The church is about connection. You know the analogies: vine to branches (John 15), different parts to make one body (1 Corinthians 12), grains of wheat gathered to make one bread. The church connects the people of God to one another and connects them all to Christ. The most obvious analogy today is the Internet. One challenge the church faces is ensuring that everyone has connection and knows how to use it. This has become increasingly difficult in the age of individual spirituality. Many seem to be staring at the spinning circle on their spiritual screen, as it says, “Searching for connection.”
The Church as Internet Cafe
This one is going to date me. I remember the days of the Internet café. The Internet was still called the World Wide Web, an exciting new repository of wisdom and novel social interaction. The hip young people would “surf the web.” Encyclopedia Britannica was still in print, and Wikipedia was a brand new startup that all professors warned was unreliable. The thing about the Internet was that it required a special connection point. Very few homes had Internet access, and those that did had the painfully slow connection known as “dial up” (featured in the 1998 Rom Com “You’ve Got Mail”). For the fabled high-speed connection, you could go to an Internet café and pay by the minute. These sprang up in major cities around the world in the mid-90s, and they had a glorious run that spanned, at best, 20 years.
Too many church leaders think of the church as an Internet café, a place where you have to go in order to get connected. This old model of church allows you to plug into the repository of spiritual wisdom and download whatever content you need until the next time you have a chance to come back and plug in again. The church was the connection point. Control of this special access built the institutional church as we know it, even though its dominance in American society was as fleeting as the Internet café. In their hubris, some church leaders came to think of the church building not only as a connection point to others but also the connection point to God.
Of course, this was never the case. God does not dwell in buildings, even the most sacred ones (1 Kings 8:27). The church as institution was never how the church was intended to be. The church is about connection. We certainly need places of connection, but these are not necessarily built of stone or timber. The world is running on 5G, and the church is still operating Internet cafés.
The Problem with Buildings
The purpose of an Internet café was, essentially, the same as the church: to enable connection. The network no longer requires that people come to a central hub to find connection, yet we still funnel outrageous resources to maintain buildings that no longer function as they once did. Where I live in rural Wisconsin, congregations spend huge portions of their budgets on buildings, even as they lament how empty they feel on Sunday mornings. When more goes to the building than to mission support, we have a problem. I do not hesitate to label this sinful.
Churches publicly wrangle over doctrine, and they debate who is worthy of inclusion or membership. I do not blame people for opting out and seeking connection elsewhere. They find connection at their gym, special interest groups, and countless online communities. But they still long for connection to the Holy. As St. Augustine said, “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Let me be clear: we still need places of worship. We need congregations that bring together people across generations, races, economic classes, and political affiliations. We need connection to the Holy. In a 5G world, everything may be connected, but people are still searching for connection.
The Internet has unlimited resources and opportunities for connection, but not all are healthy, and many are outright nefarious. The people of God need guides, not access points. If we go back to the hip concept of surfing the Internet, we need navigators on the turbulent seas. We need to stop locking the Holy behind closed doors (as if we could contain this!) and stop placing barriers to access or conditions on acceptance, for God’s love is extravagant and steadfast.
As the church, we do not want to encourage people to come and plug in. We want to facilitate connection. We want to train people in the language and practices of faith that connect them to the Holy in all spaces. We want to equip them and train them in the tools of navigation: the Bible, prayer, service to others, devotion to Christ (our unwavering North Star). We want to go beyond the building to nurture a thriving network of faith formation: camp, congregation, campus ministry, the home, online communities, and so many more spaces!
People are searching for connection that can happen in many places. While the church building remains one of these, it is not the most important. Consider how you can connect the people of God in the outdoors, online, and most especially the home. Even as some double down on the church as Internet café, there are many others responding in creative and faithful ways. Lean into these, that the church may thrive again and the Gospel be proclaimed in all the world.