Critiquing the UMC Bureau of Communication

5 ways to satiate tech savvy people in your church

Ref: http://www.umcom.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=mrLZJ9PFKmG&b=6084857&ct=8060771&notoc=1

The complaints to follow against the United Methodist organization are not unique to them. They just happen to recently post this item which has me thinking. Or complaining. Or whining. Whatever you want to call it, I’m calling them out on it. What follows are excerpts from the post (linked above) on the United Methodists Communication web site (umcom.org).

Worshipping never has been limited to sitting in a pew. Connecting to God happens everywhere—kneeling before bedtime, sitting with those who are ill, asking quietly for help before a big test.

Okay. I’m good with that. Too bad it didn’t stop there.

Now, technology is exponentially increasing ways to engage in worship outside the traditional service. Creating these for tech savvy adults and youth also may let you reach an audience completely new to your church. [emphasis added]

By the second paragraph I am already annoyed. No. No. Let me rephrase that: No. God is Spirit and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and Truth (Jn 4:24). Ways of communicating with each other have increased. Ways to worship have never changed. We can do any number of things as part the external act of worship. Scripture suggests kneeling, laying prostrate, bowing, and so forth. The word “worship” has unfortunately come to mean something else in contemporary churches. We have kept the word calling our Sunday morning ritual a “worship” service, but changed its meaning to the point that worship is any number of things, but seldom is it actually worship. Technology can do a lot, but it can at best serve as no more than an aid to a poor facsimile of authentic worship.

Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less active in organized religion than their older counterparts, according to the most recent Pew Forum on Religious and Personal Life research. What may surprise you is these Millennials consider themselves traditional in their religious beliefs.

There are other polls, arguably better at mining the facts, which demonstrate that we are losing our youth before they even hit high school. The reasons they reject traditional church vary, but the biggest reasons are that faith is undermined by a combination of evolutionary doctrine taught in public education and popular media, hypocrisy in organized religion, and the absence of authentic spiritual power and doctrinal truth in traditional church settings. Compromise carries a certain stench you can smell equally well whether you are atheist, agnostic, or devotedly pious.

And now the 5 ways to satiate tech savvy people in your church:

1.  Bible reading on the go. YouVersion , a LifeChurch.tv offshoot, hosts an online Bible and community. It is free and allows users to take the Bible on the go with multiple mobile applications, languages and translations. YouVersion also offers more than 20 reading plans that differ in translation, Scripture length, frequency of delivery and topic focus. Readers choose a plans that fit their schedules and lifestyles. For example, readers can pick a translation they like, such as “The Message,” then choose a reading plan from the Gospels that delivers one chapter, twice a day. The entire Bible (multiple Bibles if you account for translations) can fit into a pocket!

I love online biblical resources. They are great study helps. In principle this is least objectionable of the points at hand. I like devotionals, too. But this is not really about having a devotional time or authentic bible study. When I read the fine print, I see they are promoting an anything goes approach to bible reading. Is that a bad thing? Well, it depends on purpose. Their approach isn’t about discipleship, it’s about dumbing down God’s word. It suggests there is wisdom in choosing whatever translation is easiest to read and requires the least critical thought. Let’s not study scripture, let’s get a sip here and there like it’s a whiskey flask we pull out in a quiet moment. Perhaps I’m being overly judgmental here, but that’s the mental image I get reading this point.

2.  Online prayer requests. Forget online shopping! How about online prayer requests?

Let us take gossip to a whole new level, shall we. I realize that online is “just another communication medium” for people, but when we put things in writing in a public forum it becomes something else. I joined a prayer request group on Facebook. The group keeps getting bigger. People are asking for prayer for all sorts of things that I don’t want to know about. I should not be aware of some of what people put out there. I have no desire to use that information, but when you post something in a public forum, anyone can take that info and use it in very very bad ways. I have come to loathe this format. Sometimes a public request is fine, but some things should never be public. Some people can’t tell the difference. I realize this can happen with prayer chains in church bulletins and the like, too, but there’s no governor watching what gets posted in a public forum. The worst thing someone can do is post a prayer request for someone else without their permission, thus making what may be a very private matter public. I think you get the idea.

3.  Twitter inside and out. Share your Twitter account info on your Web site, in your church bulletin and anywhere else you post your Web address. Share news and inspiration with your followers throughout the week. Ask the tech savvy to help create a Twitter worship service. If you have multiple types of services, this would work well at the one attended by those most interested in nontraditional worship. Prior to the service, have the tech savvy folks help others set up Twitter accounts and sign up to follow your church. On Twitter Sunday, ask everyone to bring their laptops or smart phones (ensure wireless access is available and can accommodate larger demand than normal). Churchgoers can participate in the service—answering questions posted by the worship leader, sharing their thoughts, and reading them posted on the screen or a wall. Even the stay-at-home worshippers could participate via Twitter and if possible, a live webcast of the service.

Let’s promote ourselves, shall we. Okay, maybe this isn’t all evil. As a blogger I value site traffic. I use Twitter and Facebook to promote my own blog. Frankly I feel like a hypocrite when I say this, but when a church goes to promoting itself or a ministry goes to advertising, it is a short trip from inviting the lost to hear the gospel to telling the world how great you are and why you need to come listen to me. I often question myself, my motivation, my goals, and my accomplishments online. But there’s a line. I don’t know if I cross it or not, to be honest, but when I see that big red UMC logo my guts churn. It makes me really think I should consider scrubbing myself out of the online community altogether. I may yet. Another completely different aspect of this, and equally important, is promoting people to connect electronically instead of personally. Jesus was all about human contact, not email. He never sent a letter. He touched people. He confronted them. He looked in their eyes and he was brutally honest. The apostles wrote letters, and the gospel accounts, but that was to unify, keep pure and protect the message already delivered personally. If you and I could have a cup of our favorite beverage together, laugh, pray together, hug, and see each others eyes when we speak this conversation would be very different, I think. I realize the printing press probably had a more profound effect on the spread of the gospel than the electronic age. For centuries now people have been able to own their own private bibles translated into their own language. Kindles and i-phones have only been around a few years. Still, we need to guard the communion of saints. The evil one prowls like a lion seeking the weak to devour. Laziness results in weakness which results in target on your soul.

4. Sermons go video.Videoteaching.com offers a plethora of online resources to share Christian-oriented messages. We found searching with a few keywords was not as effective as reviewing the speaker lists and title options. A free service, Videoteaching.com, touts itself as a way to help churches bring in top speakers or guest preachers. In addition, it also suggests using the service to give pastors a break—to free them occasionally to focus on other church-related ministries or to let them take a vacation, knowing an inspirational minister (in video form) will be there.

As James said, be a doer, not a hearer only. There’s a time for every season. There’s also another excuse to forgo the communion of saints. It’s all about what I can get, not what I can give. I can get from a video, but I can’t give of myself to another soul by sitting in front of a TV. Many of us go to church for the wrong reasons. If we went to give, instead of get, then the idea of being a watcher instead of a doer would feel as absurd as it sounds when you see it laid out. I understand that some people can’t or won’t gather with other believers in an organized group setting. That’s not the real problem. The problem is the lie we tell ourselves. We watch a half-hour video and feel like we’ve got our dose of religion for the week and now we are free to go live our pagan lives the other 167.5 hours of the week. While technology really has nothing to do with the root cause of this problem, it can easily compound the problem by making it even easier to pretend we have worshipped when we watch a sermon on video. As for using videos within a Sunday service, there are times when it may serve as a useful tool to demonstrate a point, but the idea of replacing a preacher with a video seems to me so dehumanizing.

5.  Movie making. Create your own videos and movies to involve all facets of technology—sound, videography and editing. Inexpensive, high-quality video cameras, such as the Flip, enable your church to create films. Perhaps a ministry wants to share its story or the church is hosting an event. Think about how video could tell those stories and market the activity. Then grab the tech savvy and start filming. [There is] easy-to-use software to edit and enhance video for posting on YouTube and your Web site, playing during a service or an event, and sharing with friends and families. A picture (or video) can make a much bigger impact than words alone.

Tozer would have a field day with this one. In fact, he wrote quite a bit and preached heavily on the big fat lie of Christian entertainment. Again, there’s a time and place for everything, but its a short step. The word “amuse” is formed from the prefix “a” and the root word “muse”. Muse means to think. “A” means not or non. To be amused means to take your mind off or to not think.

I think there is a much bigger problem here, particularly well illustrated in the last point where the author speaks of the value of marketing. Who are what is being marketed? Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings. Nowhere in scripture have I ever found a case of what modern marketing executives would consider good salesmanship – at least not by Jesus. Most modern marketers, were they to study scripture, would say Jesus was the worst salesman in human history. He told people to sell everything and go live in poverty. He told people they were better off being humble. He told the simple people they were better off than the well educated people. More to the point, he told his followers to pick up their cross and embrace their own persecution, suffering and crucifixion. He did speak with profound authority and cunning, but the goal of modern marketing is to make the customer feel like they are the authority, that they are the smart one. No one likes being told they are a sinner, separated from God and dying. No one wants to hear they are being set free only to be a different kind of slave. When Christians do approach the truth in advertising, they still tend to cherry-pick from among Paul’s words and avoid the stickier parts of scripture. Be free, they say. Say a prayer and you’re good to go. Make a decision. How often do you hear the words of Christ: “go and sin no more” or “repent, for the kindom of God is at hand.” How often do you hear that you must forgive to be forgiven? When we white-wash the gospel message to make it more palatable we rob it of power, but worse we lead the tender spiritual newborns of our Savior down a false path toward an abyss. How can we lead if we are blind?

On the surface there seems little wrong with any one of the five points suggested. But when you look deeper, when you consider the purpose of the message, perhaps you will wonder as I do what is the motivation. Does it promote selfishness, a human answer over Jesus, disconnectedness, and dumbing and numbing ourselves? If so, beware. If not, then perhaps I am sorely wrong. God forgive me if I led anyone astray in my critique. But if you are convicted as I was then, as Jesus said, be wise as serpents yet innocent as doves.

Thanks go to RamblingsFromRedRose for bringing this item to my attention.

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About Lance Ponder

Christian author of "Ask James one"; public speaker; husband and father. Available to speak on Creation and the Gospel.
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7 Responses to Critiquing the UMC Bureau of Communication

  1. Todd Beal says:

    Lance, this post is the first authoritative and comprehensive critique I have come across for replacing traditional worship with technologically-facilitated physically absent “worship”. It is interesting to me how you address the warning flags without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I am so glad that you see technology not as the culprit but instead as the medium for spiritual laziness. We need to use technology to augment in-person worship, not replace it.

    I agree; we live in a smorgasbord society in which everything is conveniently within arms reach, customized to our personal gluttony, including church. I firmly believe that worshipping Jesus in the physical presence of fellow believers is very beneficial to our spiritual well being. I believe, however, that some individuals personally require more of this type of worship while others require less.

    For many years, I experienced severe panic attacks in the presence of any other human, including my family. I tried to make the best of it but despite my efforts I just could not connect to anyone in the person. I was so relieved when I found truth-speaking TV preachers through whom I could gain further Biblical insight. I would get so angry when someone would tell me, “You need to be in church; I sure wish you would find a good church to attend; Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together; etc, etc.” My panic attacks were so severe that the only relief I got was in the privacy of my own home exercising my mind. Truly, if I were in church during those years, my mind and heart would not possibly have grasped what it did away from people. For this reason I am so thankful that technology exists as it does today. But, I do not agree with abstaining from physically present worship, believer with fellow believer, just because it is more convenient.

    With that said, I really appreciate your thoroughness in addressing this spiritual epidemic.

    • Lance Ponder says:

      I can’t thank you enough for this review. Certainly there are legitimate reasons for employing technologies, but as you said it comes down to purpose. Our Lord is concerned not with our knowledge or our results. He is concerned with our heart and our obedience. Technology is generally a benefactor of knowledge and results. Yet, I understand exactly where you are coming from. I do not mean to exclude anyone or to be judgmental and I am thankful you were able to see that.

  2. Norm Haslop says:

    Lance, I do think your concern with this is warranted. In the first place, the technologically savvy don’t need much coaching in order to think of ways to advance technology’s role in society. They can probably think of dozens more possibilities in a second.
    Your concern about the depersonalization of the gospel points out the real flaw here. God is all about personal relationship, both with Him and with others of the family. Also, we are told to go into all the world and make disciples. Sending yet another email is hardly the same. When someone takes the time and effort to help and counsel, to heal or just BE there, that can transmit the love of Jesus and the constraint that His love exerts on believers. As a side note, I can compare this to the modern way of “doing” medicine. Doctors automatically order a battery of tests pertaining to diagnosis of our complaints, read the results, and order yet another person to come in and tell you that you are OK. The doctor who first looks at you and listens carefully and TOUCHES you can tell a whole lot more about your problem than most tests ever can. Tests ordered on the basis of personal examination not only can focus more directly on the cause, but the doctor will be more involved with accurate diagnosis.
    This probably seems to be off the subject, but I think we can connect the two instances of substituting technology for personal contact and make the application to the obvious mistake in this “joyful” announcement of “updating” our communication with God and the world….and this is only addressing one of your observations on the communique.

  3. 66books365 says:

    Oh goodness, this sums up my days! I watch daily Christian programming (online), toggle between different translations at Biblegateway, do FB and Twitter (the latter not so much b/c I don’t have time to keep up with that), and am part of an electronic community group studying the Bible. =) In fact, that group got started as a result of a video sermon about “Bible reading in a year” my church showed the congregation one night. And I’m an “older counterpart.”

    I know you’re not saying technology is bad, but if it weren’t for that … well, I know where I was: frustrated, lonely, disconnected. IRL I couldn’t fit in a community group b/c of a husband who wasn’t interested in one and two small kids I homeschool and tote everywhere (the blog became my after hours way of connecting with other Christians); several neighbors are Christians, but seem to be quite uncomfortable whenever I mention prayer or Jesus outside of church doors.

    I do appreciate what technology has done. In real life/in real time, I was having difficulty connecting with Christians: people were too busy to invest physical presence and time–and during that face-to-face time, I sensed an apprehension of getting beyond pleasantries. I don’t think it’s necessarily the 30-minute program we watch, the Sunday sermon we listen to, the Christian radio throughout the day, the Christian blogs we read (or write)–it most definitely is the condition of our hearts. I have often wondered as I look around me in a neighborhood that is significantly Christian, how it is we live such disconnected, exclusive, self-centered lives. After fruitless attempts to engage, I’ve had to “move out” of this environment to find deeper friendships, surprisingly made up of unbelievers. And it’s been through that that I’ve seen Christ in action.

    A local radio station’s website has a prayer link; I haven’t clicked it, but have really wanted to. I wouldn’t want to see/participate in the gossipy, TMI stuff … but sometimes I have TMI I want to share and have someone pray for me w/out having to share my deepest battles with the lady across the street … (been there, not sure I want to do that again!).

    Sorry, I went off topic a bit. I think the problem is apathy to the message and its application. Is it possible technology contributes to it? Maybe, but I think people do a good enough job on their own. Do we cling to the verses that tell us we’ll receive, and block out the parts that require action from us? Do we feel good when we drop in dollars in the bucket to build a well in Africa, but can’t be bothered to approach someone at a playground because we don’t like they way they look? Or invest time in a next-door neighbor because we feel uncomfortable hearing their hurt? Not a tech issue, but certainly a heart one.

    I do think it’s ok for the church to change its approach to relating to a changing culture, as long as the message isn’t compromised. And I share your frustrations. There is a lot of getting and not giving going on. I scratch my head over that a lot. A spiritual epidemic indeed! I am changed and encouraged by your post: certainly to be present in others’ lives (URL or IRL).

    • Lance Ponder says:

      One of my very closest friends is a person I met online through a blog. In our first exchange we strongly disagreed on something. I don’t have any idea what it was about, but I remember it was a heated debate. Yet there was intellectual honesty, loving correction, and repentance by the end. We learned to trust one another to be honest without being judgmental or vitriolic. In time we began communicating by phone and now I have traveled twice to visit the family and they live several hundred miles away. I have about 4 or 5 relatively close friendships that were born in the blogsphere. I can totally appreciate what you’re saying. My friend has had strikingly similar things to say. I certainly do not condemn the medium. The heart of my criticism is not meant to be the technology, but rather a much deeper cancer infecting organized religion at large. You’ve hit upon a piece of that. If forced to summarize, my rant is really about individuals and the church marketing itself rather than obeying and witnessing Jesus. The less connected we become, the easier it is to be selfish – whether as individuals or as splinted groups in the form of individual churches. I sense your pain. I hope this explanation helps.

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