Book Review: Analog Church, by Jay Kim
Jay Y. Kim, Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age. Intervarsity Press, 2020. 216 pages.
Stephen has come to church six times in six years. Surprisingly, he showed up again last week, even though COVID has forced our church into outdoor meetings under a 90-degree sun. Even with online options, Stephen showed up to stand six feet apart from others and to introduce me to his girlfriend. With a sober but deeply thankful smile he said, “This is Pastor Benjamin; he came to our house the day after Mom died.”
That event was five years ago, but he remembers that I came; I suspect he always will.
At significant moments—either those of great joy or great sorrow—we need real people in real places to hold real hands and wipe real tears and give real hugs. As churches across the country wrestle with the best ways to foster fellowship when our gatherings are inhibited, Jay Kim’s book Analog Church shows us the importance of gathering to the Christian life.
TECHNOLOGY AND THE CHURCH
Analog Church has three parts: worship, community, and Scripture. In each section, Kim explores both the advantages and limitations of technology. Throughout, Kim argues that God requires embodied realities as part of the essence of the church—or as the subtitle says, real people, places, and things. To use an example, a person might find someone to date using an online app, and the app might even be used to arrange the date. But you can’t date online; you have to go somewhere and buy a meal or hike a trail or play golf. As Kim notes, technology can help us communicate but not commune. Communion requires more than fast Wi-Fi; it requires flesh and blood.
Advancements in technology claim to improve three main areas of humanity: speed, choices, and individualism. In other words, technology offers us whatever we might want and gives it to us quickly. But, Kim argues, we need to recognize that following Christ requires a wholly different set of values: “discipleship requires patience, depth, and community—the very things that stand in contradiction to the values of the digital age” (26).
In the chapters on worship, Kim talks about how stage and sanctuary lighting technology can lead to a culture of performance, not participation. “Rather than accentuating the lyrics we’re being invited to sing together, these image backgrounds often become mesmerizing shows accentuating a musical performance, and we end up watching rather than participating” (44).
In the chapters on community, Kim notes that the Greek word we often translate as church, ekklēsia, means gathering. He also notes that all of Scripture’s one-another commands require physical proximity; they require ekklēsia or “gathering.” He writes, “All these [one anothers] are difficult at best, and impossible at worst, to do online. These practices of the church, the gathered community of God’s people, require physical presence” (100).
Finally, in the chapters on Scripture, Kim doesn’t so much critique reading the Bible from a screen per se, but the social media trend to pull warm, comforting verses from their context and overlay them on appealing backgrounds. Practices like these, over time, tend to convey that Scripture exists to comfort God’s people but never confront them. To counter this trend of decontextualizing Scripture, he encourages pastors to preach sermons based on longer passages of Scripture, even grounding a topical sermon series on something like marriage or evangelism in a series through one book of the Bible.
With regard to preaching, Kim continues to stress the importance of the physical presence of the preacher with his congregation, as opposed to live-streaming a preacher from a different campus. “Preaching,” he writes, “is a participatory act involving both the communicator and the community, in the moment, not simply after the fact. . . . [It is] an act that must be witnessed rather than simply watched. Participation in the transformation process begins at the moment of the sermon delivery” (67–68, emphasis original).
A NEEDED ADMONITION FOR OUR TECHNOLOGICALLY-OBSESSED AGE
The shockwaves of the technological innovation explosion that has occurred in the last century ultimately reaches every church and pastor. When we were remodeling our church building three years ago, the contractor simply couldn’t understand my hesitations about including too much technology as part of the remodeling effort.
“If you pick that small of a screen for your sanctuary,” the contractor told me, “the size will be all wrong when you show videos.”
“We generally don’t show videos on Sunday,” I said.
Then we talked about how our new slide system works. The contractor told me to make sure I keep our church logo on the screen when we transition between slides. “Why would we do that?” I asked. “Can’t we leave the screens black between slides? And for that matter, can’t we keep the screens clear as often as possible?”
He responded, “In my context, you never miss an opportunity to market.”
“But,” I said, “people are already in our church building. Why do I need to remind them of our logo?”
So the conversation went for several minutes, each of us remaining equally mystifying to the other.
Screens, of course, aren’t sinful. But the larger point is that many churches pursue relevance to the neglect of faithfulness, and technology has become a significant domain where that flaw flashes in bright lights. I appreciate that Kim, writing as a pastor in Silicon Valley, perhaps the technology capital of the world, chose to write in a tone that attempts to win over churches and pastors to a better, more biblical way. For example, he writes,
[I]n addition to the harm it’s done to our churches, the unchecked effects of the digital age on the worshiping life of the church are doing damage to the very men and women charged with serving and leading the church into the future. They are doing damage to you—tapping into the insecurities, uncertainties, and performance-driven tendencies in the worst possible ways (51).
Kim’s illustrations indicate his familiarity with the struggles technology brings church leaders. He was once told to make sure he regularly looked into the camera as he preached so the other campuses would feel connected to him. “The thought of looking into a camera,” he writes, “to ‘connect’ with people who would be gathering on another day in another room on the other side of the city struck me as an exercise in missing the point” (47). I assume many in his book’s target audience have pondered the same thing, if not out loud in a staff meeting, at least in their inner dialogue.
A few aspects of the book were a bit theologically concerning. For example, Kim hints toward a more egalitarian perspective on ministry. Also, for those who already agree with Kim’s central thesis, the book might not give as much application as you may like. Even so, I was helped as I read the book. Each time I pick up my iPhone to refresh my email, I think about the nefarious connection Kim describes between the technology that drives casino slot machines and the apps on our phones (133–37).
Analog Church is a marvelously timed book in light of the fact that in a COVID world many people are suddenly wondering, “is virtual church enough?” Kim compellingly argues it is not. I’m hopeful many will take to heart its fundamental arguments as our churches begin to regather in the coming weeks and months.