The church (I’m speaking in a broad swath here) has never been on the cutting edge of technology. At least the institution of the church as not. It never really had to.
Once the church became the arm of the Roman Empire, it didn’t need to focus on the movement that got things started – it became in institution. Institutions exist for their own survival, so they only do the things that they need in order to survive. That’s not a critique of the church as a whole – it’s more just a recognition of reality of institutions.
It takes an entrepreneurial attitude and mindset to take in technology. When the church has been focused on the movement of Jesus, it has been more open to incorporating technology. Movements embrace technology because they are more open to change. But it’s hard to have a church that is always changing too – how does that build community?
The reality is that the church needs to be both an institution and a movement in order to do its work – the mission of Jesus. It is on target when the church is an institution that supports a movement. The institution provides the structure, stability, and organization. The movement provides the energy, message, and purpose. Combine the two and you have an unstoppable force that changes the world, systems, and people’s lives.
But there have been times in the church’s past when the institution and the movement have been at odds with each other. And it is in those times that technology plays an important role – usually by advancing the institution against its will, moving it forward.
In the 1500’s, the institution was in opposition to the movement represented by several reformers. Martin Luther was one of the chief reformers of the time. He was a product of the institution, but he was part of the movement of Jesus. And he used the latest technology in order to move the institution in the direction of the movement. He used the printing press – an invention that was created in 1440 – to spread his message. It wasn’t just the printed word though that helped. Another invention that impacted the printing press was created in 1515 – etching. Etching allowed the printers to insert pictures (etches) into their mass produced printings. Combine Luther’s writings and ideas with mass production and etchings, and you have a recipe for a reformation to impact the world.
I say all of this because we’re in the midst of a crisis. Some churches and pastors are being overwhelmed by it. Others are seeing this as an opportunity to try and use amazing technologies to continue to do the mission of Jesus through the church. And there is a whole range in between.
I wonder what the result of this will be on the church as a whole. Will the institution adapt and change, incorporating new technologies that help it do the work of the church? Or will there be such resistance that abandons all efforts to incorporate newer technologies into the church and worship? There isn’t a nice easy answer – but again, a range of answers. But I’m willing to bet this – the churches that adapt and change and incorporate new technology are more likely to thrive on the other side of this than the churches that resist and want to go back to the way everything was done prior to COVID-19. Not because they are filled with bad people.
Living things adapt and change. They take in new things in order to thrive and survive. They excrete things that are not helpful to them any longer. The church is supposed to be the Body of Christ – a living body. Living bodies have movement. They respond to stimuli. The Body of Christ is a movement at its core. And it’s also an institution.
As we come out of this pandemic, we have an opportunity to ask ourselves this question – what are we? Are we an institution that is supported by a movement? Or are we a movement that is supported by an institution? Those are two very different things. One leads to the church thriving in new ways. The other continues a path the church has been on for several decades now – decline and closings. As with most things, there is a range in how that question will be answered.