Sunday, May 15, 2011

Will iPhones replace churches?

Lisa Miller, the former religion editor of Newsweek, sees in smartphone apps the death of the church as we know it. And from all appearances, she’s happy about it.

“With Scripture on iPhones and iPads, believers can bypass constraining religious structures — otherwise known as ‘church’ — in favor of a more individual connection with God,” Miller gloats in “My take: How technology could bring down the church” on’s “Belief Blog”. “This helps solve a problem that Christian leaders are increasingly articulating: that even among people who say that Jesus Christ is their personal Lord and savior, folks don’t read the Bible.”

Young Christians “have come to expect experiences that appear unscripted and interactive,” the Christian demographer Dave Kinnaman told the Christian magazine Charisma in 2009, “that allow them to be open and honest with their questions, that are technologically stimulating, that are done alongside peers and within trusted relationships.”
This yearning for a more unmediated faith — including Bible verses live in your pocket or purse 24/7, available to inspire or console wherever and whenever they’re needed — has met an enthusiastic embrace.

“It is not too much to say that the King James Bible … democratized religion by taking it out of the hands of the clerical few and giving it to the many,” Miller claims a little earlier. “Just like the 500-year-old Protestant Reformation …, changes wrought by new technology have the potential to bring down the church as we know it.”

Oh yes, those big, bad clerics. Christianity versus “Churchianity”.

I can see three premisses at play here that need questioning: 1) Young people will want at forty the same things they want at twenty; 2) Online virtual communities can replace physical, local communities with nothing lost; and 3) No one really wants anyone else to be a religious authority. And there’s a fourth premise that obtains to Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Lutherans as well: Online Scripture study will replace the Eucharist.

The key statement comes in the middle of the post: “Young people want to ‘consume’ their spirituality the way they do their news or their music. They want to dip and dabble, the way they browse Facebook.”

Of course, we grant that that’s not true of all young people; such statements are never intended to be taken as universal truths. But even taking it as meant, it’s hardly a revelation. It was just as true of my generation, and of the generation previous; that’s why there’s always a decline of church attendance in the 19-25 cohort whenever the subject is polled.

Let’s face it, there are many, many people out there whose religiosity is superficial, even after the age of 35. Oh, they believe, and they’re good persons according to their lights, and they’re interested in religion … just as they’re interested in politics, or the Dallas Cowboys’ chances for the Super Bowl this year, or anything that’s really secondary to their lives. And it’s precisely to this kind of person whom subjectivism, the whole idea of “what’s true to me”, appeals.

But virtual communities exist only because our modern economic systems make real community life difficult (albeit not impossible); they’re good extensions but poor substitutes. People text only because they’re not with the people they’re texting. There’s no one on my Facebook who wouldn’t rather be gathered with other Facebook friends at a nice restaurant, a bowling alley or a picnic table out at the lake.

So it is with worship: Reading the Bible is a great devotion, and I suggest it to everyone, but it isn’t worship. Worship is both an individual and community activity, and Scripture itself points to this: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I [Christ] am in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20).

Miller tells us of Rev. Rob Bell (he of “What if there’s no Hell?” fame) and the virtual congregation he’s built for himself, which reminds me of the virtual congregation Fr. Andrew M. Greeley built up for himself through his books and novels. Which brings me to my next point: having direct access to Scripture has never done away with the need for authoritative interpretation. In fact, as I’ve pointed out before, this is one of sola scriptura’s major weak points.

The fact is, Miller’s wrong in one of her key assumptions: The King James Bible didn’t “democratize” religion. Rather, the Protestant Reformation took one church and split about a third off of it, then took that third and made out of it thousands of mini-popes (with more popping up on the radar screen every year).

And Miller’s wrong because Martin Luther was wrong: Scripture doesn’t interpret itself. It says a lot of things clearly, but knitting them together into a cohesive, coherent theology is a perplexing exercise. So people will still gravitate to people who can present a clear picture of Christ in an authoritative voice, even though sola scriptura gives them a sort of “heckler’s rights”.

This is not to say that the new technology doesn’t bring with it some opportunities for evangelization. The fact that the iConfess app went viral almost immediately after its release tells us that smartphones possess amazing potential for faith resources and catechesis.

I can see a day not very distant when a Catholic Scripture commentary and Bible study courses will be available through smartphone apps. And you can already follow the Pope on Facebook, though I don’t expect to see Papa Benedetto tweeting his every passing thought any time soon. But then again, ¿Quien sabe
? (shrug)

No, the new technology won’t do away with churches. Right now, Christianity faces more human opposition: secularism, materialism, relativism and subjectivism. I don’t foresee the triumph of any of these forces, however, because humans in general are geared towards the transcendent, even when they’re hopelessly mired in the mundane.


  1. Lisa Miller is pretty much always wrong. Mainstream media religion reporters tend to be like that. But she has some points here. For people who see church as primarily about consuming something this would be attractive. But I don't think there are that many of those. The question is why not? TV church has never been as popular as it theoretically should be. People want good music and good teaching. You can get that on TV. Why do they make the trip to a real physical church?

    I think a lot more Christians are sacramental than are willing to admit it. They want to be physically in the same room as fellow Christians. They might not talk to many but they just feel the spiritual power of that physical reality. They have no theology for it. But at some level they know it.

  2. Exaactly, Randy! There are aspects of worship of any kind to which some people feel affinity and some don't; there'll always be some people who want the physical community, though others may come after wandering around in their twenties and thirties. The physical Church isn't going anywhere!


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