I had the great honor of asking Jay Kim a few questions about his latest book Analog Church (foreword by Scot McKnight) which I highly recommend. We talk about the nature and calling of the church, navigating through a hyper-technological and individualistic age, and the Church during COVID-19.
My questions are in bold.
You wrote a book about the value and importance of gathering together and maintaining the personal-ness of Christ in the midst of a such a technologically-driven and impersonal time. What was your initial thought process as the COVID-19 (and its implications for worship services) first began to unfold?
Like most pastors and church leaders, my initial thought process was to stay flexible and do whatever we could to continue serving our community. Honestly, back in early March when shelter-in-place orders were first put in place here in California, we thought it’d be a few weeks. We were hopeful we’d be back together in person by Easter at the latest. That has obviously not been the case, so we’re continuing to do our best to stay flexible and serve our community the best we can.
With face-to-face gathering banned, how have you and your church found ways to maintain a sense of community?
It’s been a tremendous challenge. But it’s also been really inspiring to see our community rally around one another in creative ways. Delivering food and groceries to the vulnerable, participating in local service projects while observing CDC and county health guidelines, phone calls to check in on those suffering through this in severe isolation, small groups on Zoom, making masks to donate to the county, etc. It’s been a surprisingly rich season of subversive kingdom creativity. I’m grateful for that.
In Analog Church you talk about the centrality that the Lord’s Table ought to play in our gatherings, and how more churches seem to be coming to this realization. You also mentioned that the personal act of communion cannot be replicated through technological means, that “you can’t eat and drink together online.” What is some advice you can offer to Christians who are forced to decide whether they should take the cup and bread virtually, or whether they should wait until we can safely begin gathering with fellow believers?
There’s a lot to be said here. And it’s been said from various perspectives in helpful ways. What I wrote in the book about the inability to eat and drink alone online was intended to make the point that ongoing fellowship around the table is, by design, an embodied experience. Every part of the journey matters. Standing, walking, holding, tasting, praying. The physicality of it, within the context of one’s local church community, is what constitutes the fullness of the sacrament. But in this time of online-only, at our church, we’ve made the decision to take communion during our online services. It’s not ideal and we can’t wait until the day we’re able to take the sacrament together again, in person. But for now, we’ve made this concession. We had long conversations about it but this is where we’ve landed. Wherever a church lands on the matter, I think the important thing is that the decision is made responsibly and theologically.
What is the problem with digitally-savvy churches or churches deeply desiring to stay relevant? Shouldn’t we want to reach the masses and reach the youth? Paul, after all, became “all things to all people…”
Simply put, relevance matters in as much as our message relating to the actual lives of actual people. But beyond that, what I’ve found is that most people—and emerging generations in particular—aren’t actually searching for “relevance.” In other words, they’re not desperate to find a church where the pastor dresses like them and the music sounds exactly like the music they listen to. They’re looking for transcendence — something totally other than what they experience in their digitally saturated, pop-culture laden, everyday lives. As far as Paul’s words, to become “all things to all people,” if you take his idea far enough, what you quickly realize is that our pursuit of cultural relevance actually doesn’t work. People are unique, with specific histories and nuances and depths. To become all things to all people demands more than caricaturing the latest and greatest in pop-culture. It demands much more in-depth work, learning people’s stories and leaning into those stories as much as possible.
You insist that at the center of all we do is discipleship: becoming more like Christ. Why does technology end up failing us in this regard? Can technology be a help in this regard?
Much to be said here, but in short, digital technology specifically values speed, choice, and individualism. Everything is always getting faster (speed), the options are vast and endless (choice), and our entire experience is customized to our personal preferences and personalities (individualism). When we’re not careful, these values can turn in on themselves and become not only counterproductive but also quite dangerous. Speed can make us impatient, choice can make us shallow, and individualism can make us isolated. When we find ourselves relying on these tools too much, and our reliance goes unchecked for too long, these values inevitably form us into an increasingly impatient, shallow, isolated people—and the danger here for followers of Jesus is that discipleship is actually a patient, deep, communal work. Awareness of the subtle, subversive, and dangerous ways our use of these technologies is forming us is step one. Implementing defined limits and parameters for use is step two. But if these limits can be implemented, then technology can obviously be helpful on a peripheral level; we’re seeing that with the way we’re able to stay at least pseudo-connected during Covid.
What has been the hardest thing for you during this pandemic?
The loss of embodied presence. Almost everyone I talk to expresses the same sadness and longing—that all of the digital online mediums at our disposal are helpful but ultimately unsatisfactory. Almost half a year now into Covid, as digital fatigue sets in, I think what I miss most is the ability to be near others as we worship and commune. Hearing voices sing together, listening, learning, leaning in together as we hear the Word preached, the shuffling of feet and the extending of hands as we take the bread and the cup together. I miss the chit chat and conversation in the lobby or courtyard, before and after, all the stuff of human experience that digital connections try but fail to replicate. Technology is doing a fine job keeping us pseudo-connected in this time but it’s shortcomings are also becoming abundantly clear.
In Analog Church, you hit on an important point when comparing how modern Christians read the Bible compared to how they have done so throughout Christian history. Can you expand upon that?
I explain much more thoroughly in the book, but in short, in the digital age we’ve all become “speed readers.” Think about Twitter, Facebook, and click-baity news headlines. They’re all intended to grab our attention quickly and give us catchy soundbites we can consume quickly, then move on to the next thing. If we’re not careful, this sort of constant consumption can have a dangerously adverse effect on our aptitude and ability to read slowly, to dive deep into long-format texts, to gain insight into the whole story and all of its nuance and complexity. When it comes to the Bible, this sort of slow, deep-dive reading is the only sort of reading that works. This dichotomy is something we have to reckon with. Having a life verse or reading a couple of short verses in the morning during a quick devotional time is good, but these are intended as supplemental approaches to Scripture; our primary approach must be one that immerses into the long, complex, beautiful narrative as a whole.
At one point, multi-site churches come up. It seems that regardless of denomination, this is becoming the norm. What do you find most concerning about multi-site churches and their prevalence in America?
I don’t have a problem with multi-site churches as a whole. I think it’s quite lazy to shallowly attack “big” churches simply because they’re big. What I try to do in the book is pinpoint one key element to the multi-site movement that I think is problematic — namely, the franchise-formula. When we take one “site” and basically copy-paste everything about that “site” onto another “site,” we’ve lost the ability to lean into the unique context of the actual community of people who call that particular geographic location home. Contextualizing the Gospel demands that we lean into the particulars, as much as possible, of the actual people who are gathering in an actual place to be the church together.
Weddings, funerals, baptisms, and so much more are now in a hiatus state. What advice do you have for pastors and leaders who are trying to minister to their congregations in such strange and unsure times and may be going through a loss of identity?
We’re certainly living through difficult times. For pastors and church leaders, our cultural moment is especially challenging because of the convergence of circumstances, both Covid-19 and the unrest over racial injustice and desire for reconciliation. If nothing else, I do hope that the book can give pastors and church leaders hope in the long view, that what’s quickest/fastest/most-convenient isn’t always (and isn’t usually) what’s best. “Slow and steady” has become grossly underrated in the digital age. But in times like these, slow and steady is exactly what we need. So that’s my advice—don’t give in to the temptation of speed; go slow and steady.
What do you wish or hope that churches will glean from Analog Church?
That discipleship to Jesus is everything. To learn the way of Jesus, to live as a student or apprentice of Jesus—this is what the Christian life comes down to. As Dallas Willard reminded us, “The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples—students, apprentices, practitioners—of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.”
Thank you for your time!
Jay Kim serves as pastor of teaching and leadership at Vintage Faith Church (Santa Cruz, California). He also co-hosts the ReGeneration Podcast and serves on the core leadership team of the ReGeneration Project.