter feeds, social networking sites like Facebook and all the thousands of “apps” available for smartphones like the Android and the iPhone.
To think that people just 20 years ago were debating whether a techno-dinosaur like the fax machine would maintain supremacy in the electronic world is, well, kind of funny.
And the explosion of new media forms makes us all a little dizzy. Who doesn’t stop and wonder at times whether all the new technology threatens our basic sanity just a little bit?
Sense of community
For the church, such questions take on a particular importance. Because one of the overriding features of technology is the sense it gives that individual self-sufficiency is truly possible. Real, in-the-flesh human relationships are tough. People disagree. Love takes a lot of hard work. But the digital universe? That’s easy.
Me + a screen = no problems. But therein lies the rub. Because when our interactions are defined by the disembodied texts and tweets issued from our techno-gadgets, any real sense of community begins to fracture.
Holy Scripture describes the church with terms that imply a real community. The church is called a “body,” a “spiritual house,” the “city of the living God,” and “God’s own people.” Jesus calls those who follow him to love one another as he has loved us; he even calls us his friends.
But of course, friendship requires togetherness. It does so just as sure as a body has to have all its members and a house has to have all its building stones.
We see attempts by the church to grapple with our changing society in a number of new ways. There are some promising ones that use technology to bring people together in the flesh. But others do more harm than good. Anytime the adjective “virtual” is used to modify a practice of the church—virtual Holy Communion, or virtual worship—we should be on our guard. Because the first step in the fragmentation of God’s people is the one that claims we don’t have to be together in order to be the church.
God did not tweet salvation. He didn’t send an e-mail, or a podcast or even a fax. God came in the flesh, so that all flesh might be redeemed. And the church he is building even now to proclaim that good news is meant to be a body—just as real as Jesus’ own body was and is.