The Digital Church

From where I sit right now, at this very moment, I'm surrounded by modern technology.

On the desk in front of me are two MP3 players, a digital camera and a positively Neanderthalian calculator. To my right is a portable DVD player sitting atop a device that could, at any moment I wish and with a push of a button, print out these very words on a piece of paper. My printer is also a scanner and copier, if that's your thing.

I have a hand-held alarm clock right here that gives the time in London, Beirut and Osaka simultaneously. A video camera. A cellular telephone.

Oh, there are these things called books surrounding me here in my little home office, to be sure. But the information contained in them is far more easily accessed by an Internet search engine -- also available in the flashest of flashes.

I could "Google" something right now. In fact, I just did -- for the heck of it and just 'cause I could, you understand. There are 40,300 entries for the query "pepperjack cheese," in case you're wondering.

I'm nearly a year into the MP3 player revolution -- details here -- and I couldn't be more happy with it all. I was reluctant at first, if only because it's one of those "everyone is doing it" things and I am naturally suspicious of trends and what-not. Maybe that just means I'm not hip. Oh well.

But what I've discovered is that my MP3 player has become one of the most important tools in my Christian walk. You read that correctly. It's become a tool for worship -- I listen to tons of good contemporary Christian music on it -- and for spiritual instruction. Indeed, I listen to more sermons, teachings and devotionals (via podcasts) than anything else on the little gadget. In many ways, it's revolutionized my devotional life.

By far, there are more podcast downloads of sermons, devotionals, etc. from Mars Hill Church in Seattle than anything else. Indeed, I download PDF files of sermon notes each week, read them and listen to the subsquent sermon on my player. As I was updating some files the other day a thought occurred to me: am I a "virtual" member of Mars Hill Church?

It's an interesting concept to consider, and it highlights the way technology has transformed the Church, i.e., the Body of Christ. For instance, the church in which I grew up has limited technology. If I wanted to listen to sermon I missed, I'd be welcome to ... I'd just have to dig through the tapes of past services. Problem is, I'm not sure I even have anything on which to listen to tapes. That little church doesn't have CDs, let alone MP3s.

Now, there's nothing wrong with that, per se. That church, Bancroft Church of God Mission, is faithful to the mission to which God called it. It faithfully serves those people who attend and the community in which it exists.

It's just that, for that church's generation, the community consists of about 180 regular members and a town of some 300 people in Putnam County, W.Va. For me and my generation, tranformed by modern technology and the information revolution ushered in through new media and the Internet, our community is the world. It's an exciting and terrifying prospect.

In the past week, I've listened to a teaching from Rick Warren (of Saddleback Community Church and "The Purpose Driven Life" fame); a sermon from Bluer Community Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota; a theological roundtable from author Don Miller ("Blue Like Jazz"); several discussions related to Mars Hill's Film and Theology night; and, of course, Mark Driscoll's latest sermon (the first of a series on the Old Testament book of Ruth).

(Oh, by the way, in the interest of full disclosure, Drisoll has been the source of some controversy in the blogosphere lately, speficially about his comments on the Ted Haggard scandal and the role of women in church leadership. The blog that started the whole uproar is here, with follow up entries here, here, here and here. A blog from one of his most vocal critics can be found here.)

In answer to an internal question that sparked my interest, no, I'm not a member of Mars Hill Church. Being a member of a Christian fellowship is just that: it's fellowship. It's more than listening to sermons and studying your Bible. It's a sense of community, and there's no sense of community between me and my MP3 player.

But the issue remains: as technology and interpersonal media continues to shrink our world -- as the theory of six degrees of separation is turned on its ear by MySpace, Internet message boards and Google Earth -- I think we have a moral responsibility to fulfill our mission to the global community and to engage our culture which, like it or not, is a digital, information-seeking society.

It can be scary, yes, and my first response is to move to a cabin somewhere and cook my meals over an open flame. But that's taking a Ted Kaczynski-ish approach, don't you think?

Instead, our role should be to engage the culture head on, and, like Paul in Athens, use it to change the world for Christ.

(copyright 2006, andrew j. beckner. all rights under copyright reserved)