I’ve been driving around listening to the audio version of Thomas Friedman’s book, The World Is Flat. The audio version runs to twenty CDs or so, and the book is quite thick. But it is a surprisingly engaging and personal account of the process of globalization. I haven’t yet finished the book. But it seems to be, on the whole, a hopeful book, though Friedman is quite clear about the challenges and downsides of the process. It’s a book that everyone except those who have retired from life can find relevant to their own personal situation and to their deeper understanding of what’s happening all around them in almost every sphere of life. I’m sure I’ll return to the book in this blog as I continue through it. But for now, I want to reflect on an interesting juxtaposition of reading that has stimulated my thinking about the meaning of the flattening and inter-connectivity of the world as it relates to the ministry and to the Church.
One of the strategies Friedman identifies for helping individuals cope with the changes that global inter-connectivity brings about — outsourcing, “off shoring” , fungibility of labor, and such things — is to become what he refers to as an “untouchable.” By this term he isn’t speaking of the Hindu caste system, but rather he means in effect to engage in a type of work that cannot be outsources or “off shored.” And one of the simplest ways to do that is to do a kind of work that is anchored in a particular location. He identifies a wide variety of types of work that are anchored in that way. Some are high skill, high pay types of job, some are low skill, low pay. He points to such people as dentist and barbers, maids and brain surgeons, plumbers, electricians, and law enforcement officers. Naturally, as I listened to his list, I included pastors in it. He didn’t, nor would I have expected him to. But it seemed obvious to me that pastoring is a type of work that is anchored in a particular place and cannot be outsource to another place. Pastoring is a high touch, context specific kind of work, right? Just as I cannot get my hair cut on-line by a barber in New Dehli and I cannot have my leaking toilet repaired over the web by a plumber in a suburb of Beijing, neither could I be pastored on-line over the internet from some far distant location. So I thought, though there was a nagging hint of a doubt as I thought it.
Then I was reminded of where my hint of a doubt came from. Just last evening I was reading a recent special issue of Outreach magazine. It was their annual issue on “The Largest and Fastest Growing Church’s in America.” I have rather conflicted feelings about this issue of an otherwise generally helpful magazine. The smallest church on that list of 100 largest churches in America has an average weekly attendance of 5,634. The largest of the group, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas has an average weekly attendance of 43,500. I, as the pastor of a church with an average weekly attendance of about 135, find it to be an enormously complex process of translation to figure out how to make use of what I read about Bill Hybel and Willow Creek Community Church or Ed Young and the Fellowship Church of Grapevine, Texas. (One thing I should apparently learn is that Bill Hybels and I need to get our own personal web sites if we want to run with the big boys . . . and girls. Victoria Osteen also has her own person web site.)
But one interesting new development is hinted at by the fact that at least five of the church’s on the list of 100 have web sites which end in “.tv”. That world wide web url designation is one that has been adopted primarily for use by producers of content for television, e.g., television stations, satellite television broadcasters, and cable television companies. There have been religious broadcasters since the very advent of radio and television. That religious broadcasters should establish a web presence with a url ending in .tv is not surprising. But the organizations on the Outreach 100 are churches. Here again, churches have broadcast their services since Christmas Eve of 1946. But these churches are not merely alluding to the broadcast of their worship services in the .tv url. They are not merely referring to the live streaming of their services on the web. They are attempting to use the interactive, inter-connectivity of the world wide web to create virtual church communities on-line. This is a new and really not very surprising development in church-life. But it certainly undermines my believe that pastoring cannot be outsourced.
I’ve looked at a few of these on-line church communities, and I have to say there are some wonderfully appealing and beneficial aspects to this newly developing way of reaching out to and interacting with others from all over the world around the issues and experience of the Christian faith. These on-line communities of faith will go a long way toward breaking the oppressive isolation of Christians in such places as Pakistan, China, and Saudi Arabia and also the self-imposed isolation of Christians in such places as Alabama, Iowa, and Idaho. That sort of opening up can only be positive for the life of Christians everywhere.
But here’s the tough question. Can these on-line communities of faith be real churches? They may be as close as you can get if you are a Christian living in Morocco or northern Sudan. But can they substitute acceptably for the community of flesh and blood human beings who meet regularly face to face down the street? These are some fascinating questions about the very nature of the Church and the very nature of what it means to be a human being in community with other human beings.
For decades some people have opted to stay home on Sunday’s and watch one or several worship services on television. This, they claim, is just as good as going to some local congregation’s worship service. To be sure, the preaching will be more polished and the music more professional. But confining your church involvement to broadcast televisions has always been vulnerable to the charge that the genuine Christian life requires personal interaction with other people, a getting to know other followers of Jesus and to be known by them. That’s not really possible with the one-way communication of broadcast television.
But with the rise of interactive on-line communities such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter interaction with other people in a community can take place without those people being in the same place. So, then, is virtual interactivity across electronic networks comparable to the face to face, flesh and blood interaction of a localized church community? Can a virtual community of this sort fully engage embodied human beings? Or does the embodied nature of human existence require physical presence for full-orbed human relationship and community?
For my own vocational musings, is it possible to be a faithful pastor to someone using only virtual, digital means? Can I faithfully, fully, and effectively pastor a person from across the country or even from across the globe using purely virtual, digital means such as text messaging, Facebook, and a web cam? Can I really nurture the faith of a person, accompanying them through the triumphs and catastrophes of life without living with them in a particular place and culture? I suppose it’s obvious that I have my doubts.
But I will make two further points. First, I would note that the sense in which Joel Osteen is the pastor of Lakewood Church (43,500 in average weekly attendance) and the sense in which I am the pastor of North Presbyterian Church (135 in average weekly attendance) are probably so radically different as to have almost nothing in common with each other. What kind of pastoral relationship can Joel Osteen have with those 16,000 people sitting in the Lakewood Church’s “sanctuary” at any given worship service? How different is that relationship really from a virtual, on-line pastor? Now, presumably the real, retail pastoral work at Lakewood Church is done by staff members much farther down the staffing chart. But in the end, how different is that from someone staying home on Sundays to watch Robert Schuller on television, and then calling me to the hospital when their spouse has a heart attack or asking for my help when their teenage daughter gets pregnant?
My final point is this. I find myself wondering whether there may not be a lot of people who kind of like certain aspects of Christianity and the benefits that many church programs provide, especially for their children and teenagers, but who really aren’t that sure they want a faithful and determined pastor in their lives. The truth is that a really good, determined pastor can feel a bit like a loose cannon in your life. They will comfort you in times of crisis, but they will also hold you accountable for the way you live your life. They will declare to you the good news of God’s grace. But they may also call you give up your life for Jesus. When Joel Osteen calls me to come and die for Christ — if in fact Joel does do that — I can just switch off the television and go play a refreshing round of golf. Or I can rise from my place in section 8, row EE, seat 47 and go enjoy a lovely brunch, while reading the comic section of the Houston Chronicle.
I believe that being called to come and die for Christ by a man (or woman) who knows you by name, who knows you family, who knows where you work, what kind of car you drive, where you went on vacation last summer, what you do in your spare time, how often you involve yourself in ministry and service, and all sorts of other things about you — I believe that is a very different pastoral experience from anything you might find in an on-line church-like community. But I’m not sure whether that’s a selling point for the flesh and blood local pastor or for the on-line church-like community.
© 2009 Gary A. Chorpenning