It's Friday. Make it a Blockbuster Night!
The space-time continuum was different then.
There was a rule: the more people who went into Blockbuster to pick the movie, the longer it took to pick one... and factorially so, like orders of magnitude. Go in alone, you could be out in five minutes with a movie. But if Jesus and his disciples all went in to a Blockbuster, it would probably take them forty days to pick a film, and they'd end up with something disappointing to everyone, like Top Gun.
This week Blockbuster announced it was closing all its remaining retail stores. So first of all, my sympathies to the thousands of retail employees who are losing their jobs. It's never a good day when a great institution like Blockbuster closes its doors.
The logical culprit to blame in all of this is Netflix. Netflix, and all the other streaming services that set viewers free to watch pretty much anything, anytime, on-demand through their Roku, have brought about a transformation in the industry, and in an insanely short amount of time.
Like, remember when the CEO of Netflix wrote that really bad letter to subscribers explaining why they were partitioning the DVD division from the streaming division? It was a really bad letter, but we all got over it and the world moved on, right?
Personally, I blame Huffington Post. I mean, obviously a liberal/left scandal rag started by a conservative pundit trying to oust Clinton fro office, acquired by AOL and the winner of the first Pulitzer-prize for an on-line journal, is the obvious cause of the demise of Blockbuster. Right?
No, not really. But it does help me write a really great headline for this article that sounds quite a lot like a Huffington Post headline.
Returning to Blockbuster, what I really think about the closing of Blockbuster is that it is the canary in the mineshaft for Christian community in North America.
Why? Because the population used to enjoy going out to a strip mall to pick their Friday night movies, but now all those resources are on the Internet wherever we are, and we can chat with friends on Facebook while watching our streaming movies to boot.
In the meantime, the church by-and-large is going to try and hold out and stay open much longer than Blockbuster. We will say it is for theological reasons, and perhaps that is true, but nevertheless, there are a few things worth learning from the closing of Blockbuster and the rise of Netflix.
What is a sacrament, and do you have to be together in real life for it to be a real sacrament? There was something sacramental about the Blockbuster experience, for sure. It bracketed the weekend tradition of relaxing on a Friday night. Finding the movie, choosing it with friends, frustration at late fees and having to drive back to return it the next day, all of these made Blockbuster a strangely satisfying embodied practice.
But clearly not satisfying enough for us to retain it when the streaming option presented itself. So too church is struggling with how to offer the sacraments, and where to offer them, in a streaming culture. The Methodists spent some time engaging this brave new world this fall. Huffington Post covered it, of course.
Pretty much everyone tends to agree that communion should or at least could still include bodily reception of bread and wine. The question boils down to whether or not everyone needs to be in the same place when this communion takes place. Can you and I attend the same worship service on-line, but then receive the meal each in our own homes in some fashion?
What is the sacramentality of streaming? To what degree is streaming still embodied, just differently so? There are plenty of ways in which our participation in streaming media are fluid but still physical, disparate but still communal. Rather than dismiss the sacramentality of the stream, we need to learn how swimming in it is still embodied and faithful.
Equipping Home Chapels
Never before in the history of humanity have more households had more at their disposal as resources to turn their homes into chapels of faith. And yet very few households feel equipped to do this well. It's a paradox. Everyone has a bible on their iPhone, or can download one immediately, but very few of us actually read it.
I don't have to go to Blockbuster to get a movie. I have a pantheon of movies in my own home. So too the church simply needs to recognize this fact, and get creative about bringing to greater awareness among Christians that the resources for worship in place (even beyond home, since streaming resources naturally go with you on whatever device you carry anywhere you go) are at hand, always. You can pull up and pray vespers with your friend while driving down the interstate. The entire contents of the church video library is available for viewing and discussion Sunday evening after family dinner.
People feel busy, and often they feel they are doing many worthwhile things with their time on the weekends. Nor are they wrong about this. But often these good things are not yet worship or intentional faith-formation. The church, rather than constantly trying to get people to come to their local version of Blockbuster (that is, the church building) would be well-served to start imagining how faith formation might be streamed Netflix-like.
What is the church's version of a Roku? What is our Amazon Prime?
A Seminary in Every Device
Many seminaries are already clued into the streaming-ness of the church. They haven't necessarily figured out how streaming will contribute to their institutional longevity. In fact, this is a brave and scary new world. Seminaries used to exist, at least in part, to maintain a library. I spent hours and hours in the stacks of the Luther Seminary library. There was this spectacular antiquated book smell, and the library tower had the narrowest of metallic stairs I would race up and down to get from BS to BT. Proximity to books was a core value of seminaries. Learning in community was also important, but it centered around the availability and reading of books.
Now, all these resources (or at least most of them) are readily available on your phone or Kindle.
Luther Seminary, my alma mater, offers resources on the weekly lectionary at www.workingpreacher.org If you want to create your own bible study program and read more study resources, you can also visit their www.enterthebible.org Want to read pretty much any article ever written in English on religion? Then just access the ATLA database through the Luther Seminary library.
My other alma mater, Fuller Theological Seminary, offers some of the most extensive theological learning resources of any seminary in the world.
Or check out the "disseminary" at http://disseminary.org. These are all just for starters. They're the tip of the iceberg.
Teachers of all types are starting to find ways to turn their classes "inside out," recording their classroom experiences on Vimeo for all of us to view. When I Google "theology lectures Vimeo" here's the top hit: https://vimeo.com/71023067 A full hour of lecture on the New Testament by Tom Schreiner at South Baptist Theological Seminary.
How institutions or individual teachers will collect a hefty tuition from each of us remains to be seen. We are only now in the beginning stages of this transition. Much more needs to be considered. But there is no going back.
The Rise of Long-Form Television
Finally, notice how streaming has changed what and how we watch. Everybody thought television was dying out, what with the rise of the Internet and the destructive force of the Huffington Post, but television has made a strong showing the past few years. In fact, this might be the best era ever to watch television, especially long-form television. Long-form television is particularly well-suited to the streaming era, because you can watch it on your own time. Even if you don't subscribe to HBO, you can wait for Game of Thrones to arrive on Amazon or Netflix and then watch a whole season in one sickening binge session.
So too streaming culture will retrieve some parts of previous Christian mediation phoenix-like out of the ashes of the old. We won't always know which parts. God will catch us by surprise.
The one thing we will need to do is hold all forms of church lightly. Clinging to certain shapes or forms of mediating faith will be the one certain way to shatter them. Streaming culture is shaking up our use of space itself, and that's okay. It's really okay. Creative institutions like Netflix and Amazon are finding ways to make a profit in the new media era. Churches can learn from them, even innovate themselves on how to fund and staff ministry in new ways today, also.