Warning: this is a long post.
As this reflection may appear to be “anti” Church of the Nazarene, I want to be perfectly clear that while I address (what I perceive as) issues within the Church of the Nazarene (as a whole, and in particular my context of USA/Canada), it remains the denomination that God continues to draw me to remain. This is the denomination that God called me as a pastor. It will take much more than this post to change it.
However, Nazarene.Digital exists as my wake-up call to myself and to others that the Church of the Nazarene is not a digital denomination, and we are just as (if not more) called to the digital world as the physical world.
Digital More Than “Just” Matters
A few months ago, I was part of Stadia‘s Phygital 2.0 Cohort. As part of the pre-acceptance interview, I mentioned my denomination. The response was disappointing. This is not to knock the person in question’s perspective, but that it was the perspective was the disappointment. [An aside: that this response continues to rattle around in my head, heart, and spirit, is also telling]
The basic (gross paraphrase) response was that the denomination is so focused on the church building (despite unequivocally stating that “the church is the people; not the building”), that church planting seems to be doomed to failure in the current cultural context. I, it seems, was a breath of fresh air (and I’m sure I’m not the only one in the denomination, to be clear).
This was a church planter (and planter coach/coordinator’s) perspective of the denomination. It hurt, really.
A number of years ago, I took a church planting course. One of the lessons from that course (offered within my local denominational district) was that new churches were statistically (there are always exceptions) more likely to draw new believers in (there are a number of reasons for this, which are far beyond this particular post or site).
My local district took that concept and ran with it (which deserves cheers and accolades). I observed, however, that it ran out of steam (at least to my eyes). I wonder if it is because of what was/is defined denominationally as a successful church plant: a building.
In the Puget Sound area (where I am currently), that is a huge stretch/ask. The best way to think of it is this, if a church is shut down and the property sold, there is no financial way to ever have a denominationally owned building again (Generally. I can think of a few non-traditional ways for that to occur. Then again, that’s non-traditional.).
If one applies that same financial reality to church planting, basing the success of a church plant on a building is setting the plant up to fail.
So, why all the pre-amble? One, it’s been building up for a while. Two, I read a Facebook post (targeted toward pastors within the denomination) from the last few days, and it finally caused me to put this into writing.
Here To Stay
The reality is that while our denomination and pastors have “embraced” digital during COVID and somewhat prior to that, it seems that it is more of a necessity than a perspective it is of equal value to gathering as a corporate body in a building. Even small groups (as allowed per COVID) or “home churches” are viewed as “less than” the “so-called” church.
The straw, so to speak, that broke my internal “camel’s” back was an approximate statement that if the person were not called to be a pastor, they wouldn’t attend any digital service. While that may have been only a single person’s words, the gist of too much of the pastoral conversation falls along this line. If it’s digital…forget it.
This is a denomination whose “mission” statement “…is to make Christlike disciples in the nations.” For me, “the nations” are just as much digital as they are political/tribal/social boundaries.
The Digital Nations
There is an irony here. We accept (denominationally and theologically) being missionaries to foreign countries. When we do such, we understand that we must change to present the Gospel. The mission and the Word don’t change. Just the methodology changes.
When it comes to physical, we don’t have a problem with it. When it is digital, it seems that our perspective is different. Digital doesn’t seem to even qualify as third-class.
I completely understand that for many (even most) people digital doesn’t “scratch” their (in-)person itch. I even understand that many people cannot equate “church” to digital. However, if we are truly to reach the nations, how we “feel” about digital is…irrelevant.
What may be the real stretch for pastors, the denomination, and even the wider church, is the coming digital-only churches.
Did you know that a number of new plants (no Church of the Nazarene that I am aware of) accelerated their planting strategy to become digital-first (and even digital-only) during COVID? They didn’t postpone their original physical plan (whether for 2020 or 2021). They wholescale changed it to digital, and started!
That may well be what comes next. Breaking the tie between physical and digital is not ideal. However, it may be necessary as too much training and culture is based on physical.
The Hard Part
It might be that we can bring the two together, someday. As there will likely be some sort of COVID-constrained behavior through 2021, the break may be necessary. A new mindset may be required.
If the Church of the Nazarene rises or falls is not really the point. The reality is that we (as Christians) are called to find ways to connect people to Jesus Christ. As hard as it may be to hear, the treasured buildings aren’t it.
If we believe that God is omnipresent, then would God not exist digitally, too?
I have received a lot of support that we need to do digital. I have come to realize, though, that almost all of it is intellectual assent. It isn’t belief.
There is a difference in a Christian who assents to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and one who believes it in heart and soul. So, too, is there a difference in a person who assents to digital, and the person who believes it.
Campus Versus Broadcast
Now for the more personal part. My current job title is Online Campus Pastor. Broadcasting isn’t an Online Campus.
I actually agree with many that live streaming (i.e., broadcasting) isn’t the community in which we are called to be part. The digital expression of church is not seeing what’s happening inside the building. I believe in actual groups of learning and accountability.
Rarely, would anyone disagree with groups of learning and accountability. Usually, we get equivocations, rationales, excuses, and reasoning (many of which are understandable) as why people do not belong to groups of learning and accountability. We get them all the time when it comes to physical.
It is just that these can happen effectually and deeply online. All it takes is people willing to be so. Wait, that sounds like physical, too.
Tech to Fulfill the Mission
There is definitely a transformation that is needed. The real issue isn’t COVID. It isn’t Zoom fatigue. It isn’t Facebook. It isn’t Twitter.
The real issue it that digital pervades, and the church seems to be doing its best to do the bare minimum, and usually a few years behind.
What if the church didn’t use the Roman Road? A brief historical recap. The Roman Road was a historic marvel. The Roman Empire build a road of stone (versus dirt and mud) across the empire. Along with the Pax Romana (the military enforced peace across the empire), the road allowed the church to spread. Where the Roman Road was, so, too, was the church (eventually).
If the church stuck to the dirt byways because it was “traditional”, would the churches of Philippi, Ephesus, Laodicea and even have existed to have letters written to them (also spread by the Roman Road)? Digital is the Roman Road.
Digital’s Pending Physical Reality
Even amidst my concern for the now, it is the future that concerns me most. Extended Reality (covering both the Augmented—Google Glass, Magic Leap, Holo Lens—and Virtual—Oculus, Vive, Gear—Reality) is coming. The church has to start addressing it now.
Much of the same theological and cultural issues will be applicable. One of the pending ones, touch, is where the church needs to really be looking at it. Even most of my digital peers, I don’t think, are covering this.
The tech exists, now, to “touch”. Think about that. The excuse of being unable to “hug” a person goes away. Researchers at the University of Birmingham studied Rayleigh Waves. They discovered an electronic (i.e., performable by a future digital interface) way to “tell” the brain we “felt” something. We already have the simplified haptic system, but this ushers in something far greater.
VR baptisms are already a thing. They are dismissed. What if you can feel the water cover you?
One of the things that comes to mind as I listen to DC Talk’s Mind’s Eye is Billy Graham’s riff on the wind (yes, he was talking about the Holy Spirit). We know it exists. We see its effects. We never see it.
Why is it so hard to apply that same thought digitally?
If you’ve made it this far down this post, I’m amazed (and, thank you for your time). This isn’t an “optimized” digital post (too long, I know).
As I reflect of almost a year of COVID, and being “the digital” pastor, I’ve come to a conclusion. The term of Online Campus Pastor does not apply. In my current context (with nothing against my church, its staff, or its people), I don’t see that becoming a reality.
This isn’t its way. It is the mirror I look at my denomination. My local church was far ahead of many Church of the Nazarene churches.
The tech concept of do new things and break them (you still have to have a plan, though) often is, for many, contrary to the way of the church. I get it from a church history and theology standpoint. I support it to great extent.
I am just at a different place for what that means in regard to church expression. What that means for the near-, medium-, and long-term, I don’t know. I can only be faithful to where I discern God is calling me, even while I try to learn what exactly that means.