(I’m indebted to Mark Sayers and Myles Werntz for much of what follows.)
If church can just permanently be online for anyone who wishes it to be, then church is effectively little more than content: it’s music and speech beamed into your home and displayed on a screen, just like anything else on YouTube, Spotify, etc. Sayers argues that the reason for our contemporary discipleship crisis is that we have embraced a model of church that effectively did reduce church to pure content, even prior to COVID. (This is partly Sayers and partly my gloss on him.)
If you don’t have the Eucharist weekly, if you don’t incorporate the body in the liturgy, or include corporate actions in the liturgy, such as confession or congregational prayer, and if all you leave behind in the liturgy is music and a lengthy sermon… well, you have a congregation that is really more “audience” than part of a community that is going somewhere together. And instead of a shepherd tasked with the care of souls, you have a sort of motivational leader that gives the audience something to aspire to, doing for the church audience what TED speakers do for business people and rich capitalists.
Obviously the point here is not that liturgy alone will save us. That is clearly not true. But what I’m concerned with here is primarily diagnosing the problem rather than identifying solutions. It seems to me that one of our chief problems is a passive sort of Christian living that looks at Jesus’s words about cutting out your eye and convinces itself that he didn’t really mean that before going back to Netflix or YouTube for another dopamine hit.
I’m coming to think that many of the problems we experience right now come back to this problem of “church as content.” The discipleship crisis more generally is obviously a function of this, as people who regard their piety in terms of consuming content are obviously going to be ill equipped for a life of sacrifice, love of neighbor, and devotion to God.
But I also think about something like common life and, particularly, communal live for gay and lesbian people attending churches. If church is content, then church communities don’t even really have a shared common life in the first place or any sort of shared destination they are sojourning to together. And, therefore, there is no community there for celibate people to join up with nor is there any clear vision of where celibate Christians are going in their lives.
Moreover, because “content” is reducible down to “ideas” or, probably more accurately, “performing the presentation of ideas,” and is, therefore, utterly divorced from tangible day to day life, it will be extremely easy for churches to simply be sucked into culture war categories that don’t actually work for faithful Christian practice and thinking. But since no one is well discipled or catechized, very few people catch the dissonance. If church is content, then church content gets graded, as it were, in the same way all other content does: Does it make me feel good? Do I have a good experience watching this content? Does this content confirm me in my loves and my hatreds?
Simply put, if our congregations often behave exactly like a bunch of Fox News or MSNBC addicts, it’s perhaps worth asking what we’ve done to help move them there or, at minimum, what we’ve not done to keep them from going there.