Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

COVID and Traditional Churches

September 28, 2020

There is much fear and worry in ecclesiastical circles about the lasting impacts of COVID and virtualized worship on the future of congregational ministry. This article references a prediction by leading church demographic and data purveyor Barna Group, that 20% of congregations will close. One in five congregations are at risk to close in the next 18 months, partly due to the effects of COVID.

The hand-wringing is not entirely unwarranted, but in my opinion what we’re talking about in all of this is an acceleration of a pre-existing, pre-COVID trajectory. I remember a prediction by a denominational leader years ago that just in our part of the world (US Southwest) there would be a decline of up to 50% in the number of congregations in our particular district by 2050. It might once have seemed like a far-fetched prediction, but between COVID and skyrocketing cost of living particularly in California, it hardly seems unlikely.

Christianity in America will not die. Not all individual congregations will die. There will continue to be a minority of mega-churches with thousands of active members. There will continue to be far more smaller congregations with less than 200 members. But a great number of very small congregations will close. They were going to close anyways, barring a miracle, but they’ll close sooner because of COVID. You don’t need to be a Barna researcher to puzzle that conclusion out.

Because of COVID and declining giving rates. Because of COVID and the final realization of many traditional church members of what has been the case for a while now – they don’t perceive a need for a church building and the scant programs most small congregations can barely afford. The greying of traditional mainline denominations has been noted for decades, but as long as those aging members were coming (and tithing), many doors could and would stay open. But with many older Americans frightened to go out of their homes let alone assemble at church in a group for worship, and with those fears likely to linger on quite a while after the Coronavirus is no longer a pandemic those traditional denominational congregations are going to start shutting down.

This is further accentuated by the realization of many Christians that they can tune in to live-streamed services from literally anywhere in the world. I have members who, in addition to listening or reading my weekly sermons, tune in to a German-language service from Germany. Others tune in to live-streamed services from larger congregations with a technology staff and the equipment to do live-stream well, to say nothing of a bevy of musicians and choirs and vocalists to further enhance the experience. Members of smaller congregations may find these more robust services more enjoyable and beautiful, and if their ties to their in-person churches have weakened (or were already tenuous pre-COVID), this extended time of suspended services might finally sever the habit of gathering weekly in person for a small and perhaps not-overly inspiring service, whether because of music or preaching!

Not all of this is bad, it simply is. Hard and difficult to be sure, but not necessarily terrible. It means we are in the midst of a shift in what Christian worship life looks like, a shift somewhat unprecedented since early in the Church’s history. The shift from being an underground or outlawed religion to being a state religion was massive but in what was presumed to be a positive way. The shift away from congregations prioritizing a large communal worship space will be a challenging and unpleasant one for many because we assume any decrease in size to be negative, a sign of failure. We see no strategic advantage in closing a congregation, even though we’re used to businesses making such decisions all the time. This double-standard is confusing at best.

Making a strategic decision to rework ministry is not a bad thing. It’s Biblical (Matthew 10:16). But the vast majority of the congregations referred to in Barna’s prediction will not close strategically. They’ll close because they can’t keep doing what they’ve always done any longer. They will close feeling as though they’ve somehow failed, or God has somehow failed them. And that’s both sad and wrong.

Christian communities need to rethink not only what they need in terms of space but what the relationship of those spaces are to the community around them. The national trend towards decreasing Christian worship levels is not going to change any time soon. Which will leave more and more congregations with more and more space to take care of – space they either aren’t using themselves or are leasing out to others to use and to pay the bills no longer payable by member giving alone. All of which ultimately leads discussions of buildings and property and leases to eclipse discussions of mission and ministry. Again, it isn’t that this isn’t already happening on a wide scale, but COVID is going to accelerate it dramatically.

Not all of these changes will be for the good. Assuming digital church is somehow adequate or even good is dangerous and misguided even if it’s convenient and popular. Worship together, anchored in the ancient command of the Sabbath, is inherently a call on us away from our lives and schedules. It inherently places everything else in our lives in a subordinate role, at least nominally. Anything that upends this more than it already has been upended is ultimately not faithful or obedient, even if people like it. I’ve argued for a long time that Christian communities need to rethink their definition and expectation of the Sabbath, and that it might even be worth considering worship on a separate day of the week so the Sabbath can truly return to the day of rest and a direct consideration of the providence of God more fully.

At the root of all this is not COVID, but rather a continuing realization that many churches are unable to make the Christian faith relevant to life as a whole. They are unable to foster a Christian world-view, and instead settle on a much narrower view of the faith centered on participation in worship and weekly programming. In a world brought closer together by technology and with directly adversarial attitudes throughout educational systems, young Christians need to see how faith connects all of their life together, rather than just being something they do on Sunday mornings. If our culture was ever somewhat homogenous, it certainly isn’t now and believers of all ages need to be equipped to understand this and see how their faith in the resurrected Son of God is more than sufficient not simply to cope with the world around them but to make sense of it as well.

Yes, churches are going to close. This is sad at one level but perhaps necessary at some level. As those churches close, I pray the congregations that remain are able and willing to reconsider some aspects of what it means to be the Church in the 21st century. Not that we abandon doctrine or worship or anything like that! But perhaps the way we physically conceive the Church to be needs to be revised, and perhaps this is a good thing that can challenge the cultural perception of the Church as antiquated in everything from their carpeting to their doctrine. The Gospel always remains the Gospel and the center of Christian life and practice. We just need to be willing to trust that as we make adjustments on the periphery.

Blogging Curiosities

September 24, 2020

I’ve been at this for nearly 15 years, blogging on a regular basis. I never expected it would be a success by any sort of commercial or industrial metric. I never expected to earn revenue from it (and I don’t). I hoped to have some conversations with people, and that has happened.

I have a small following of regular readers (that I know about). A couple of dozen folks from past and present congregations. A little more than 250 followers through WordPress, but I don’t think about that much as I know many of them followed me in the hopes of building their own sites towards commercial viability. I generally get a couple of dozen visits per day, with fluctuation in both directions. Since moving my site to WordPress six years ago, my visitors and views have gradually increased each year. There are at least a few people who read, and that makes me happy.

But it’s interesting to me that yesterday I had double my usual number of visitors. I could pat my back for saying something people found interesting enough to share with friends, but that’s generally not my modus operandi. Rather, I find it curious that some of my visits yesterday came from China, and that yesterday’s post mentioned the conviction of a prominent Chinese opposition figure. I didn’t say much about it, just referenced it in passing. But it makes me wonder just how far-reaching the tentacles of geo-political monitoring go. Did I appear on some sort of Chinese radar for mentioning a related news story? Perhaps. Is that disturbing? Perhaps? Should it be more disturbing? Probably. But I’ll leave it at the curiosity level instead.

Convenience Costs

September 15, 2020

Online ordering and delivery was a Thing long before COVID-19, but I can only imagine how much more money is being poured into Internet-based shopping options instead of traditional brick and mortar stores. Correspondingly, the push for faster and faster delivery times is driving not just technology but policy as well.

Amazon has received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to begin delivery of small (under five pounds in weight) packages to customers. It has been testing such delivery systems since 2013.

I’m curious how this might impact home designs. Could homes have designated rooftop or balcony landing spots where drones could leave packages instead of leaving them by the front door where they are more vulnerable to theft?

The Christian Life and Social Media

September 12, 2020

Thanks to Chuck for sharing an article with me about a missionary pastor in the United Kingdom facing calls for his deportation and the burning down of his church because he expressed views on Facebook offensive to the LGBTQ+ community.

All of which is pretty predictable these days, but once again raises the purpose of social media for Christians. Social media has become ubiquitous and touted as a place of self-expression. However self-expression is routinely being attacked when it doesn’t conform to minority opinions about sexuality and gender issues, not to mention politics in general.

I deleted my Facebook account about a year ago and I haven’t missed it for a single moment. Not one. The concept that was so attractive 13 years ago – being able to stay in touch with people in your life you might otherwise lose touch with – is not the reality. It’s now a place to scream your views and heap abuse on those who disagree with you – even if those people by some miracle are still friends with you on Facebook, surviving the common calls several years ago to purge ourselves of anyone who disagrees with us. I observed a few strange things, to say the least.

Colleagues who are pastors and literally make their Facebook identity their professional one puzzle me. Don’t you have any people in your life you relate to as other than a pastor? Does every single one of your family & friends have your vocation as pastor as the primary means of interacting with you? It seemed odd to me, at the very least. I know a lot of people through a lot of different venues, and my vocation as pastor only comes into play in a certain number of them. As such I tried to keep that in mind on the rare occasions I would post anything. I wanted to be aware of and considerate of not just what I said but how I said it.

I found (and continue to find it odd when I hear about it through my wife or other people) that someone who emphasizes their vocation as a pastor on social media feels as though advocating for a particular political party or platform is appropriate on social media. Again, are the only people they’re friends with on Facebook people who share their opinions on everything? If so, why the need to say something in the first place? And if not, why say something that could be deeply hurtful to people who love you but disagree with you?

Particularly for clergy I find this an egregious misuse of social media. It is a blurring of the line between being who we are and being honest and authentic, and the divine directive to operate with love in all things and to be very cautious of what we say or do – even if we’re right – that might hurt or cause another person to wander away from or further away from God. And when those social media comments call into question the very faith of someone who disagrees with a social or economic or political policy? Good grief people – what are you thinking!?

Some might argue that we have to raise our voices in social media as well as everywhere else, that otherwise Biblical Christian faith gets overwhelmed and drowned out by the discordant clamorings of any number of other ideas and ideologies. It would be good to remember that as near as we can tell the Christian faith did not grow and spread by screaming and shouting at random passersby, but in small acts of love and interpersonal giving and even sacrifice. Tragically the Church is more accustomed these days to thinking in terms of market share rather than trusting the power of God the Holy Spirit to work through the least of his sheep towards not just the transformation of culture but the salvation of souls.

Jesus directs his followers to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. I tend to suspect that if we are to place the emphasis in the proper place, it should be on the latter rather than the former. There is no shortage of serpents in this world – wise or otherwise. But there can never be enough doves.

I’d urge Christians to reconsider social media in general. What does it accomplish? How do you feel when you’re scrolling through your feed? What sort of emotions and responses does it stir inside of you? Is your social media experience true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise? Or are you more often stirred to irritation or anger or offense or lust or sorrow or shame? I won’t advocate for dumping social media, but I do advocate for proper, appropriate, and critical/thoughtful use of it. Simply the fact that you’ve been using it for a long time or everyone else is using it hardly justifies something that may be personally harmful to you.

Yes, anti-Christian rhetoric is on the rise in social media and elsewhere. Yes, it is horrible that people threatening bodily harm, economic injury, and destruction of property are sanctioned and not seen as a threat whereas someone simply stating a contradictory belief is viewed as a dangerous threat to be eradicated. Yes it is unfair. Yes it is wrong. But simply mirroring those tactics and that rhetoric is not only not going to be ineffective, it’s outright disobedient to how we are called by God to deal with a very dangerously sinful world. Not just a sinful world around us but a sinful world within us. Giving reign to that internal sinfulness is just as dangerous or perhaps more so than the dangerous sin around us. We are called first and foremost to be obedient to what God has called us to, regardless of whether this accomplishes the other social or political or cultural ends we would like it to.

Speak the truth but speak it in love. I’m increasingly skeptical of whether that’s possible through a megaphone or social media.

Staying Sane

April 1, 2020

As people deal with shelter-in-place orders and social distancing, here are some interesting options for staying sane both individually and as a family.

Here’s a list of movies suitable for watching among multiple generations of adults.  I can vouch for The Two Popes as a worthwhile watch.  Our family has also (previously) watched The Hundred Foot Journey, and were not as thrilled with the overall quality of the movie despite a few good moments.  The Shawshank Redemption is one I only recently watched and found to be deserving of the accolades it has collected over the years.  Likewise Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great family classic.  Romancing the Stone isn’t nearly as good in the adventure category, and goes for some more sexual humor than Raiders does (although sequels to Raiders up the sexual innuendo substantially).  While it might sound boring, The King’s Speech is a phenomenal movie from an acting perspective.  As I remember, A Fish Called Wanda also has some sexual innuendo but also some stellar performances.  The Usual Suspects is one of my all time favorite films.

Perhaps you’d rather do some explorations in the real world?  Maybe a virtual trip to Disneyland would be a fun diversion?  Or if you’d rather wander farther afield, here is a collection of walks through various places in the world.

Strike 1

March 24, 2020

Although I’m not overly happy with the technical qualities of the first sermon I posted to the Internet, given the last minute rush to figure it out at all I don’t consider it a strike.  But I was very disappointed today.

I’m a Windows user, as far as computers go.  Though I dabble in Apple products (such as their early generation computers were the norm in high school and college labs, and I use an older model iPhone) my daily work for decades has been done on Windows-based PCs.  Although I enjoyed brief experiences with UNIX and Linux, I never considered them reasonable replacements for Windows.  And more and  move I’ve migrated from proprietary software options (such as Microsoft Office) to freeware solutions (such as OpenOffice).  That is also the case for the software I’ve used to generate audio files over the years – Audacity.

So I hooked up the mixing board and mics to a new computer I had installed Audacity on and put together my first Internet-destined audio file.  The only problem is that when I went to upload it to YouTube, it was rejected because it’s an audio file rather than a video file.  Now I have to figure out if there’s a way to fold the MP3 data into a video file that YouTube will recognize and accept.

Some might ask why I don’t just film me doing the Bible study and post said video.  It would be much simpler, ’tis true.  But I’m a rather cantankerous person at times.  I naturally resist the cultural obsession with visualization and our predilection to juding everything by looks rather than content.  As such, I take opportunities to kick against these goads , resulting in the predicted discomfort (such as losing a District election several years ago by one vote, in no small part because I refused to provide a photo to be used with my bio).

The current example is not wanting to film myself.  Go online and you’ll find scads of preacher videos.  What’s the first thing you notice before you hear a word out of their mouths?  What they look like.  Old or young?  Hip or outdated?  Liturgically vested or skinny jeans?  This is how we’re trained, but the Word of God encourages us to move past these surface level things to examine what’s underneath.  Oftentimes a nice exterior hides rottenness within.  Likewise, if we can ignore how someone looks, we might find they have something valuable to say.

My congregants already know what I look like (and I feel bad for them in that regard!), but those who don’t know me (and who aren’t compelled by a divine Call to listen to me on a regular basis!) should judge me not by what I look like or how I dress but rather by what I say and whether what I say is in line with what God says to us in his Word, the Bible.  If I’m going to reach a larger audience, I want to reach that audience not with me, but with Christ.  And while I’m sure there are plenty of preachers who can upload videos of themselves without a hint of pride, I’m not sure I’m as immune to the temptation to value what I’m doing  by the number of views or likes or whatever other means of cultural approbation we come up with.

So I kick, and it hurts.

I’m hopeful I’ll figure it out, but it’s a learning curve I’d much rather not have to be climbing at the moment!  I’ll keep you posted.

SETI@Home Alone

March 5, 2020

1999.

The war in the Balkans is still raging.  The Euro is introduced to Europe.  Napster is released.

Clinton is acquitted of perjury charges in regards to his relationship with an intern.

Spongebob is released.

The Columbine High School massacre occurs.

Internet Explorer version 5 is the current one, and fears about Y2K are ramping up.

The Matrix and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace are both released.

And an experiment in massively distributed computing possibilities is launched.  SETI@home aims to utilize spare computing cycles on dormant, Internet-connected computers to analyze data in the search for intelligent life beyond Earth.  It isn’t the first experiment in massive distributed computing, but it’s perhaps the best known and longest running.  And as of March 31 it is being put on hiatus as researchers have so much backlogged data they need to analyze.

I never downloaded the software to participate.  Even then I was skeptical of other people using my computer in one way or another, a skepticism that has only grown and intensified as such intrusiveness becomes the norm rather than the well-intentioned exception.  But I remember thinking it seemed like a good use of all those PCs out there and our increasing bandwidth capabilities.

Did any of you participate in this?

 

Grateful

January 8, 2020

I’m often critical of the pervasiveness of technology in our culture today.  I’ll likely remain critical.  But I would be dishonest and remiss if I weren’t to also say that I’m grateful.

I’ve been tinkering with computers to one degree or another for close to 40  years now, and I can only say I’m so very, very, very,  very, very grateful for how easy it is to get a system setup and running these days compared to way back when.  I just set up a brand new PC in about 20 minutes.  That includes opening the box and unpacking it.  Granted, with this ease comes a lesser degree of control, but frankly, 99% of people using computers don’t need or even want the level of control we used to have to have in terms of installing drivers and this and that and the other.  In 20 minutes my system  is configured (mostly on its own) and connected to the Internet.  I’m already downloading and installing the additional freeware I want to use.

It’s amazing, and I’m grateful.

But still, get off your smartphones people!

 

Holding Companies Accountable

August 10, 2019

Thanks to Ken for this excellent editorial from the Wall Street Journal.

At issue is how to deal with companies like YouTube or Google who censor not based on offensive content (profanity, nudity, etc.) but based on ideological bent.  This is not the first time I’ve brought up this issue.  Conservative or traditional voices are increasingly being muzzled online.  The awkwardness is that conservatives often do not decry this very strongly because of their strong commitment to minimizing government interference.  Since these entities aren’t the government, they are free to print or publish what they want.

Is that really the case?  Dennis Prager in this editorial answers no, it isn’t the case, and we need to hold these companies accountable for who and what they are in reality, rather than in theory.  Definitely worth the read, even if you have to subscribe to the WSJ in order to access it!

FOMO and Pulling Triggers

August 3, 2019

After several weeks of preparation and contemplation, I just deleted my Facebook account.

Of course, few actions are immediately irreversible in the technology world.  I have 30 days to change my mind and reactivate my account (and access all of my posts, pictures, and other tidbits accumulated over the last 12 years).  But once that window passes – and I trust it will pass without inordinate temptation – I’d have to start from scratch with a new account.  Theoretically at least, Facebook will delete all of my data and information.  I downloaded a copy of it a few weeks ago in case I want to peruse it one day.

Not checking Facebook multiple times a day over the past month has been an amazingly simple experience.  Once I deleted all my friends, there was no content to tempt me back.  Facebook was, in the final analysis for me, not so much an avenue for self-expression as it was a means of lurking on the lives of others.  I doubt I’m unique in this, but I’m willing to admit it for what it was.

In our age of acronyms this is known as FOMO – fear of missing out.  What if everyone else has discovered something wonderful and I’m out of the loop?  What if I miss out on the latest meme?  What if I’m not on the cutting edge of current water cooler conversation?  What if, what if, what if…..

Having crested mid-life, FOMO has a diminishing pull on me.  All well and good because  having crested middle age I’m now largely irrelevant to the culture around me.  Old enough not to be swayed by the myriad  cries of the masses virtually or otherwise, to  be skeptical of the swaying needle of cultural opinion or fashion or celebrity or other metrics.   When I honestly admitted that lurking on the lives of people through Facebook I’m barely connected to otherwise in life was unhealthy for any number of reasons, cutting the cord was easy.  Being willing to admit that 99% of the people I was friends with on Facebook hardly fit that title by any reasonable definition was harder.

It’s like the much-maligned band Nickelback and their single Photograph.  I’ve thought for years it was simply a nostalgic trip down memory lane, when actually it’s a recognition that such strolls have to come to an end some day.  It’s not healthy or accurate to perpetuate the state of a relationship years or decades ago through a social media outlet if that’s the only connection that remains.  People I’ve worked with across multiple organizations and vocations, people I’ve gone to school with in various places across the decades, people associated with other groups or times of life – if  my only connection to them is watching what they post and liking it or visa versa, this isn’t really a relationship.  It becomes an obsession with the past rather than the present, an attempt to maintain the illusion of something deeper which died a long time ago, and barring some miracle of the Holy Spirit’s strange connectivity, will never live again.

Some of those Facebook friends I’ll keep touch with in other ways, but the vast majority I won’t.  That’s OK.  It’s not that I wish them ill, think any less of them, or  otherwise don’t care about them.  But I need to acknowledge that what Facebook helps create is the illusion that those relationships are still alive and active and to some degree unchanged.  As though liking a post or a photo  of someone I haven’t otherwise communicate with in 20 years is the same as the old  water cooler discussions or the old late night camaraderie.  It isn’t.  Those things have passed on.

That can be hard to acknowledge if there aren’t a set of new relationships to replace these old ones.  It can force us to acknowledge our actual isolation in the here and now.  But such honesty might also spur us to greater efforts to build new relationships.  When I first began serving as a pastor in this part of the world, I was told about a program specifically designed for new pastors  in the area to connect with one another and begin to build relationships with people right here rather than rely exclusively on past relationships (or even current but geographically distant ones) through social media.  That was a dozen years ago.  The program long ago died off, but the need it sought to address back  then is only more real now.

I don’t think social media is bad, per se.  There are unhealthy aspects to it, but there are also beautiful blessings it provides.  As with most tools, it’s how we use them that matters, and recognizing that technological tools also seek to use us.  I can pick up a hammer to hang a picture on the wall and put the hammer down and it won’t pursue me.  Social media can and does pursue.  In the last month since I quit checking Facebook I’ve started getting texts and e-mails from Facebook telling me that there are new posts and messages that I should check in and see.  Unlike a hammer, social media needs me every bit as much – or more likely more –  than I need it.  And when that’s the case we need to carefully discern what we’re providing compared to what we’re receiving.  Concerns about privacy and data breaches are as common as the air we breathe, and perhaps that’s the point – we get used to the idea that we don’t really have privacy, that we aren’t entitled not to be commercially objectified or exploited 24/7.

How people calculate these balances will differ.  For my, psychologically and emotionally it’s time to pull the trigger on Facebook.  I’ve realized I’m not missing out on anything, or perhaps more accurately, I’m still missing out on the same things whether I’m on Facebook or not.