Analog Church, Jay Y. Kim (Foreword by Scot McKnight). Downers Grove: IVP Praxis, 2020
Summary: An argument for churches maintain real community, participatory worship, the ministry of the word, and communion in an era when it is tempting to “go digital” with the rest of the culture.
This has been an interesting time to come out with a new book. This book takes “interesting” to a new level. It “dropped” on March 31, amid lockdowns and the pivot of business, education, and church to all-digital. In the words of the subtitle, it argues “why we need real people, places, and things in the digital age.” Gathering to sing together in close proximity to other people in an enclosed space, listening to the Bible taught without a mediating screen, sharing the Lord’s table right now seems like an epidemiologist’s nightmare scenario. I can’t recommend it–for now.
Jay Y. Kim’s argument is an important one that our current constraints actually amplify. He commends “whole body” worship where we are not passive observers of a performance but actually join our voices with others. Right now, the most I can do is sing to a computer screen, with my mike muted, to the accompaniment of either an actual singer or a recorded music track. I’ve had desserts online and hundreds of conversations, including some rich interactions, but apart from socially distanced visits with family without hugs and a few socially distanced visits with friends, no real presence other than with my wife. I’ve listened to some great teaching of the scriptures and webinars with thought-provoking content (I’ve even hosted a few) but none of the times of sitting around a table, Bibles open, wrestling with a text and letting it wrestle with us together. I’ve not partaken of the Lord’s Table since lockdowns began. I’ve heard of it being led virtually where we bring our own bread and cup. Our church does threefold communion including footwashing, a “love feast” or meal, and the bread and cup.
Kim, I believe, would argue that despite our increasing creativity with digital technology in this time, we are becoming more aware than ever of its limitations, as much of a mercy as it has been. We grow impatient, we become aware of how shallow many of our interactions are, and we feel our isolation even though we may have thousands of “friends” on our social media accounts. He proposes that the medium is not just a neutral means through which the message comes but that, in McLuhan’s words, “the media is the message.” He contends that the move of churches, even in normal times to an increasingly digitized worship is actually contrary to the spiritual longings of the rising generation’s longing for transcendence rather than relevance, in the gatherings of God’s people unmediated by digital technologies.
I think the misguided attempts of churches to gather during the pandemic, ostensibly for reasons of “religious freedom” actually reflect these longings, and make Kim’s point. “Analog” church does something different than digital. It is incarnational, celebrating the Incarnate Lord. There has been a move away from such churches in recent years, and I’ve heard people say they can “do” church with the device in their pockets. What if one of the strange mercies of this pandemic is to make us so “Zoom-fatigued” that we re-examine our uses of digital technology, and realize the gift of hearing the real voices of the older woman who warbles and the fellow who can’t carry tune in a bucket, but who sing with such joy that we get caught up. What if we rediscover what a pleasant and good thing it is to break bread around a common table?
Kim himself suggests as much in an interview on Front Porch Republic. He acknowledges the ways this technology has made it possible to stay connected when physical gatherings carry danger. He touches on how we may struggle to find our way back to embodied presence with others, when a hug with someone from another household is no longer dangerous. His hope is that we will recognize the gifts of our life together as the church, unmediated by technology and screens, and reconsider our embrace of digital technologies. My hunch is that we will continue to use some of these technologies, having discovered uses that extend beyond the pandemic. But Kim’s book is one worth reading now as we consider what our transition to a post-pandemic new normal will look like. Hopefully it will be a new normal vibrant with warm, incarnate life, as warm as the vinyl some of us never stopped loving and others have newly discovered.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.