Guest Post: Why Go Back to Church?

Jesus wants His people to love one another. To love others, you sometimes have to be in the same room. Sometimes you have to hold their babies, wash their dishes, or look them straight in their unmediated eyes as you listen to them share their story. You have to stay in the room when the stories get rambly. You might have to get up and get a box of tissues. You may have to lay hands on them and pray for them. Yes, sometimes you have to touch them.

Note: This is part of a series, “Technologizing of Worship Before, During, and After COVID: Epistemology, Eschatology, and Presence, part of a larger project suggesting a pastoral response to COVID and lockdowns in the church. Read more and subscribe here.

I was recently traveling and settling in–hence the lack of new content for the last few days.

But I’m pleased to present a guest contribution by my mother, Susan Soesbe, who is the author of Bringing Mom Home: How Two Sisters Moved Their Mother Out of Assisted Living to Care For Her Under One Amazingly Large Roof (Rend Press, 2018). You can follow her writing at her personal website, and on Twitter.

I asked Mom to read and comment on my recent post, Online “Church”: Are the Kids Really Fine? Her comments were helpful to me, and substantive enough in their own right that I asked if she would compile them into an essay. Please comment, like, and share!

In a recent post, Benj took pains to explain the different experiences of digital immigrants (those who grew up before the internet was ubiquitous) and digital natives (those who grew up after it was), and ended with a radical proposal: Once church is meeting again, why not shut down the livestream? He argued:

Even we who are digital immigrants are being changed by visual and social media, and not for the better. Our attention spans, our ability to read, and our psychological health are being affected. But the difference is that we have a sense of what we used to be able to do, and to push back a bit in reshaping our habits. Digital natives don’t even have a sense of what is possible for them.

I’ll admit I was surprised. I had assumed that the young people would have the impetus and ability to reshape their habits, both to adjust for COVID restrictions and, after that, to return to in-person church services. Benj was telling us, No, they don’t. He further clarified: “We think the kids are fine… but they’re not.”

I wonder, though, if part of the problem is that “the kids” don’t see much value in attending church in person at all. As Benj points out, a Christian person can easily curate their own online combination of music, liturgy, and teaching, and avoid all the risk and inconvenience of being in physical proximity to other humans. 

As I read Benj’s post, I thought of my 50+ years of church attendance. Why did I go? Did it do me, or anybody, any good? Why return to in-person church now that we can get a self-curated online experience?

The short answer is that Jesus wants His people to love one another. To love others, you sometimes have to be in the same room. Sometimes you have to hold their babies, wash their dishes, or look them straight in their unmediated eyes as you listen to them share their story. You have to stay in the room when the stories get rambly. You might have to get up and get a box of tissues. You may have to lay hands on them and pray for them. Yes, sometimes you have to touch them.

We all know that relationships are hard. That goes for church relationships too. If you think church is only for sermons, songs, and prayers, well…. you’re missing out.

In my experience, relationships are the best and the worst part of church. They are the primary means by which God has caused growth in my life.

Some of my most fruitful relationships began as a result of connections made while I was trying to serve people in my church. For example, a lady at my church had a condition that rendered her unable to pick up her toddler. In response to an open request from the pulpit, I went to Nancy’s house two or three days a week with my little boy (Benjamin) to help her. I changed diapers and did laundry and other housework. Our hours spent together were naturally filled with conversation. Nancy shared wisdom and insight I didn’t know I needed. I thought I was helping her, but we were helping each other. 

I met another lady at this same church who I simply couldn’t stand. She was so abrasive. But when she needed help with her new baby, I girded up my loins, gritted my teeth, and went to her house to Serve God. As we interacted, I began to understand why she was harsh. She had lost a previous baby to SIDS and was afraid her new baby would die too. What a lot she had been through! I developed sympathy and understanding for her. I was humbled. 

Some of my maturity was forged in the crucible of children’s ministry. Ah, those little cherubs! People assumed that because I was a parent, I was good with children. Or maybe they just thought I should do my part. Curriculum was shoved into my unwilling hands, and I….. I took it. And I…. I used it. To teach children. The Bible. It wasn’t my best work. But, I did it by faith, and I learned a lot. Later, when I began homeschooling my own children, those early experiences in teaching came in mighty handy.

And, by the way, is anyone doing Sunday School for children online? How’s that going? 

Going to church in person forces you to mix with people you wouldn’t choose. You wouldn’t even stumble across them in your normal course of life. They don’t live in your neighborhood. Their jobs are ones you’ve never even heard of. They come from other countries you know nothing about. Their family cultures are foreign to you. The dishes they bring to the church potluck are not the ones you would order from a restaurant menu. Their kids have conditions you’ve never heard of. Now you have to not only learn about their special needs, but accommodate them. In short, you are called to love these people who can be so strange. What an opportunity for expanding your mind and heart!

I did say that relationships can be the worst part of church. I have run across a “wolf” or two in my long career as a churchgoer. This, in itself, would be reason enough to stay home and enjoy a virtual curated church service, safely away from the dangerous people. Except for Jesus. The experiences that I had with these people were painful, but they did not kill me or my faith. Jesus saw me through these tough experiences, and rescued me out of them in time. I got wiser.

Again and again my commitment to “be the church” by helping/being helped by/working with other believers has forced me to become more mature and more dependent on Christ. It also helped me see myself as I really was. Sometimes these people challenged me (by their example or by literally speaking to me) and I had to repent!  These opportunities, and the resulting growth, would not have happened in a “virtual church” environment. Who would have seen me enough to know there were any sins I needed to repent of? Who would have cared enough about me to get out of their own comfort zone and call me out?

I once heard an exercise guru say “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.” People in my own family and in my local church have challenged me the most. They have also forced me to change the most. A lot of my sanctification and dependence on God have been fostered by people I am committed to loving, who behave in ways that make me uncomfortable. I must deal with them in a godly way. I often discover that I don’t have it in me to deal with them in a godly way. I must pray, seek God’s wisdom and power and His loving heart. I must ask Him to make me what I ought to be. To alter the guru’s wisdom slightly, “If it doesn’t push you beyond your own abilities, why do you need Jesus?”

Online church requires NO commitment. Marriage, parenthood, employment, an exercise program, a diet, require commitment. Heck, even a bowling league requires commitment. If you’re not committed, you won’t stick with it when it gets tough. And sticking with it is what brings growth, strength, depth, beauty. Christians call it sanctification. The deeper walk takes you through waist-high mud. You simply can’t continue without the Spirit of Christ. 

So let’s get back to Benj’s proposal, that of ending online church in order to encourage people to participate in in-person church. He says digital natives are not okay now, because they are not equipped to engage with an online sermon (or worship session or prayer time). They are too easily distracted. They have grown accustomed to a more skillfully-rendered visual presentation (“more pleasant and stimulating to watch than the TV and movies of 25 years ago”) and a more professionally-presented message. I would put it this way: they are spoiled by the “candy” online, but what would really be beneficial to their spiritual growth is a bowl of steamed vegetables, chicken and brown rice. But if what Benj is saying is true, they’ve never even tasted the real chicken-and-vegetables. Or if they have had a meal, it’s been more like something from the frozen foods section at Walmart. 

What I’m saying is this: If digital natives are not convinced that an in-person fellowship is an integral aspect of “being the church,” and something they will actually benefit from, we need to convince them to give it a try. And for them to give it a try, it must be available to them. 

So I say, yes, let’s shut down the livestream. But before we do that, let’s onboard our digital natives by casting a vision for what church could be: soul-stirring, uplifting, challenging, satisfying, humbling, maddening, patience-stretching, nurturing, transcendent, paradigm-shattering, mind-blowing, annoying, difficult and delightful. The living body of Christ comprised of flawed-but-being-sanctified humans. In a word, awesome. Not another ZOOM meeting.

Here’s my proposal for local churches:

  1. Do a sermon series on the healthy local church
  2. Present testimonies of those who have experienced God at work in their lives through the local church (through official ministries and informal relationships)
  3. Decide upon, and implement, a churchwide communications system where congregants will get announcements, prayer requests, and other information after the livestream is gone
  4. In order to build authentic relationships, begin small groups to meet regularly wherever it is convenient, perhaps outdoors if people are hesitant to meet indoors
  5. Choose a date for the livestream to discontinue, and begin telling people ASAP

I’ve observed personally that those of us who grew up without the internet tend to have a foundation that the younger generation lacks. For one thing, we can give our entire attention to one thing at a time. For a while, I thought, “Well, Susan, we old folks are just outmoded, that’s all. Our brains, accustomed to monotasking, are unsuited to the current environment and, like land lines, we will all gradually be replaced by something better.” But wait. What if this is our big moment? What if one of the things that seems our greatest handicap –that ability to fully attend– is a great strength? Wouldn’t it be great if we could devote that undivided attention to a person who is hungry for the full, embodied presence of another human?

Benj wrote that we older folks “have a sense of what we used to be able to do, and to push back a bit in reshaping our habits.” What if the young people need us to show them how to “push back,” and help them reshape their own habits (by the grace of God) into life-giving embodied fellowship practices? We digital immigrants have the ability to interact with carbon-based texts; to initiate and carry on in-person and telephone conversations; to close our eyes and listen, just listen. Because we have had to adjust to the rapid evolution of technology, we have confidence in our ability to continue adjusting. We have a sense of our own agency: we were taught, and believed, that we had some control over our lives, that our decisions mattered. Can we use that sense of agency to re-create in-person church so that our young people see its value, live it out themselves in “embodied fellowship practices,” and pass these practices on to their own children?

For more about the guest author, click here. For the conclusion of this series, click here.

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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3 Responses to Guest Post: Why Go Back to Church?

  1. Pingback: Why Go Back to Church? | Susan Soesbe

  2. g says:

    Bravo, Susan! The one reason I see continuing to offer services online is that some people are unable to attend. Some are too distant, others are not well.

  3. Pingback: Performativity, Privacy, Scrutiny: More Concerns about “Online Church” | think hard, think well

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