I attend church. I read my Bible. Experiencing community in a fellowship of believers is an integral, in fact necessary, facet of the Christian faith. Reading one’s Bible is indispensable; the centuries-old textual encounter with counter-cultural spiritual truths is both a sacred and refining ritual. These habits are common and highly encouraged, but in the Age of Information, these habits might not mean exactly what they used to with the dissemination of personal technology. In the modern church, while technology can often be very enriching, it can also be a means through which the subtle, yet powerful ideology of entertainment can alter our expectations for both Sunday mornings and Christianity as a whole.
American “nondenominational” evangelicalism is a funny sort of denomination. The somewhat loosely defined group of churches can swing anywhere from culturally abrasive fundamentalism to mainstream manifestations of American Christianity, and their attitudes toward ecclesiastical absorption of technology range just as wide. Many modern mega-churches boast large screens that stream video of the pastor (who may be preaching from a different campus) during sermons, and stage lights that rival that of small concert venues (and are sometimes used as such). And as Thom Rainer from The Christian Post points out, some churches who have a mature presence on social media and the internet have a “digital church” congregation that “attend” church online, watch sermons, and connect with a small group. With many of us desensitized to constant technological change, this isn’t anything radically new; but I propose that every technology with which saturate our spiritual lives comes with a cost, and more importantly, a prejudice.
This too isn’t a new idea. Neil Postman, media theorist and humanist cultural critic, writes: “the concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression. Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned. It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged, which is a way of saying that the “truth” is a kind of cultural prejudice” (22-23). These truths, adorned with the biases of a variety of worldviews, are embedded in many forms of media and can subtly alter our attitudes and expectations for information and even religion.
But does my iPad really change the way I think about God? Does watching a sermon online truly pervert the church experience? Not necessarily. That the modern church has recently been inundated with all sorts of technologies has given rise to greater international accessibility, effective church planting strategies, and nearly every millennial being only a few taps away from the Holy Scriptures on a smart phone. This kind of information revolution rivals that of the printing press. But let us quickly remind ourselves that technology has a cost. The newly acquired advantage might be well worth the cost, but it has real costs nevertheless. Let’s explore a few of them:
The replacement of the physical Bible with tablets and smartphones represents a fundamental shift in the way we consume and digest Scripture. These media contain the same text as a physical Bible, but what else does it represent? Matthew Bennett from The Gospel Coalition writes, “Yes, this tablet contains the digital text of the Bible, but visually that tablet represents so much more. It is an icon of social media and a buffet of endless entertainment. Ask my children. The sight of an iPad screams instant access to Sesame Street on Netflix. For the adult, the tablet is an immediate window into his or her social life.” That the whole of the Holy Bible is contained in a single app is impressive, but when such a sacred canon is organized on a device next to Netflix, Instagram, and Pinterest, does it carry the same weight as it once did? When I myself choose to study a passage on my iPhone, I often find myself distracted by incoming texts or notifications, and have a difficult time really focusing on spiritual reflection. When I finish, I can easily scroll through my Twitter feed with the same lightness as I did the Gospel of John. The medium overwhelmed the message.
Replacing the physical Bible has other losses as well. The tablet, while providing us with endless amounts of information and resources, might actually be unintentionally encouraging biblical illiteracy. This claim admittedly appears unreasonable at first, but think about it: when you use your phone or tablet to look up a passage of scripture, are you passing by the other books of the Bible? Does the medium make you made aware of the passage’s immediate context? One of the serious limitations of an electronic format is that fails to re-familiarize someone with surrounding books, or cause the reader to stumble upon a key contextual detail a few verses before the reference. John Bombardo argues that a “truncated approach to texts, with no peripheral vision of what the next page holds or orientation to the linear progression of the entire text, trains the mind’s learning plasticity to think in pragmatic, detached, fragmented ways.” These old-fashioned but necessary Bible-reading skills are fading away, especially for those growing up with tablet Bibles. In addition, the presence of a physical Bible can lead to opportunities to witness that a tablet simply cannot replicate—the sight of an iPad has no spiritual gravitas, after all. When an individual brings his or her Bible on the T, to Starbucks, or on the way to church, it sends a powerful message: “Yes, I am a Christian and I believe this book has significance for who I am and how I live my life.” Isn’t it important to nonverbally communicate this?
The marriage of Christianity and entertainment technology has also radically affected churches and challenged the traditional notions of how church is done. In many sanctuaries in America, enormous screens project large images of the pastor; impressive stage lights accompany advanced sound equipment; production crews scurry around making sure the “show” runs smoothly. Now by all means churches should care about excellence, but at what point does the “show” become something else entirely? In and of themselves, these technological additions can be harmless, yet are symptoms of an underlying trend: churches trying to out-entertain the world. It is becoming increasingly common for churchgoers to float from church to church for various reasons: the youth program is better here, the worship is better there. Membership can quickly become a nebulous concept, and churches begin to not only out-entertain the world, but also neighboring churches. Looking for a church that meets their expectations, congregations have become consumers.
And yet there is an even broader question to be addressed: should Christianity be entertaining at all? In the great classics of literature, Muses often served as the source of inspiration for authors such as Homer or Vergil. Albeit metaphorical, they were springs of elegant epic poetry. To muse is to ponder, to consider, to think.
But what does it mean to be amused?
One could almost conclude that if “muse” denotes thought, “amuse” denotes lack thereof; to be entertained is to turn off our minds and merely satiate our senses. Does the Bible give us liberty as Christians to do this? Absolutely not. Paul writes that believers should not only “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy” (Col. 2:8) but also “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (1 Cor. 10:5). Many believers in college know this well in the classroom, but why isn’t it the same in churches? When Sunday services become merely “sanctified entertainment” for churchgoers, it parallels other media: we turn our devices on, and turn our minds off. Entertainment in and of itself isn’t necessarily harmful or immoral, but when it seeps into other, more reverent spaces, it can all too easily trivialize the sacred.
John Stonestreet asks an important question: “If entertainment makes us silly, does Christian entertainment make us silly Christians?” Do we read Scripture with the same lightness as Twitter? Do we watch video sermons with the same disengagement with which we watch Netflix or YouTube? When we walk into church are we expecting a show or a sermon? Again, these questions aren’t widely true for all Christians, but they are indicative of a subtle yet powerful assumption that Christianity is about experience, and an entertaining one at that. And if Christians go so far as to expect from Christ what they expect from entertainment, Jesus becomes captive to the consumer’s experience, quickly degenerating into a vague, mystical figure who approves of our own wishes. This is a different gospel.
This mindset, while not ubiquitous, can be subtle and powerful. Two primary shifts need to occur in order to reverse this alarming trend. First, the church needs to stop trying out-entertain the world. By all means, Christ calls us to spread his gospel to the ends of the earth, but not on the world’s terms. We can preach the gospel in the world without preaching the gospel of the world. And yes, we do need to thoroughly understand the times in which we live and respond with the kind of cultural insight that most glorifies God, but we can do this without giving into the entertainment game.
Second, congregations need to stop expecting the church to entertain them. Churches wouldn’t rely on smoke machines and impressive light shows if their congregations didn’t dwindle when things got less exciting. Churchgoers responsive to such changes, especially “Millennials,” have fueled a large portion of this recent shift. If we are to hope that churches stop trying to out-perform either culture or other churches, we need to start acting less like consumers and more like faithful servants. Church communities aren’t meant to be taken frivolously; they are integral outlets in which believers can invest their lives, grow their roots down deep, and serve a broken world. We need to preserve this sacred role of the church.
In his insightful and almost prophetic book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman warned, “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.” Technology in the 21st century is designed to meet the needs of the user. Entertainment has gone mobile, and we fill our idle moments with everything from Instagram to Pinterest to Angry Birds. Technology as a medium can be a valuable asset to churches and congregations, but if it reduces Christianity to passivity and trivializes the gospel, we have entered into another kind of religion altogether.