HOW WILL THE CHURCH COPE WITH THE BRAVE NEW WORLD?
We live in an interesting age. We have lived quiet lives without a lot of government interference. Suddenly drones are flying everywhere and threaten to remove all of our privacy. The police are using devices like the Stingray to listen to our cell phone calls. (http://tinyurl.com/lwhbsa9) And who knows what the NSA can do to us. We even have devices that can see through walls. (http://tinyurl.com/ojj5rku) We are truly living in a brave new world.
My personal grand conspiracy theory is that social engineers have been trying to remake our American society. Perhaps there is no grand conspiracy but the effects seem to be the same. We are being reduced to the lowest common denominator, creatures that are concerned with food, sex, and entertainment. This means that institutions like family and religion and even government are either secondary or of no consequence at all.
What would be the purpose of such a social construct? We humans would be reduced to consumers and producers. We would consume all the latest products with some kind of adequate wage and then produce products so a small handful super rich people can control most of our lives. It is a picture of a cycle of boredom, and meaninglessness lives who are more like rats on a treadmill. In fact, this vision of life seems to be our current culture!
While the afore mentioned vision may not sound all that appealing, technology may have overtaken my paranoid dream. The new threat is artificial intelligence and robotics. Elon Musk, the founder of Pay Pal, SpaceX and Telsa Motors; Stephen Hawkings, the astrophysicist and cosmologist; and Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, among others have warned about the dangers of Artificial Intelligence, also known as AI. (http://tinyurl.com/mfbmvvz)
We can see one of the effects of this technological revolution currently at work. It is the use of robots to replace the human worker. The use of robots has produced superior automobiles, but the result is the reduction of the human work force. The vision of the future is the elimination of most human workers. Even houses can now be 3D printed. (http://tinyurl.com/ohgb4vp) Hamburgers can now be custom ground, prepared, cooked, and served by robots. Floors can be cleaned by robots. With the increasing cost of labor, I can see a lot of low wage jobs being manned by robots and humans left on the sidelines.
What happens when humanity is no longer needed to produce goods and services? One writer suggested that most people would occupy their time with drugs and video games, most likely provided by the government. (http://tinyurl.com/nzvnlbn) Of course, this begs the question, how will the government afford to clothe, house, feed, drug and entertain the masses?
The darker vision of the future can be found in the writings of Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. It is the vision of many that man and machine will merge. We will interface the human mind with a computer. Humanity will transcend the limits of biology and will live forever, know all things, essentially become God. That is the positive vision of said interface. The darker side is that humans become the slave of a computer system much like the movie The Matrix. In fact almost all of these scenarios have been explored in novels and movies and the end result is not pretty. The movie, Transcendence, starring Johnny Depp, begins with the amazing abilities available to humanity when the human mind is liberated by being united with computer hardware. The movie ends exposing the flaws of human nature. The same dark forces that bring so much tragedy to humanity in our analog life become reality in the digital world as well. Original sin follows us wherever we go.
As a fairly tech savvy pastor, my question is how will the church cope in such an environment? I believe in the judicious use of technology in church, but I do not think technology offers a lot of advantages over our past analog church. I am afraid that our current technology only conditions us for the dark side of technology. Technology appears to be threatening personhood. If you are on social media, I am sure you have seen some of the social contortions that people experience. I have been personally slandered on Facebook. I have a pastor friend who had a member to go on Facebook to proclaim this pastor’s flaws because he said something in a sermon that was not liked. While Facebook is great for connecting with old friends, it also has its dark side. It can highlight social isolation when people realize that they live virtually and never have a lot of personal social contact. Facebook users can become envious of others. It can cause anxiety and even depression. (http://tinyurl.com/lxff6rw) There are other studies that show negative effects on self-esteem, study habits of students, and the effect on general emotions.
Certainly pastoral care can help people deal with their emotions. Bible study can tell us how to live a Christian life in the presence of those who really would like to see us fail. But how do we address the depersonalizing technology that is now being developed and employed in our society?
Christians have always walked in two worlds. We are citizens of our particular nation and our culture. We dress as people of this world. Hair style, clothing, food, entertainment, and transportation are driven by culture and Christians have, for the most part, successfully conformed to these things. But Christians are also members of the Kingdom of God. It is something that we are part of and yet most of it is yet to come.
Currently we seem to be losing the battle of Christian distinction in a world that really is, at best, apathetic toward the things of God. Increasingly, the world is becoming anti-church if not anti-Christian. In this environment, I see no one interested in Christian values or the Christian message. All of the technological advances are, in fact, seeking to replace God with digital and material transcendence. Even biology is seeking ways to extend human life by hundreds of years. It is very reminiscent of Genesis 11 when man tries to build a tower to the heavens and thus become like God. How does the church thrive in this environment?
Strangely enough, I think part of the answer can be found in the persecuted church. Most western Christians have never heard of the Assyrian Church or the Coptic Church or one of the many forms of the Orthodox Church. But these churches are in the news daily because they are being persecuted by Muslim terrorists. What shocks us is that churches that date back to the fourth century are being destroyed by ISIS. We in the west sometimes think we own Christianity. It shocks us to learn that Christianity arrived in Persia and in Africa and in Egypt and Asia, probably in the first century A.D. and Christian churches and communities have been there continuously since that time!
Amazingly, as we watch the Middle Eastern Christians being burned to death, being decapitated, being crucified, they do so with the confession of Christ on their lips. Their communities are proud (in the best sense of the word) of their families who die such horrible deaths as witnesses to Christ. It is truly amazing to see such joy expressed in the very worst circumstances. These are our modern heroes of the faith.
The church in the west is still in its infancy compared to the ancient churches in the Middle East and Asia that have existed for two thousand years and endured intense persecution. I believe we can learn so much from them as we face a rapidly changing technological culture that threatens our humanity.
These ancient churches have lived in unfriendly societies for hundreds of years. They have fit in as much as possible but there is a line which they do not cross. I know that their sub culture included family pressure and even political pressure to call themselves Christian. My wife and I once hosted some exchange students from the University of New Orleans. One was a Muslim from Pakistan and the other was a Christian from Lebanon. The Christian was quick to point out that he was a Christian but it was more of a political identity, not a spiritual one. So, I am sure some of that exists. But those, who are dying for their faith and their families, seem to go out of their way to confess Christ to the world. I do not think that Christians have survived nearly two millennia of persecution by claiming political labels. Real faith in Christ must be what causes them to, not only survive, but to thrive.
As our technology encroaches on our humanity, there will come a time when the church cannot embrace that technology. As appealing as it might be to hook a cable into our brains and download all theological studies into our brains, it could also be used to erase all theological knowledge as well. There comes a time when Christians must draw a line and say we will not go there. If it means living as strangers in our own community, we have to draw that line.
This is far more difficult than it seems. We already have a problem with Christians following the sexual and societal cultural practices of western culture. How could we resist something so threatening as the loss of humanity, the possible reprogramming by a programmer or our lives being governed by AI? It will require the kind of commitment to Christ that is being expressed by the persecuted church.
Some things will have to change. The megachurch will have to change. Bigger is not always better, especially when you consider the amount of money that is needed to maintain facilities and the never-ending upgrade spent to stay on the cutting edge. I recently heard of a Megachurch that is raising more than seven million dollars to install comfortable theater type seats and new electronic gadgets. Is that really a good use of God’s money? What could be done to expand the kingdom of God with seven million dollars? Instead the money is being spent so they will have something more comfortable to sit on for one hour a week.
We are not prepared for the future because we are not helping our members to deepen their faith. We act like we have unlimited resources to spend of material things instead of spending it on the important things. Our current Christian culture reminds me of Paul’s words. Writing to Christians who should have been mature but were still acting like infants:
For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw– each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1Co 3:11-15 ESV)
The western church has been immature in thinking that materialism is the solution to reaching the world. But, that has not happened. The Megachurch thrives by sucking up members from smaller churches. Most of the growth in the Megachurches do not come from making new Christians but taking Christians from other churches. This places the smaller church in danger and will ultimately negatively affect the Megachurch because there will always be a need for more materialistic effects to keep people interested.
There is a difference between those who are committed to Christ and those who are committed to the experience of the megachurch. When anti-Christian cultural pressure becomes persistent, those who are attracted to the energy and experience of the Megachurch will abandon the church. I am not predicting the fall of the Megachurch but it faces the very same pressure as the small church. It is clear that we are living in a time of declining church attendance and declining church influence in society. Many Megachurches see this coming, along with the monetary pressure to keep paying the bills, and their solution is smaller satellite churches. Smaller churches, ironically, grow faster than large churches. The megachurch gets the benefits of the satellite growth and still control the money that comes in through them. I believe this is a band aid approach and it will not last long.
It is time that we look to the persecuted church to understand how we can continue to live in an undesirable culture. If the admonition of Scripture is not enough to give us a sober minded outlook toward spiritual growth and commitment, I suspect that anti-church culture will. Or, it will at least weed out the “sheep from the goats.”
Of course nothing may change in our society. But it seems to me that technology has a way of imposing itself on us whether we want it or not. The prophet Amos warned Israel that conformity to their worldly culture would lead to destruction. The same is true for us. We must return to the basics of the Christian faith with spiritual formation as the end goal of every Christian. The persecuted church helps us to understand some basic facts that we need to rediscover about Christianity.
- We are called to make disciples and not converts. Conversions can be nothing more than a mental assent. A disciple is one who sits at the feet of Jesus and learns from him and seriously commits to him.
- We must address biblical illiteracy among church members. The average Christian does not know what the Bible says.
- We need to teach basic doctrine to our members. Christians need an overarching world view that helps them see the actions of God through the ages and understand that the sovereign God is control of history.
- Christians need to be taught how to defend their faith. We need to teach them how to deal with their own doubts. Doubt is a human trait and Christians with doubt should be able to deal with in a compassionate atmosphere and with teaching that answers their question and clarifies issues. Christians should be taught how to defend their beliefs when challenged by others.
- Christians need to be taught how to develop their prayer life and how to grow in their relationship to Christ.
- The church needs to be a citadel where the believer can retreat from the world and be fed, strengthen and rested so that they will have the strength to live in the secular world.
- We need to regain the majesty of worship. We do not worship our good buddy in the sky. We worship the Almighty God, the creator of heaven and earth. Worship should be commensurate with the glory of God. Thus worship needs to focus on God and not on the worshiper.
- Finally, we must risk a retreating membership by calling upon people to be true to their faith. Our baptism reminds us that we have died with Christ and we have been buried with him and we are raised with him. We no longer belong to the world. We belong to Christ. Our belongingness is that one thing that separates us from the world. And we must insist that we are called to be untied with Christ and not the world. Such preaching will be offensive to some. But that is the risk that must be taken if we are to preach to a church that is living with growing social pressure.
How does the church cope with this brave new world? We learn from the persecuted church. We cope by being faithful to Christ, by returning to the basics of our faith, and by being strong and risk living as a bold Christian in a non-christian world. We remember the ancient encouragement of St. Paul, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1Co 15:58-16:1 ESV)