Monday, August 29, 2016

Why as a pastor I'm committed to saying I'm sorry, and why it's so hard to do so

If the movement we know as Lutheranism has a center to it, it is repentance. The first thesis of Luther's famous 95 reads, 

Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.

Jesus said: repent (Matthew 4:17, echoing John the Baptist in Matthew 3:2). In other words:

Do penance. πένητες διάγετε. Live life poor.

This is very hard. Metanoia (another word closely related to repentance, indicating a change of heart and mind, a turning around to new life) is never easy. 

But for Luther, and therefore Lutherans, and really all Christians, it is the whole of our life.

If we are called to repentance, then it should be fairly obvious that we have something we need to repent of. We are going to fail. We will mess up. We will fail one another.

I will fail you as a blogger. I will fail my people as pastor. I will fail my family as father or husband.

Then Jesus will say to me once again, "Repent."

I've been pondering this call to repentance while reading a couple of fascinating posts this past week. The first is from the Pew Forum, Choosing a New Church or House of Worship. People switch churches for all kinds of reasons (although a significant percentage of people, 50%, never switch churches). 

On first look, the Pew Forum article on choosing a new church is not much, or at least not primarily, about repentance. The primary reason people change churches is because they move. It's hard to say how moving is a form of repentance, although in some instances it might be.

But if you dig down into the study more deeply, you find some fascinating trends. A not insignificant number of respondents find that they disagree with the pastor. So they change their heart and commit to a new community because of differences of perspective/faith.

I think sometimes the best thing you can do is change churches. Not every community is a match for every person. However, I think most Christians, and most faith communities, need to learn true repentance a bit better first, before they switch, because at least some church switching is a way to avoid the hard work of repentance.

Lots of pastors just move around from church to church to avoid repenting. Lots of church members do also. Avoidance gets you away from the context where repentance is necessary, but it doesn't contribute to maturity and new life.

Notice Jesus did not say: Run away. For the kingdom of God is at hand.

The other article that has had me thinking about repentance is by Alan Jacobs, what became of Christian intellectuals? It's a fascinating read, with one sentence in particular that stood out: "The social value of the intellectual derives from his or her acknowledgment of multiple, not always harmonious, allegiances, and potentially competing values."

It seems to me that this is something Christianity in particular might contribute to the intellectual life, even if it isn't doing so as publicly as the Niebuhr's of old: a life centered in repentance is always acknowledging multiple, not always harmonious, values, even within the individual, and noticing how they are competing with one another. 

I wonder if the decline of Christian intellectuals is a corollary to the avoidance of repentance. The Christian intellectual life is hard work. It challenges faith, requires study, shuns quick and easy answers, offers profound challenges to status quo and bumper sticker theology. Repentance and the intellectual life are close cousins, both involving the mind and the change of mind that can occur through real repentance or true intellectual inquiry.

Praying the Great Litany

There are many version of the Great Litany, roughly always following the same structure but updated for language and sometimes for content. This is an adaptation of two, the version from the Book of Common Prayer and the version found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. In the ELW it is set to a chant tone, but it works very well as a regular prayer, either with a group or even prayed individually. I commend it to your use.
P: O Lord,
C: Have mercy.
P: O Christ,
C: Have mercy.
P: O Lord,
C: Have mercy. Amen
P: God the Father, in heaven,
C: have mercy.
P: God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
C: Have mercy.
P: God the Holy Spirit.
C: Have mercy.
P: Be gracious to us.
C: Spare us, good Lord.
P: Be gracious to us.
C: Help us, good Lord.
P: From all sin, from all error, from all evil; from the cunning assaults of the devil; from an unprepared and evil death; from war, bloodshed, and violence; from corrupt and unjust government; from sedition and treason; from epidemic, drought, and family; from fire and flood, earthquake, lightning and storm, and from everlasting death;
C: Good Lord, deliver us.
P: By the mystery of Your holy incarnation; by Your holy nativity; by Your baptism, fasting, and temptation; by Your agony and bloody sweat; by Your cross and suffering; by Your precious death and burial; by Your glorious resurrection and ascension; and by the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter;
C: Help us, good Lord.
P: In all time of our tribulation, in all time of our prosperity, in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment,
C: Help us, good Lord.
P: Though unworthy we implore You
C: To hear us, O Lord.
P: To rule and govern Your holy whole church, to guide all servants of Your Church in the love of your word  Word and in holy living, to put an end to all schisms and causes of offense, to bring into the way of truth all who have erred and are deceived, to bless the Church’s life-giving message that Jesus is Lord, to bring comfort to the sorrowing and hope to those living in fear, to beat down Satan under our feet, to send faithful laborers into Your harvest, and to accompany Your Word with Your grace and Spirit,
C: We implore You to hear us, good Lord.
P: To raise those that fall and to strengthen those that stand, and to comfort and help the weakhearted and the distressed,
C: We implore You to hear us, good Lord.
P: To give to all peoples and nations justice and peace, to preserve our land from discord and strife, to give our country Your protection in every time of need, to direct and defend our president and all in authority, to bless and protect our magistrates and all our people, to keep in safety the members of our armed forces and to give wisdom to those in command, to behold and help all who are in danger or need or tribulation; to protect and guide all who travel; to preserve and provide for all women in childbirth; to watch over children and to guide the young; to heal the sick and to strengthen their families and friends, to bring reconciliation to families in discord, to provide for the unemployed and all in need, to be merciful to all who are imprisoned, to support, comfort, and guide all orphans, widowers, and widows; and to have mercy on all your people,
C: We implore You to hear us, good Lord.
P: To forgive our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers and to turn their hearts; to give and preserve to our use the kindly fruits of the earth; and graciously to hear our prayers;
C: We implore You to hear us, good Lord.
P: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
C: We implore You to hear us.
P: Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,
C: Have mercy.
P: Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,
C: Have mercy.
P: Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,
C: Grant us Your peace.
P: O Christ,
C: Hear us.
P: O Lord,
C: Have mercy.
P: O Christ,
C: Have mercy.
P: O Lord,
C: Have mercy. Amen

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

So when can you eat the meal Jesus instituted, and who serves it?

Lately I've been chatting with colleagues in my denomination about our theology of the Eucharist. Or maybe I should say our ecclesiology of the Eucharist, because more than we have a theology of what the Lord's supper means, we seem to have a structure around who can preside at it.

In this post, I'm going to try and describe why I have a "radically adjacent" ecclesiology of the Lord's Supper compared to my denomination and many colleagues. On the one hand, this is going to go deep into the weeds of church practice, so move along if that doesn't interest you. On the other hand, I'm not going to go out and try to quote everything about this from other sources.

You can find a ton written about the sacraments. I mean, there are shelves and shelves of books just on the Supper and Baptism. But for the purposes of this blog post, you probably just need to know that our denomination has a statement on the sacraments called the Use of the Means of Grace, and we have some things written about the sacraments in our book of confessions. The most central of these are articles X and XIII of the Augsburg Confession, but the one pastors most frequently debate (and the one actually most congregations really practice) is Article XIV (Of Ecclesiastical Order).

Plus, Jesus said some stuff about the meal, so there's that.

So, here's my basic set of theses on the Lord's Supper:

I. Jesus instituted this meal when he said, after distributing wine and bread as his body and blood, "Do this in remembrance of me."

II. He really meant it, both in the sense that this really is in some way his body and blood present in bread and wine, but also that we should do it in remembrance, and often (because he also said, "As often as you eat this bread and drink this wine..."

III. That's about it. So, when any community gathers that is centered in Christ, they are commissioned to share this meal. 

IV. By necessity, they'll have to come up with some way to share the meal. One very common way for that to happen is for the community to say to one of its members, "Hey, could you bless this meal for us?" So then that person does it. 

V. This meal is and signifies many things, but at root its doing in a meal what it is in actuality--the embodying of Christ in the world, faithing the people who have faith in it.

VI. Was Christum treibt--it's a motto of Luther's worth contemplating. We need more of doing Jesus as we together see fit, and the enforcement of bourgeoise forms of church on the denomination as a whole simply isn't working well.

A lot of complications have crept in around this meal that go way beyond what I've outlined above. As just a few examples, most churches now believe you have to be or should be "ordained" in order to "consecrate" the meal. And diverse denominations and communities aren't always sure they can "recognize" each other's ministries, which in the end means they aren't sure that the other communities are really sharing the Lord's Supper or not.

Almost all of these arguments (and they are legion) revolve around WHO can preside. Even most churches (at least churches in my denomination) would be reluctant to share communion without an ordained pastor presiding.

I am the called pastor in my church, so most weeks I preside. If I'm gone on vacation, we bring in ordained clergy either from within our own denomination, or from full communion partners. In my case, this typically means retired ELCA clergy or local Episcopalian clergy.

I don't "gate" the meal and the presidency of the meal, but I'm kind of under the impression this is the piety of my parish. On average, they probably want an ordained pastor to preside.

Additionally, and here's where things get really tricky, I'm ordained in "apostolic succession." This means there were certain conditions on the presence of bishops and such at my ordination that made my ordination more authentic and easily recognizable by other denominations. In my case, I'm ordained into at least three forms of apostolic succession (Anglican, Latvian Lutheran, and Swedish Lutheran).

Most of my congregation probably doesn't care about this part at all. But our ecumenical partners do, and our denomination does.

Why does all this matter to me, and why do I suggest, often with considerable zeal, that we should throw the floodgates open and let anyone preside at the meal?

For me, it's about mission, and a better sense of the community trusting that Christ is present among them.

Here's what I think, if I'm being REALLY critical. I think our current ecclesiology implies that Jesus is only present when the bishop shows up.

I know I know, people are going to say that isn't what we believe. And they're right. But our practice implies it, because you can only consecrate the Lord's Supper in our tradition if you've been ordained, and you can only be ordained by one of the bishops and become "rostered," so in practice, if you're really strict about it, we only let Jesus show up under the hands of bishops.

But what I think we actually believe as a church is something more along the lines of real presence in every community. That is, Jesus shows up wherever two or three are gathered. Which led me to post this a while back:

"Wherever two or three are gathered in my name." "As often as you eat and drink, do this in remembrance of me." 
That's Scripture. 
"Wherever there are enough households able to build a church building and afford a pastor with benefits, there am I in the midst of them." "Whenever you can find an ordained pastor, do this in remembrance of me."  
That's not Scripture.

Obviously, this is an over-simplification. But I think it's a simplification with merit, because honestly, we've started to operate as if the second quote, which isn't Scripture, actually is. The proof would be: Does the average ELCA member receive communion regularly outside of a church building, or in a community with a pastor who isn't on the church payroll?

I bet not. And they don't because nobody is imagining alternatives. Not only that, but some pastors are so territorial, they'd be bothered if Eucharists just started happening in their churches without them. And some parishes have such strong pieties around the Eucharist that they'd be uncomfortable with small groups or families gathering to share the Lord's Supper apart from the Sunday morning assembly with the ordained, consecrated pastor in apostolic succession presiding.

It's about this time in the conversation that clergy-types will bring up some funny things. They'll mention "good order" (because that's in our confession) or they'll mention ecumenical agreements (we have a few). And they're right, there's language in the confessions about the sacraments being presided over in "good order" and we need to make sure we're being good neighbors with the Episcopalians.

But what does that mean? For example, whose good order? Does good order mean a structure for ordination and training pastors? Or might good order mean "organized in such a way that people are sharing Jesus all over the place"?

What if the average parishioner in an ELCA congregation was equipped by their pastor to preside at communion? You know, the Bible did say pastors "equip the saints for the work of ministry." So is that just supposed to be making coffee for the narthex after worship, or might it be serving communion themselves in their small groups, at nursing homes, at prisons?

What if the meal Jesus instituted was established not to be guarded by a priestly class, but carried out by all disciples of Christ to be a priestly presence in the world?

There are a ton of ways to slice this onion, and one way is to imagine that all pastors (by which I mean, the kind like myself who serve congregations large enough to hire them as full-time employees) are actually bishops, and our responsibility is to ordain the people of God to preside at the meal Jesus instituted.

Perhaps I haven't done a good job training my people to be presiders at the Eucharist. In actual practice I'm pretty old school. My people get communion when they come on Sunday morning, and I speak the words and lift the bread and hand it out. But what if the mission of God is more living and active when the pastor stands in the midst of the assembly in persona Christi, and says, "Now go out and share this meal with others. You be the pastors."

This is not an either/or. We organize at all kinds of institutional levels, and I'm quite sure we'll always have synods and denominations, and bourgeois congregations with full-time staff clergy. If we can do a both/and approach, we can imagine lots of ways presiding at communion can be isomorphic rather than hierarchical.

But we can do a lot better job of recognizing the presence of Christ in households, small groups, and mission sized communities, and recognizing that they have everything in their midst to share the Eucharist--a group of people, a bit of bread and wine, and somebody, or a few, they can ask, "Would you offer the blessing?"

Addition: Perhaps one could say the difference between my proposal and the traditional proposals is that I locate the meal primarily in an event, whereas the traditional approaches locate the meal under the presidency of a person. So, is it the meal Christ instituted when the right person under the right hierarchy presides, or is it the meal Christ instituted in its happening among those who have heard the command? This doesn't have to be a complete either/or, but it does center things for us a bit.

In other words, I'm for things like mutual discernment, community, and apostolic succession: I just want to move the goal posts on what that looks like.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Give Refugee Children the Opportunity of an Education

Dear Clint,

It's the time of year when summer is coming to a close and school-aged children are preparing to return to the classroom. Many children are excited to be going back to school and looking forward to seeing their friends and sharing their tales of summer fun.

We have the special honor of helping refugee children find not only a safe place to call home, but a safe environment where they can learn. But we can't do it without your help.
Give children
a safe place to
live and learn.
Donate today!
So many children we serve come from countries where education services are erratic at best, or from refugee camps where their schooling has been put on hold for years. Children from Central America are unable to attend school every day due to violence, and if they are girls, they are not able to leave the house to attend school without an adult male or private car which is unaffordable for most.

Enrique*, a refugee child who was unable to attend school in his home country of El Salvador because of threats to his life by the gangs, broke down in tears when he found out that here in America he would be able to register and get support in attending school. His father came to the United States in the hopes of offering his son a better opportunity; he also became very emotional when he learned Enrique was going to be able to go to school and fulfill his dreams for a better future.

An education put on hold is not unique to Enrique, it is the experience of hundreds of thousands of refugee children searching for peace and safety.

As the school year begins, please be generous and support Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). Your donation today in support of Enrique and children like him, can ensure those most vulnerable will be cared for and have the future they deserve.

In Gratitude,
Linda Hartke
President & CEO

P.S. Your generosity at the start of this school year can provide LIRS the momentum it needs to give children a safe place to live and learn. Thank you in advance for your support!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Gulf Coast Flooding

Lutheran Disaster Response
Gulf Coast Flooding

"Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by." – Psalm 57:1
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
Historic floodwaters have required tens of thousands of people to be rescued and even more have been evacuated as rain sweeps across southern Louisiana. Floodwaters have affected communication, overwhelmed streets and highways, and damaged or destroyed more than 40,000 homes. This flood comes on the heels of several other floods that have hit the Gulf Coast region, starting earlier this spring.

Entire neighborhoods and communities still remain under water, and the full extent of the damage has yet to be realized. We know that it will be a long road to recovery, and Lutheran Disaster Response will be there to assist through every phase of this disaster recovery process.

Gulf Coast Flooding
Your gifts are needed to help respond to the Gulf Coast flooding. Your gifts through Lutheran Disaster Response will bring God’s hope, healing and refuge to those who are affected by these devastating floods. Lutheran Disaster Response coordinators are actively present, collaborating with local community leaders and officials to begin planning the proper responses, particularly the long-term recovery efforts. We will respond and walk with survivors in the days, weeks, months and years ahead, for as long as we are needed.

Gifts designated for “Gulf Coast Flooding” will be used (100 percent) until the response is complete to help disaster survivors recover and rebuild their lives. Your generous offerings of prayer and financial support will help address the many needs, especially the long-term recovery efforts of those affected.

Join me in prayer and partnership, and use this bulletin insert in your congregation to help spread the word and support those who need rest.

In service,


The Rev. Daniel Rift
Director, ELCA World Hunger and Disaster Appeal
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Thursday, August 11, 2016

4 ways you can save the church now (and they're not what you think)

Walter Benjamin worked thirteen years on Das Passagen-Werk (The Arcades Project), beginning in Paris in 1927 and still in progress when he fled the German Occupation in 1940. A friend, George Bataille, "hid the manuscript away in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France during the second world war and then retrieved and delivered it to New York at the end of 1947"!!!

It is a work literally dug up and recovered from the rubble of war.

Benjamin called this project "the theater of all my struggles and all my ideas." It is a giant mess of a book, designed to undermine the bourgeois ideological mask that typically overlay historical presentations of the 19th century.

It gave birth to something new: history from below rather than from above. It looks to the rubbish of history, the conquered, the suffering ones, as the center for history. The world has typically told its history focused on the victors.

It's very style is illustrative of its substance. One commentator said it "induces in the reader a secular oneiric attention, a sort of watchful dreaminess--even a sort of illuminating boredom" (Mark Kingwell).

Illuminating boredom. History from below. Creativity from the ash-heaps of history.


I've been pondering this while looking at highly creative projects I've seen emerging this summer from Lutheran friends. The first one was planted, quietly, on our church driveway, and has spread like a strange kind of food desert fire through neighborhoods and social media. Jessica McClard, our council president, together with friends, erected a Little Free Pantry on our property.

You can find all kinds of articles about The Little Free Pantry online, because it has blown up in social media. If you want to listen to an interview with Jessica, I recommend the one we recorded two weeks ago.

The Little Free Pantry is not a big thing. It holds less pantry items than one cupboard in a household kitchen. But it's had immense impact "from below," changing the lives of givers and receivers alike, perhaps even undermining the traditional patron-client narrative that dominates 21st century charitability.


Then there is Rev. Jason Chestnut (together with his ecumenical colleagues Rev. Jennifer DiFrancesco and Rev. Sara Shisler Goff) at The Slate Project. The Slate Project is a new kind of Christian community that gathers both on-line and face-to-face in Baltimore, Maryland. They are committed to following the way of Jesus together, into their local and digital neighborhoods and discerning in community how to be the church in the 21st century.

Jason gets "theology from below," and the Internet memes he posts illustrate such theology well.

Jason is leading our denomination in doing church 'from below' in the social media arena. It's a lot of work to minister in digitally-mediated contexts, and much of it gets buried in the rubble-heaps of inattention. Jason and his colleagues are working in the theater of struggle and ideas, in particular emphasizing the theology of the cross as it plays in a strangely mediated world.


Speaking of plays, I've also been paying attention to a project Daniel Maurer has been rolling out. Of course, Daniel is mostwell-known, and deservedly so, for his books and graphic novels, the most recent of which is a spectacular graphic novel about Martin Luther as a dad.

But he's also been at work developing a resource of downloadable progressive church plays and dramas, He calls the site Arches 'n Bells, and it is the first website—ever—to focus on producing thespianic awesomeness for progressive mainstream churches and faith communities.

Before I get into an analysis of drama and progressive Christianity, I should mention that many church members (and clergy) may not realize that there are resources online they can download and use. Or they don't know how to unzip a file, or navigate a web site. So a big barrier in publishing today sometimes is simply helping people be aware of what's out there, and how to navigate it.

I'm not making fun (okay, maybe a little... but then if you know how to install bathroom fixtures, go ahead and make fun of me, because I run away scared), but it's indicative of a general fear or lack of engagement we're seeing from some of our denominations' members online. 

Church-plays in and of themselves aren't really all that high tech. Daniel writes, "The problem I'm having is that the evangelicals seem to be kicking ass with online resources for church drama, and no one has yet capitalized on the need for theologically progressive congregations to take advantage of the resources that are already out there. (More importantly, resources and technology that is already making inroads on the secular side (like Pokéman, et al.))"

So, it's not the skits and plays themselves that is scary technology—just the medium on which I'm offering them.

Well, skits and dramas are their own kind of technology, and they take their own kind of steel nerves to do well. But Daniel's right when he observes that "kids, youth, and adults respond to theatrical productions and they hold people's attention." Some chancel dramas I saw as a child are still stuck in my memory banks, as are the crazy skits we made up at church camp. Drama has staying power.

It's just that, if you're a progressive Christian of some kind, a lot of dramas (like a lot of contemporary Christian music) falls outside the kind of faith you want to teach. Thus the need for a resource like Daniel's. Unless you plan to write your own. Which you can do, but it's a lot harder than you might think to do it well.

Which is where Arches 'n Bells comes in, because their team writes great plays. My favorite right now is one title "Peter Defends God's Acceptance of the Gentiles." It leans in on a significant moment in the story of full inclusion, and illustrates God's grace admirably. It's also funny.

Personally, I've been looking for something to integrate into our worship this fall that would add a new dimension and depth, and I'm spending time reading through the skits on his site right now, aiming to perform some of them beginning the Advent season. 


Finally, sometimes the church has to be saved from itself, and the movement in our own denomination aiming to do just that is #DecolonizeLutheranism.

Their inaugural conference is coming up this October, and registrations are already open. My friend Francisco Herrera, together with a whole host of folks, are planning to decolonize Lutheranism, but his way of doing it may not be what you expect.

It of course includes the post-colonial critique, trying to separate the cultural accretions many assume to be Lutheran (lutefisk, organ music, jello) from the core message of the Lutheran faith. But Francisco tends to focus attention on the positives, the foundations, that can unite us rather than divide us.

Two of the firmest foundations for Lutheran life and identity are the liturgy and the Confessions - especially the Augsburg Confession. Francisco writes, "When we come together in October, the main question we will be asking each other is "What does it mean to be Lutheran?" Sometimes it will be tied to things like tradition and family, other times the ways that we talk about God and Jesus and that ever-sneaky Holy Spirit, still other times the writings of Luther and company and all who have worn the mantle of "Lutheran" over the centuries, in whatever the land or language. Hence, the liturgy and the Augsburg Confession are two prime places to begin all serious conversation on Lutheran identity - fertile earth from which something new and exciting and inspiring always springs."

Sometimes you don't know who you really are until you build a pantry. Sometimes you learn your own faith by designing a meme. If you want a theological challenge, try writing a play that illustrates your theological convictions in a story well-told and well-acted. If you want to find your center, ask those outside your center what real center you both share together (and maybe sit down for a meal of lefse AND injera). 

Monday, August 08, 2016

Theology and Augmented Reality: Because it's about more than Pokemon Go

On Virtual Church

“To behold, use or perceive any extension of ourselves in technological form is necessarily to embrace it. To listen to radio or to read the printed page is to accept these extensions of ourselves into our personal system and to undergo the ‘closure’ or displacement of perception that follows automatically.”[1]

When we are at our computers reading blogs or browsing social media, are we participating in virtual community or real community? The last time you were planning a church event or having a conversation with fellow Christians, was this real ecclesial networking or virtual ecclesial networking?  If you watched the opening worship of the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church this afternoon via live-streaming, was that a virtual or a real experience? How would we decide?
Consider a comparison example. I go to an Episcopal outdoor prayer chapel to pray Compline. Nine people gather, and we pray the service and lections out of the Book of Common Prayer. A worship leader leads the prayer office, and members of the community volunteer to read lessons and chant. Afterwards, we sit around and talk for a while, especially spending time asking each other about the specific prayer requests each of us had lifted during the prayers. Then we go home.

In describing what I have described in the preceding paragraph, how important is it to the description that all of this took place via avatars in Second Life,[3] at St. Matthew’s by the Sea on their prayer labyrinth?[4] Does it modify the extent to which you consider it to have been an authentic worship experience, and if so, what are the theological or social presuppositions that lead you to that conclusion? Conversely, if I had described such a setting as taking place at an Episcopal congregation I was visiting while on vacation, would your assumptions concerning the authenticity and reality of those encounters be different?

I describe these two settings, and ask these sets of questions, because it is my considered opinion that we have not yet thought at all clearly about the difference between the virtual and the real, and have largely been blind to the effects of new media transitions as they are occurring. In the latest round, as the church has tried to make sense of Pokemon Go, most theologians and church leaders aren't even knowledgeable about the difference between between virtual and augmented reality.

As a result, our theology of ministry in what we tend to label “virtual” contexts is seriously impoverished, and our awareness of the effects of transitions to new media consistently leaves the church lagging behind the culture as new media emerge. To the extent this is a result of our inattention (or even intentional disregard), we should be ashamed of ourselves.[5] To the extent this results from the legitimate difficulty of staying ahead of the curve on new media and philosophies of the real, we are called simply to be more intentionally attentive. “The church must start now—immediately—if it wants to be a significant part of the virtual world of the future. In the United States, the church has been playing catch-up in areas such as music and film for most of the second half of the twentieth century because it foolishly wasted God-given opportunities to engage those media in the first half of the twentieth century.”[6]

As we address this challenge, it is wise to remember that “the Web itself is not very old, and it didn't become a mass phenomenon until relatively recently… Under the circumstances, it would be a great surprise if we yet knew what the digital sensorium turns out to be like, or what effects it might have on us. Results of studies right now might, for instance, be picking up only (or "mostly") the effect of switching from a mostly-physical ecology to a largely-digital ecology. We don't have a lot of perspective on the changes in which we're participating.”[7] However, given the ever-increasing importance and impact of the “digital sensorium,” we are responsible for gaining as much perspective as we can.
Real Church Isn’t

Our first task is to come to our labeling of the “virtual” context with some humility. By virtual church typically we mean any kind of church that takes place in digital contexts. However, A K M Adam’s subtle labeling of ecologies as either “mostly-physical” or “largely-digital” is helpful.  The standard terminology sets up perhaps an unnecessary distinction between two contexts that are less distinct in reality. The fundamental philosophical question is whether or not any aspect of life is actually “unmediated.” Contemporary media studies would remind us, if nothing else, that all of life is mediated, and much more is media than we are often aware.[8]

Take, for example, any person’s physical presence in a physical community. Although we tend to live as if we are really present in these contexts, our entire presence is mediated. We are mediated through our language, through the persona (avatar, mask) that we put on for various contexts. In the contemporary social media context, we are further mediated by the ambient intimacy of social networks that update us on the life and thought of those we will, sometimes if not always, see in physical contexts. We are, to varying degrees, different people in the work place, at home, on Facebook, in LinkedIn, or at church. All the digital sensorium does is remind us once again that we are mediated in this way. As danah boyd notes in her essay on American teen sociality in networked publics, today’s teens are “the first generation to have to publicly articulate itself, to have to write itself into being as a precondition of social participation.”[9] Which is to say that this generation is not so much different as it is simply the first, and so more notable.

Contemporary neuroscience research also increasingly recognizes that “the brain doesn’t much care if an experience is real or virtual.”[10] There are phenomenological and psychological modalities at play here that go beyond the purview of this essay, but the basic idea is worth noting. “The distinction between real and virtual is relative. Humans contrast what is usually considered ‘grounded reality’—what they believe to be the ‘natural’ or ‘physical’ world—with all other ‘virtual realities’ they experience, such as dreams, literature, cartoons, movies, and online environments such as Facebook or Second Life. This contrast allows us to avoid being mired in the unending debate over what constitutes reality.”[11]

Augmented reality further complicated our descriptive work, because the layering of the digital and the physical is mingled in tangible ways... there are maps on top of maps, digital creatures co-inhabiting space with players, who are themselves their own kinds of avatars navigating real and virtual space.

At this point you may be asking how precisely this conversation is theological rather than ethnographical, or an exercise in media studies with a quasi-religious studies component. Conducting our review of “virtual church” in this way, however, should send our reflections back to the many places in Scripture where mediated presence, and differentiations between the real and the virtual, come into play.

Some of the most obvious of these include: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Or taking bread, Jesus says, “This is my body that is for you” (1 Cor. 11:24). Or in Ephesians, the cosmological assertion, “And he has put all things under his feet, and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:22-23). In the first instance, the individual speaker, Paul, is now the mediating presence of Christ in the world. Which is virtual and which is real? It would not be too much of a stretch to argue that in this case, the virtual is more real than the real, whatever that might mean. In the second case, the church has had a long-standing and faithful conversation on precisely how to articulate the presence of Christ in that bread, because it is not exactly clear how simple bread can be the media through which the message, Christ, can both be expressed, and itself be the messenger of the message in the media. Finally, in the third case, the church becomes the mediating presence of Christ in the world, so that a community stands in for the one, but precisely because the one is already community. All of which illustrates not so much a theology of virtual church, but rather how a conversation around virtual church sends us back to our source texts and theological presuppositions and highlights them in new ways.

Or take, as a final example, the most wonderful exercise in media studies in all of Scripture: “We don’t need letters of introduction to you or from you like other people, do we? You are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are Christ’s letter, delivered by us. You weren’t written with ink but with the Spirit of the living God. You weren’t written on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:1-3, Common English Bible). Paul’s riff on letters and tablets and believers as living Christ letters illustrates the wedding of media and message in precisely the theological format we need to consider. In this early part of the letter, he uses the metaphor as a rhetorical flourish to win over his readers. Later, however, he mentions his own letter literally, and makes this argument, “I don’t want it to seem like I’m trying to intimidate you with my letters. I know what some people are saying: ‘His letters are severe and powerful, but in person he is weak and his speech is worth nothing.’ These people need to think about this—that when we are with you, our actions will show that we are the same as the words we wrote when we were away from you” (2 Cor. 10:9-11, Common English Bible). Paul argues that his letters themselves are extensions of himself, and representative of him, so that the distinction between the media he sends and himself as the messenger authoring the message, is a relative one—and he makes this argument in the context of a letter, while he himself is absent physically. This last point is especially important, if often overlooked.

Paul’s example should guide us to consider something about his ministry worth emulating, namely, that a letter or other media we make use of to extend ourselves is not a vehicle through which “real” ministry is accomplished, but is itself the ministry. Churches that “get” this use digital media as ministry, rather than as tools to communicate about ministry. Perhaps this is an easier concept to embrace when speaking of social media, but still worth noting, since in the transition to new media, it is often the tendency to focus on the media itself rather than embrace the media as an extension of the message and messenger. New technologies are self-referential until they cease to be.

Virtual Missiology

Truly immersive new media, such as virtual worlds or MMORPGs or augmented reality games like Pokemon Go, take this discussion to another level. They are, at their best, another world separate and distinct in some ways from the “real world.” In fact, in virtual environments, users often refer to “RL” (Real Life) or “IRL” (In Real Life) to distinguish between real life and their virtual life or second life. [Is there a Pokemon "here"? Yes, right there, by the window.]

This kind of language illustrates how immersive the virtual world can be, inasmuch as language then develops to point back to the world outside/inside the virtual environment.

In these contexts, the church needs to bring the same kinds of critical tools one brings to mission, in order to understand the context adequately. “The virtual world is a new mission field. We are called by God to pitch our tent in this strange land and learn the language, so that we can share God’s love.”[12] It may seem obvious, but clearly has yet to be embraced as a practice, but the way you do mission is by going or being sent to the place the church, responding to the call of God, sends you. Few of us would respect a missionary who expressed all kinds of thoughts about reaching the people of the Ukraine, but had never been there, and everyone knows that in order to be a missionary in a foreign context for the long haul, the best first step is to learn the language.

Augmented reality today

With virtual worlds, the step into the mission field is tremendously simpler and more fluid than mission to foreign countries or new geographical contexts. If you have a computer and an Internet connection, you can be on Second Life or playing World of Warcraft in a matter of minutes, for free. If you have a phone, you can be engaged in an augmented reality app in minutes. And not all of them are games. Increasingly, we are going to have layers of augmented reality co-existing with physical reality, and they will blend to such a degree as to be indistinguishable.

The primary theological task we have before us is for more of us to actually go there. Again, this doesn’t sound like theology, until and if we embrace that theology is, to a considerable degree, ethnography—or said in the reverse, that ethnography can be excellent Christian theology.[13] Pete Ward, in one of the early works in this move towards ethnography as theology, writes, “The convergence on culture marks a significant move in practical theology. Turning to culture means that doctrine is increasingly read in and through the social and the embodied and so ‘theology’ itself is seen in a new light.”[14] I like to think of ethnography as theological in the sense Michel de Certeau has it in his The Practice of Everyday Life in a chapter on “walking in the city.” “ To practice space [walk] is thus to repeat the joyful and silent experience of childhood; it is, in a place, to be other and to move toward the other.”[15]

Walking about in a virtual world, though in many respects no different from walking around in a physical city, does highlight aspects of walking around we are less aware of in physical environments. If we decide to walk in the city, we probably select specific clothes to wear out and about. In the virtual world, you actually dress and create your avatar, to represent you in that environment. These two practices, one in the real world, and one in the virtual world, are not as dissimilar as they first appear, although the technology of the second draws attention to itself for most users more starkly than the clothing technologies of the first.

Pete Ward offers a vision of a “liquid church.” He recognizes that the way church has been in the past was itself a form of mediated identity, and he calls on the church to extend itself into new cultures and media. “Liquid church expresses the way that ecclesial being is extended and made fluid through mediation. The liquid Church moves beyond the traditional boundaries of congregation and denomination through the use of communication and information technologies.”[16] How the church is mediated as new technologies arise is itself a missiological topic. “A central missiological issue for the Western Church relates to how it chooses to react to the mediation of the spiritual in popular culture.”[17]

            Ward’s concept of liquid church offers a third way, a way around the forced dichotomy between “real church” and “virtual church.” Instead, the church “goes with the flow” of the Spirit in the freedom of God because the church is not here in one way and there in another, but is constantly extended, a flowing ecclesial life, through the mediation and participatory power of the message, who is also, in the case of Christian theology, also the messenger.[18]

I have the sense that many theologians or church practitioners, as well-meaning as they are, are seeking a “theological analysis of virtual church ministry” because it would offer a conversation in our own language about a missiological context.[19] The actual analysis we have conducted here, however, has problematized the encounter, because if ethnography is Christian theology, then the kind of analysis we seek requires not the iteration of regular theological language in such a way as to speak virtually of the virtual church, but rather requires immersion in the actual context of the virtual world in order to learn the language, participate and be mediated there, so that theology can be an exercise in a real ethnographic experience of the virtual, rather than a virtual conversation about the virtual we assume to be the real deal.

            Woody Allen said that 90% of life is just showing up, something that applies equally well to ministry—so go get your avatar, and start walking around.

[adapted from a previously published work in Word & World, Summer 2012] 

[1] Marshall McCluhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Ginkgo Press, 2003), 68.
[5] I am consistently surprised, for example, by the number of clergy I encounter who are willing to have an opinion about ministry and worship on Second Life or Pokemon Go who are not willing to actually try it out before they develop their opinion.
[6] Douglas Estes. Simchurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World (Zondervan, 2009), 223.
[7] A K M Adam, private correspondence, May 19, 2011.
[8] Hence the Marshall McCluhan quote that heads this essay, which recognizes that media are extension of humanity that, the longer we use them, the more they are displaced in our perception of them.
[10] Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson, Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution (HarperCollins, 2011), 3.
[11] Ibid. 15.
[12] Douglas Estes, Simchurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World (Zondervan, 2009), 226.
[13] See, for example, the recent collection of essays edited by Christian Scharen and Aana Marie Vigen, Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics (Continuum, 2011).
[14] Pete Ward, Participation and Mediation: A Practical Theology for the Liquid Church (SCM Press, 2008), 95.
[15] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (University of California Press, 1984), 110.
[16] Pete Ward, Participation and Mediation, 137.
[17] 190.
[18] See John 1.
[19] For full disclosure, although I’m writing about immersive virtual worlds, and challenging us to go there, I have only scratched the surface of what it means to be in these mission fields. I am seeking to listen to my own challenge as much as challenging readers to do the same.