Church Next: Why the Face-to-Face Church Will Survive!

By Neil Earle

“Church as we’ve known it is over,” claims Pastor Dave Adamson, writing for a cable news commentary.

Rather than the location-centric model – “come and meet with us, here’s our address” – Adamson pleads with pastors to accept the fact of the next phase of the digital church. Alert churches have seen the need to develop online platforms to offer diverse channels for seekers to experience worship but now once again the worm has turned.

Rebooting Church?

Now the word is “omni-channel” versus “multi-channel church.” Multi-channel is like the swim lanes at the local pool – separate aspects of the same experience. YouTube and streaming services already allow people to supplement what the Sunday service offered in its physical location. Now the model is omni-channel – the full digital experience, sermons by Skype or V-See, streaming content via hand-held devices, podcasts and on-demand church apps.

The advantage is connecting with church 168 hours of the week rather than the 1 hour on Sunday. The trend is to be ever more decentralized even if the secular models show, claims Adamson, that brand loyalty eventually leads shoppers to a physical outlet.

Scott Gunn responded to Adamson by touting the advantages of the more traditional "gathered church," the situation whereby people often of diverse makeup-up meet together in community as Republicans, Democrats, male, female, teens, children and adults. In the age of Netflix the church is the last “general practitioner” you might say. “We get to practice reconciliation,” writes Gunn, “We meet to share joy with others when we are close to God and inspiration from others when we begin to stray.”

He adds: “It’s not impossible for this to happen with digital church but it is much more likely when we are in the same room as other people trying to figure out what it means to follow Christ in this amazing world of ours.”

New York Choir visits Tennessee: You have to be there to get the full effect. Click photo to enlarge. (Charles Clark photo)

St. Paul’s Five Graces

Both writers raise valuable points as churches contemplate strategy for the days ahead in a world moving at the speed of Twitter. But in Colossians 3:12 the astute apostle Paul shares five essential and timeless reasons why the face-to face gathered church can not only survive but thrive. The location-centered church has already had to navigate trends such as the 1990s call for “churches without walls.” There is a good reason for this. The face-to-face Church at its best offers exactly what people are really looking for even if they are unaware of it.

In Colossians 3:12 Paul seems to be adapting the ancient Greek concept of the three graces – Youth, Mirth, and Elegance. They represented part of the unseen values behind Greek culture. Paul goes them two better. His five graces for Christians to be clothed with represent a deep and timeless exploration into the precincts of the human heart, into how we all really want to be treated and how we can practice an attractive Christian presence each and every day.

Predictions Askew

The Christian church knows a lot about failed predictions but the secular world, the “conventional wisdom” of our time, has its own track record of futility. In the light of worries about the disappearing location-centric church here are some "expert" projections I remember.

The 1950s – fear of nuclear war and the arms race. Yes terrorists getting a bomb is indeed a sum of all fears, but no one predicted the breakup of the superpower balance of terror.

The 1960s – the population bomb was one of the mantras of the era. Few foresaw the Green Revolution where India now exports food.

The 1970s – resource and energy scarcities. Its good to be environmentally conscious but today the United States leads the world in energy production.

The 1980s – acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer, death of the rain forests. Progress being made I am told.

The 1990s – Remember Y2K? Wow! What a letdown. For churches “the churches without walls” phenomenon was all the talk. But most churches in the USA remain the humble (but effective) local gathering of 50 people.

You learn some things the longer you live. It may be that our fabulous communications technology will be a supplement to church rather than a replacement.

“Tender Mercies”

Bell telephone ran an ad a few years back, that a phone call offers “a soft shoulder in a hard world.” Pop culture often steals the church’s thunder for in reality that slogan epitomizes one of the things a genuine church experience is all about. Think of the average harassed working girl striding down the avenue bustling to work with her hand-held to her ear along the Broadway to confront the boss, the supervisor, deliver a presentation or the myriad other challenges of the working day. Not to mention the stresses of working with co-workers and a host of personal or family health concerns and/or worries about retirement.

Life stresses us out. We don’t say it or verbalize it but we all need what Paul begins with in Colossians 3:12. The term is usually translated “compassion” but the King James Version is more picturesque, rendering it “bowels of mercies.” Rugged, huh? Anciently the bowels were the seat of emotion and the heart the symbol for understanding, the reverse of today’s way of speaking. But the phrase conveys a world where people reach out towards each other with an extra measure of tender loving care and understanding, something that text messaging can’t provide.

Don’t get me wrong. I teach an online history course and usually spend 2-3 hours each day on the computer so I am hardly a dinosaur (maybe a turtle). Like many people who attend a face-to-face church I find it often revivifying to reconnect with friends and supporters in my local church. As Paul indicated to the Colossians, here is a vital plus for the location-centered church – to experience support, warm-heartedness and understanding. We need not only expressions of sympathy over a hand-held device or Skype but sometimes personal reconnection with people who know more than a little about us. “Reach out and touch someone” was yet another Ma Bell mantra hijacked by the commercial world but it rings true.

In their book The Digital Invasion, psychologist Archibald Hart and Sylvia Frejd write that a simple thing such as the human voice is the often missing ingredient in the internet realm. The Bible is full of such inter-personal interactions. In Mark 5 we see Jesus being touched by a woman with a blood disease and he responds with a face-to-face declaration, “Daughter your faith has made you well.”

Later Jesus enters a house where a young girl is dying. He reaches out to her with one of the tenderest phrases in the New Testament: “Little lamb, arise.” Jesus utilized both touch and voice in this chapter – the very elements that technical gadgetry cannot provide. The voice is a clue to character and being reassured by loving human contact is something people are starving for today. This trait of course spills over into St. Paul’s second grace, Kindness. Jesus was famed for reacting to people with kindness as Mark 5 shows. The more you study the Gospels the more you realize that the Twitter command THT (Think Happy Thoughts) doesn’t quite cut it in comparison.

Kindness is one of those tender mercies often in short supply in the board room, the living room, the cabinet room. For centuries Christian churches have practiced kindness as an ongoing program, whether through prison reform, human rights advances or the death struggle with slavery. A Methodist Church I visit participates in KAIROS ministry where they visit hundreds of prisoners every year. They go in to the cells and share fellowship for 3 days or more usually bringing cookies and letters of support. 2000 dozen cookies was the record for one group I know about. This too is a Biblical pattern. When King David was temporally deposed and driven to the wilderness he was refreshed by a support team led by a man named Barzillai who brought food and supplies to the king and his weary men. For, the king’s loyalists knew, “the people are hungry and weary and thirsty in the wilderness” (2 Samuel 17:29).

Barzillai and his allies were giving more than a digital salute – they were showing up, in person, and expressed their kindness in good actions. David the teenaged giant-killer needed that. There are times when we all need that physical closeness and reassurance as well. Even Jesus needed to hear the reassuring words of his Father “This I my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.”

It’s much better to say it in person than text it.

Church specializes in the personal touch.

“Stand By Me”

The pop song “Stand By Me” has endured because the sentiments expressed in the words reach something deep inside us. There are times when we all need people with the humility and meekness to just simply and quietly stand with us in our darkest hours. For while the voice of a friend matters immensely there are times when we need a quiet reassurance of someone else’s physical presence beside us, sometimes without saying a word.

Once again, at its best, the face-to-face church practices Paul's third and fourth graces of Humility and Meekness quite regularly. Frankly there is just too much noise in this already jangled society. Cell phones can be blessings and even lifesavers but there are times to turn them off. Dr. Hart writes about cultivating our inner voices, “unplugging ourselves and listening deeply.” Churches practice this almost lost art quite often at funerals or at special services as after September 11, 2001 when many churches were full and people wanted to hear – humbly and meekly – a word from the Lord. There was a therapy experienced by just standing together singing meaningful words from meaningful hymns that have stood the test of time.

Sometimes the humility and meekness expressed by sincere friends are life-saving. It is hard to capture the same effect sitting in our pajamas before a computer screen. Non-verbal cues are often the essentials required to build and maintain solid relationships. The movie Places in the Heart shows a group of struggling folks in the 1930s passing the communion tray around offering each other what is often called “the peace” ‐ the bread and the wine. The film captured the church gathered around its Lord in humble and meek sincerity. "Worshipful" is another word for those two graces. This can be done digitally too but how much more effective when we our whole selves are engaged – body, soul and spirit. Presence matters because the body matters, something that is impressed on us cyber-junkies when we have a toothache.

“Suffering Long”

Paul’s fifth grace is patience or as many translations still render it “long suffering.” Here is where the face-to-face church shows its dedication to living in Real Time not Fantasy Time or life in the abstract (Hart). Longsuffering means we have to suffer long with people. There are always people we encounter who will make us – to one degree or another – suffer. The location-based church with its often radical mixture of computer programmers, domestics and political opinions is a place to relearn the Christianly grace of longsuffering. As Scott Gun says, the face-to-face church is “among those few places where people of different races and socioeconomic status spend in meaningful connection. Churches are among those few places with intergenerational connection.”

It’s good for a young "techie" to stand next to a World War Two veteran who flew 25 bombing missions or a mother with an autistic child or a woman recovering from chemotherapy or a lady across the aisle in a wheelchair. They make up what is sometimes called “the rainbow people of God.” It’s hard to duplicate these experiences with a handheld device. And it is here in this fifth grace that we can see the clear benefit of the brick and mortar location-centric church. We come, first, because, we are summoned by the Word – not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Hebrews 10:23). We come because we will hear things we will fully grasp later. We come because we don’t GO to church but we ARE the church. We come because we can never know enough about the Great God. But we also come because we care about other people!

The face-to-face Church wherever and whenever it meets in whatever numbers reflects that great gathering in heaven of all peoples, tribes and nations (Revelation 7:9). We have connections the cyber-world knows little about. We are the church, visible and invisible, enduring throughout all ages. We have a promise that our invisible Head and Ruler will be with us till the bitter end (Matthew 28:20). That’s why we care enough to come.