The digital soul

Being fully human in a digital disconnected world

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I love dystopian novels, from Dune to Ready Player One to other titles not as well known. While dystopian novels can challenge readers to think differently about current social and political happenings, for me the more tropes, science fiction elements and cheesy love-triangle romance, the better. But what was once science fiction and fantasy has become reality, causing my anxiety to skyrocket. “Everything’s science fiction until someone makes it science fact,” writes Marie Lu in her New York Times best seller Warcross.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the average church did not prioritize or have the technology for a digital Sunday service with online campus pastors and chat rooms. Many posted sermons online each week but few hosted digital small groups or purchased Zoom members. Almost none of us talked about the online analytics of our “online audience.” Meta, digital, viewership—these words were not in our vocabulary, at least not mine as a local pastor. But here we are—science fact!

Digital necessity

When the pandemic lockdowns first happened, our options were limited, and what many of us did wasn’t wrong. Zoom groups became a necessity. Live streaming was not optional. Facebook chat became the foyer of our church, and UberEats became our potlucks. None of us wanted it. But these were the cards we were dealt.

Is going digital the best course of action or long-term strategy to reach the lost? Are we not called to be salt and light, cities and sanctuaries?

On March 21, 2020, I gathered our staff in our conference room and said to them, “We are no longer Lighthouse Church, we are Lighthouse Productions. We are creating Christian content for the sake of our Christian audience.” And for 14 weeks we created the best content possible, on the greatest number of digital platforms possible and with the best technology we could afford.

But the moment we could stop, we did.

A month after our city allowed for church gatherings, our elders agreed to discontinue our live stream. We didn’t remove online service videos entirely, but we took pressure off our staff on Sundays and created simplified service videos throughout the week in an attempt to “wean” our people off watching church from home. Six months later we stopped providing online services all together.

We phased out Zoom groups. We reduced the number of worship videos we produced. And all those goofy Facebook devotionals and “mornings with the pastor” that I was completely embarrassed by, yes, even those, we deleted forever.

Why? Because to be truly human—to be truly Christian—is to have within our mind, body and soul a deep affection for Christ and his body (the church) in physical form.

Loving the body of Christ

The word body in our English Bible translations comes from various Greek words. Depending on which Greek word is used, it can be translated as flesh, gathering of people, person or human. What I find fascinating about the word body is that it never means distant, separate, alone or digital.

Of course, when the New Testament was written in the first century, nothing was digital. So, Jesus, Paul and Peter could not reference something that didn’t exist. But the principles and theological requirements of the word body remain.

Paul mourned that he was physically distant from his Ephesian elders when he ventured to Jerusalem on what he thought was a death march (Acts 20:13-37). Jesus’ disciples were so troubled that Jesus was leaving them in the flesh, though he was sending his Spirit to infiltrate their physical beings, that they wept and lost all hope when he promised his crucifixion (John 16). When Jesus ascended to the heavens, his disciples were so caught off guard by his distance they didn’t even see an angel of the Lord standing in front of them (Acts 1:10-11).

Physical presence and gatherings are a necessary expression of the body of Christ.

So, where does that leave us today?

Digital isn’t going anywhere. And you can most assuredly find pastors and influencers declaring that the future of Christianity is in the digital sphere.

“We’ll do anything short of sinning to reach as many people for Jesus as possible,” some say about their church’s online presence.

It sounds good. But is it?

As a millennial pastor who teaches about 600 millennials each Sunday on the importance of community and authenticity, I cringe at this statement. Is going digital the best course of action or long-term strategy to reach the lost? Are we not called to be salt and light, cities and sanctuaries?

A shift for the best

At Lighthouse Church, we decided that the digital model wasn’t for us. There are great churches in our country making great content for the elderly, the immunocompromised and those who for various reasons don’t want to attend church in person. But we don’t have to be one of those churches. We decided to strip back our social media presence and only participate on multiple platforms when necessary. We decided that if we don’t have to do something, we won’t.

And let me tell you, this shift has been freeing. At first, the congregation was shocked. The rest of the world was saying that a “good” church would provide for all digital needs, and this change meant we were no longer a “good” church. But after three months, it all changed.

People came back. Prodigals in the digital world found us in the real world and were baptized with holy water. Laughter at dinner tables became the norm. Communion involved real bread and real juice. Tears were shed. The sick were anointed, the poor provided for. Widows were hugged and loved.

We went back to doing what the body of Christ has been good at for 2,000 years. “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:36).

The pandemic prompted many churches to invest time and significant resources to incorporate technology. But now it’s time to re-evaluate. Those newly hired video production engineers? They may need to find a different job. That room filled with camera and lighting gear? It might not be needed anymore. And I think it’s for the best.

I am convinced gathering in person is the most Jesus-way forward. It could be that our obsession with the digital world, put into hyper-drive by the pandemic, has fostered a fear of meaningful human connection. In the end, we are likely losing the essence of what it means to be the body of Christ. And I think that breaks the heart of Jesus.

None of us like seeing the young people in our churches glued to their phones, swiping through a TikTok algorithm created to give them the greatest amount of dopamine hits. Most of us don’t want to see live streams replace genuine encounters with Jesus in the presence of God’s holy people. All of us were created in the image of God, to reflect the goodness of God to a broken world. And the best way to reflect our God who came in the flesh to redeem a world full of fleshly people is to minister to them in the flesh.

As a pastor and fellow human, I want to be salt. I want to be light. I want to wash feet. I want to feast with friends. And I know you want that too. So, my encouragement to all of us is to consider the implications of where the pandemic took us and where technology is leading us. It is powerful, but power corrupts—especially when it’s in the palm of your hand.

Josh Shaw
Josh Shaw is the pastor of Lighthouse Church in Denver, Colo. In 2016, Josh and his wife, Brianne, and a small group of 12 college students began Lighthouse with a dream of guiding the city of Denver back to the kingdom of God. Since that time, the fledgling congregation has grown to 280 in attendance, has sent missionaries across the globe and has had the privilege of baptizing 30 new believers in Jesus Christ. Shaw is the father to two boys, Ezekiel and Asher.

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