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Shall we sell the church building?

Technological breakthroughs are a mixed blessing. The advent of pre-packaged sandwiches in the 1980s contributed to the erosion of the ‘lunch-hour,’ social media has led to an expanse of paper-thin relationships which have little reality to them, and podcast sermons have reduced the drive of some to come to their local church on a Sunday.

In some ways having sermons online is absolutely brilliant. All I need is WiFi or 4G and I can access my local (or I daresay ‘favourite!’) preachers’ most recent sermon. It is the globalisation of the pulpit and the pew, and in a sense I cannot think of anything more valuable to export and expand. It provides new possibilities for a church such as ours with members who may find themselves crossing time-zones on a regular basis (HSBC’s slogan comes to mind: ‘The World’s Local [Church]’).

But as with all new developments we must be discerning about the downsides. Anyone who once thought that Facebook was the social saviour of the world is now sitting quietly in a corner somewhere feeling rather sheepish (and lonely), and a wholesale uncritical embracing of the sermon podcast will surely take us that same route. No human inventions post-Fall are free from the pollution of the curse.

For the sake of clarity let us take an extreme scenario as our guide, and see where it takes us. Imagine a church which, instead of gathering physically in the pews, logs into a chat/ sung worship/ sermon/ prayer room online from their own homes. The church follows the call-centre lead, and the service is filmed from its webcam hub somewhere where the rent is low. The old building has been sold (for the expansion of Baker and Spice) and St Michael’s now loses half of its name since, in no meaningful way is it now identified with Chester Square; this is ‘St Michael’s, online.’ What have we lost?

In two words, we would have lost one another. What of it? Well – lots of it, as it happens. The songs would be less encouraging, for they would have become a concert centred on performance rather than participation and genuine praise. The cyber-coffee time would be non-existent. These are all obvious points. What about the sermon, however? It is less obvious how our consumption of this aspect would be hindered. Indeed some may argue that it would be enhanced. After all, no distractions from others around us, greater comfort in my own chair, and no awkward eye-contact from the preacher.

Consider what the Scriptures say, because they are surprisingly keen on corporate learning. Most of the Bible is addressed to corporate readership (churches, the people of God, church leaders for the benefit of the churches). Furthermore, spiritual development is corporate in its very make-up. Paul writes of gifts given to the Church to use “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity…” (see also Col 1:28). Consider how often a seminal moments in the OT come hand in hand with the corporate gathering of the people of God around the teaching of the word of God (Moses at Sinai and Moab, Joshua at the entry to the promised land, Ezra at the return from exile). Paul instructs Timothy to, “give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhorting, to teaching” (1 Tim 4:13).

We’re left asking whether their practice was forced on them by technological limitations, or whether there was some wiser design behind it. If they’d had podcast possibilities would Moses have let Israel stay in their tents, and Ezra sold the valuable temple real-estate to invest in an avant guard dotcom start up?

Besides many other advantages, may I suggest one which stands out? It is accountability. A crowd mixed with commands and commitment is a potent mixture because it builds a real accountability into an individual’s commitment. That is surely why we still have coronations, marriages, court hearings and other occasions which turn on the making of important promises, in relatively public contexts. For when our wedding guests were present when Katie and I promised marital fidelity, love and loyalty to one another, they heard us say those things, and I know that they heard them. I became accountable to them (and more widely to society) to keep my promises, and they became accountable to us to help us keep them. Accountability ensures a deeper commitment to keep those commands, and that is a good thing.

The very same principle applies to St Michael’s on a Sunday. When you and I hear a sermon sitting next to one another – a sermon which no doubt contains promises for us to trust and commands for us to obey in Christ – you and I become accountable to one another. For I know that you heard those things and assented to them, and vice versa. And that is a very powerful thing, which the Lord uses to reinforce our commitment to him. It enables the coffee time to become a fruitful foil to the sermon where you and I humbly hold each other to the resolutions we’ve made. Were we to replace the pulpit with the podcast and the commute to church with the log in, we would lose that, and in losing that we would take one of God’s chief means of growing us spiritually away from him – that of corporate accountability.

So what do you say? How about we keep making the effort to physically meet together, and use online sermons only to aid and abet our routine diet of schlepping to the pew in order to hear from the pulpit? Let’s keep the ‘Chester Square’ bit!

With love,

John

 

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