Church is Dead
Church as we know it is over. Church is dead.
That summarizes the introductory paragraph of an article submitted by Fox News which has been making some rounds in the social media universe. In Nietzsche-esque fashion, David Adamson announces a new vision for local churches in America.
Nothing about the article suggests Adamson does not love the Lord or His church. That is not what I intend to communicate in my response. To the contrary, Adamson seems to have written this because He does love the church and wants Christians to be involved and engaged with the local church. However, while storming the beaches of Normandy was good and heroic, had any soldier done so in flip-flops while holding a pellet gun, every other American at his side would have been greatly concerned.
In other words, it’s possible to be on the right side, but fight ineffectively. That is my concern here. Adamson and I are fighting on the same team, and praise God for that! However, I would like to explain why Adamson is fighting the wrong way, and I would like to lovingly refute the proposal of his article with three principles from the Reformation.
Being completely honest, what the article is promoting is confusing to me. The author is certainly promoting digital church, and thinks most churches are too compartmentalized in their social media usage, using the analogy of pools with and without buoys. Apparently many churches today only offer some of their church service online, and Adamson is recommending everything be available everywhere. Like consumers are able to do with their online stores, offering all of their products both online and in-store, they will increase attendance and consumption.
The article began with a subtle criticism that churches historically have been “built on a physical attendance model that is location-centric.” Because churches have been “location-centric” due to their “physical attendance model” pastors develop systems and leadership styles wherein they are concerned with getting people into the buildings:
“Pastors have spent time every week encouraging, inviting and pleading with people to come to a specific place at a specific time on Sundays. This approach has created church staffing models, systems and ministry strategies focused on improving attendance. It’s also why there is an annual Top 100 list of America’s most-attended churches.”
Unfortunately this assessment is misguided. Currently there is an obsession with attendance numbers in modern evangelicalism which extends far beyond a discussion about church models. The fact that so many churches have functionally dropped membership is a sure sign of this, and goes far beyond the scope of both the article and this blog. Blaming it all on an outdated physical attendance model is far too simplistic. However, with that important nuance out of the way, I would like to focus on the devastating ecclesiology proposed as a solution.
The article suggests that churches need to “accept the fate” of “physical church as we know it” and move into the “digital church” phase. The author even suggests churches that do so are “forward thinking.” However, a “forward” direction requires an objective reference.
The difference between forward movement and backward movement, when speaking metaphorically, is the intended destination. Driving south is progress if you’re moving from Wyoming to Colorado. But to try to drive south from New Mexico to Canada is not progress. Is movement into the digital church really “forward?” This requires having the destination in mind. It requires us to ask, “by what standard?” Therein lies the article’s fatal flaw.
Adamson’s article assumes a pragmatic ecclesiology. All throughout is his assumption that church has been done a certain way because it works. Now that it isn’t working, we must adopt what instead works today. He is assuming pragmatism. However, historically, the church has not operated this way.
The principle issue of the reformation was not sola pragmaticam, but sola scriptura. Not only is the Bible the standard for what “works,” it is also the standard for how to get there. Scripture sets our destination. Scripture is the standard by which we measure our church’s success and liturgy. The model of church one adopts ought to never be based on consumer shopping statistics, but by appealing to the Lord of the Church. It seems for Adamson, the Bible is not his standard on this issue.
For example, pastors are not “encouraging, inviting and pleading with people to come to a specific place at a specific time on Sundays” due to an outdated, ineffective model. They do so because the author of Hebrews warned us against “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25).
The “location-centric” model which met on a specific day was the model of the Apostles (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2, Revelation 1:10), and that’s the problem for Fox’s published post. The New Testament in almost every document presupposes the gathered, corporate church, and the book of Acts establishes the heart of missions as planting physical churches. This is not an arbitrary model; it is the biblical model.
More than that, I am extremely concerned with the depersonalized view of the congregated saints displayed in Adamson’s article. To describe the historical, biblical model of the local church as “location-centric” is to emphasize the plate and not the meal. A location-centric model is necessary for what the Bible truly cares about: the congregation. Christians are the model, and the location is necessary to that. The model the article pleads with us to move on from is wrongly titled a “location-centered” model; rather, it should be thought of as a “congregation-centered” model, which comes from the Scriptures.
Alongside apostolic commandments and practices, the Bible demonstrates the blessing of personal, physical community that one cannot get by listening to a sermon on a podcast, or singing along with a Youtube video. Accessing all of church online, so that an actual congregation of saints is something “that you drive by on your way to a Sunday sporting event” is not what God intended, and would be a travesty to the Apostles.
The Bible regularly demonstrates how the physical congregation is used by God in ways digital church is not. The physical church provides the teaching authority one submits to (Hebrews 13:7, 17). This requires a personal connection with your leaders. Your leaders cannot be talking heads, but those who live life with you. They also must keep watch “over your soul” and be able to give personal instruction. The congregation provides encouragement (Hebrews 10:25), financial help, and community (Acts 2-4). Our songs must be physically corporate since they are meant to be sung to one another for teaching and encouragement (Colossians 3:16). The church, through membership, requires crucial accountability which keeps us holy and repentant (Matthew 18, Ephesians 5). The church allows us intimacy to know when we must weep and rejoice with one another (Romans 12:15). The church and its members are used by the Holy Spirit to function as a unit together, using personal, spiritual gifts to edify one another (1 Corinthians 12-14). A digital church member is like a severed hand; it is useless apart from the body.
These brief examples only skim the surface. The point being is that the Bible prescribes a “physical attendance model,” and the Bible demonstrates the spiritual blessings of that model, making it indispensable. Ironically, there is pragmatism within this approach. The local church is a blessing to us in ways it could never be digitally. However, that pragmatism is the fruit of the standard, not the standard itself.
From the Reformation there came another important Latin phrase: semper reformanda. This means always reforming. Churches need to be prepared to change and adapt. On that, Adamson and I agree. However, reformation requires a standard, and that standard is Scripture. This seems to be the standard missing not only from Adamson’s approach to the digital age of church, but to the entire “seeker-sensitive” movement at large.
It is important to note that I am not advocating for Traditionalism. I am not saying we ought to do church a certain way because we always have. Traditionalism is wrong for the same reasons that Pragmatism is wrong. I advocate for semper reformanda. We need to always reform. We need to be willing to change everything. However, there is a monumental difference between “the church has always done this; therefore it’s right,” and “there is good reason why the church has always done this.”
I am not against change. I am not a traditionalist clenching my fist in anger at all the young whipper-snappers bringing their modernity into my quaint, undisturbed practices. This is not a knee-jerk reaction to that which I am simply unfamiliar with. This is a call to biblical fidelity. Sometimes the Bible requires great reformation from us; it requires significant change.
But sometimes the Bible requires us to stay put, to keep calm and carry on, to continue to do exactly what we’ve been doing.
The Printing Press
None of this is to suggest there is no place for churches to engage digitally, specifically through social media. Quite the contrary; neglecting the internet and social media can be detrimental to the church. This was the case in the Reformation as well.
God providentially brought about the printing press at a not-so coincidental time. While there is evidence of printing in the eastern world long before Europe, the Reformation found a divine blessing when Johanes Gutenberg invented the metal (as opposed to wood block) printing press, the Gutenberg Press in 1450, which was right on the heels of the Reformation. This invention allowed the mass production of literature. It allowed ideas to spread. The printing press was to Luther and the Reformers what the internet and social media is to our churches today.
Although the printing press was used for both commercial and secular purposes, the printing press was instrumental for the spread of the Gospel and the advancement of the kingdom. It was not only used to print Bibles in the language of common man, but Luther and Calvin even used it for polemical purposes. Both of them printed theological works, and especially used it for there apologetics against the Roman Catholic Church. Luther used it to respond to his critics and to post polemical refutations of Rome’s indulgences and Calvin likewise used printed texts in influential ways.
Certainly, there are stark differences between the printing era and today’s digital era. Early on, the printed texts were only available to particular groups, specifically privileged ones. It’s not as though the average German and French households had a printing press in the basement. However, our means of idea distribution is available to almost everyone. This requires much more discernment and accountability in utilization. There are inappropriate and sinful ways to use social media.
Nonetheless, the principles between the two communication forms are the same. The internet is the way our culture connects. It is the new marketplace from which to preach. It is the new battleground for apologetics. It is the new first impression of your church. Churches need to utilize the online world to the glory of God. However, we must never do so at the expense of biblical prescriptions.
We ought to never forsake the blessings of a biblical ecclesiology nor the commandments of the Apostles because the digital era seems to be drifting toward certain trends and habits. In my estimation, that is exactly what Adamson’s Fox contribution is suggesting we do. And it is my hope and prayer that local churches would never use the digital blessings bestowed from God to come up with new, unbiblical church models.
It is my hope that churches will never forsake church “as we have always known it.”