I took a few days before writing this post because 1) whatever-I’m-busy-you-don’t-know-my-life and 2) because I didn’t want to be just another blogger-dude™ dunking on Judah Smith. I wanted to have something more interesting to say other than “Judah Smith is a more upbeat Rob Bell with weirder classes and cooler friends.”**
**Relax. It’s a joke.
Anyway, context…Judah Smith announced last week the newest location for their church. For years, large, megachurches with charismatic lead pastors have been in the business of franchising their product to other under-served locations (capitalist language intended). I have some strong, usually cynical, feelings about the satellite campus model of church planting. Sometimes this cynicism is justified, but my cynicism has also been chastened by the reality that some churches have done this extremely well and are spreading the gospel in some exciting ways. They are not motivated by hubris or arrogance, but genuine concern for the kingdom. Who am I to judge?
Judah Smith’s announcement, however, was not that they were going to a new city. Instead, their church is going “everywhere” but especially to your pocket. Their new location is an app called Churchhome Global. Watch his announcement here.
There is some low-hanging fruit here.
First, the church is already global. Our particular congregations are not. They may have a global reach – through the support of missionaries and church planting efforts – but they do not have global locations. Unless they are denominations which do have embedded locations around the globe. So perhaps Judah Smith sees his church as a type of micro-denomination which has its sights on spreading its unique brand of the Christian faith around the globe. Of course the major difference is that Smith’s church is able to go global in about as long as it takes to download an app. It exists in cyber-space without being embedded in real space. It is fair to wonder whether physical embeddedness is a price worth paying for speed and access.
Secondly, Smith emphasized content, content, content in his announcement. It’s easy to see why the language of content would be adopted. This is exactly what we have come to
expect demand from our virtual existence. Newspapers are going out of business precisely because they can’t deliver the type of personalized, on-demand content that we think we need. Should we expect the same thing from the church? The church only remains relevant at the speed it is able to deliver “content” (whatever that word even means). And what kind of disciple does this create? This is a question that should always be asked whenever a new technology or strategy is adopted. Do we want to create disciples with the mentality that being involved in church equates to the consumption of content specially delivered for my immediate benefit?
Thirdly, Smith says they are passionate about connecting people to God and to people. Good! But does he know what “tactile” means? It most definitely doesn’t mean “nominally connecting with people through a cheesy digital lobby in a digital church.” The only thing more painful than interacting in a real lobby would be trying to interact in a virtual lobby! Remember that the original promise of social media was more connectivity and therefore greater community. Has social media kept that promise? By any objective measure, we have never been more lonely. Our digital lives are emptying out our real lives. Don’t forget, “virtually present” is just another way of saying “not really present at all.” In the best case scenario, when a virtual connection is made there remains an absence in the real, tactile world where we live. And the virtual connection actually makes that absence even more profound. What’s worse than being alone? Knowing that there are people out there who might care for you, but you have no way to really enjoy fellowship with them. In the worst case scenario, the anonymity of virtual connections can very quickly amplify all of our vices from cruelty and condescension to silliness.
I’m not the first one to observe that turning the church into an app reflects an incredibly shallow ecclesiology. The Church should take the form of an embedded, local institution whose faithful Gospel witness creates real and transformed community out of the shattered fragmentation of modern life.
That’s one way of seeing it.
But couldn’t the case also be made that Judah Smith is actually a savvy minister of the gospel? Hasn’t he simply leveraged a new technology to amplify the message of Christ in ways that couldn’t have been imagined just a few years ago? Back when I taught the book of Acts I would tell my students that Paul couldn’t have become the great missionary of the first century without taking advantage of the technology of the Roman roads. The Romans had created a road system that made travel radically easier and faster. The Roman roads had shrunk the world, and Paul eagerly used them to his benefit. Is the smart phone the new Roman road? Wouldn’t it be foolish to not use this technology for the benefit of the gospel?
Well, maybe and maybe not.
Craig Detweiler says in his book iGods that “We need a robust theology of technology to precede our adoption of lights, cameras, and action. Bigger, louder, and faster don’t necessarily create deeper disciples.” In other words, new technologies should not be thoughtlessly adopted without deep reflection on how it might radically change what it means to be a disciple.
Allow me to take you on a short detour. Neil Postman observed that societies have gone through three stages in regards to technology.
- Tool-using societies. Tool-using cultures use tools to solve specific and urgent problems of physical life. In tool-using societies, transcendent ideals still govern the use of technology. Ancient Rome would fall squarely into this category.
- Technocracies. In a technocracy, the insistent rise of technology comes into conflict with rituals, religions, traditions, and social myths. Old philosophies don’t guide the use of technology. In a technocracy, they are holding on for dear life to keep from being overwhelmed. (Postman dates the beginning of the technocracy as 1776 with the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.)
- Technopolies. A technopoly is a totalitarian technocracy. According to Postman, “Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology.” In a technopoly, we don’t think about technology. We think from technology. (Huxley’s Brave New World is a powerful description of a dystopian technopoly where their calendar begins not with the birth of Christ but the birth of Henry Ford!)
Postman’s observations might help us to think through the adoption of a new technology like Churchome. It is certainly legitimate to adopt new tools to advance the spread of the gospel whether it is a Roman road, a radio, a television, or an app as long as our use of the technology is directed and shaped by our commitment to the gospel and not the other way around. But that is the risk. No technology is neutral. It cannot help but change the way that we think and act. As we’ve witnessed, a particularly powerful technology like smart phones have a way of taking over. They are a jealous god. When you move from using an app to advance the gospel to using an app to “be a church,” it seems that you are coming close to crossing a threshold. You are operating according to the terms offered by the technology. It is shaping and molding your thought-world and your theology. You are running the risk of becoming the First Church of the Technopolis. And I suppose even the Technopolis needs a church. But my guess is that the residents of the Technopolis need to be saved from the grips of their foreign gods, not an affirmation of them.