When trying to make sense of the changes that new media have brought to us, we can use either supplementary or substitutionary logic. With supplementary logic, Facebook et al. extend the range of our embodied relationships; with substitutionary logic, social media replace them. Those who want to use social media to enhance their churches' outreach implicitly use supplementary logic. Those who want to worship online and don't want to change out of their pajamas or meet other people in their messy particularity ... well, you get the idea.
A recent trip to New York City for a first meeting of the New Media Project Research Fellows reminded me of the superiority of supplementary to substitutionary logic. This happened because the neighborhood around Union Theological Seminary is so deliciously, specifically, embodiedly particular. Union itself is a marvel: its gothic architecture makes it unmistakable that this is a place with history. Niebuhr taught here; Bonhoeffer smoked and worried and decided to go home here; James Cone and Christopher Morse teach here; Serene Jones leads here. The neighborhood extends this particularity; the Jewish Theological Seminary, down Seminary Row, has a glorious crest above its door: "And the bush was not consumed." A tunnel under Union leads you to the grandeur of Riverside Church, where Fosdick and Forbes thundered. Go a few blocks south and east, and you're at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest interior church space in North America. The morning I visited, the light shone blue through the rose window, filling the clerestory with incandescent beauty. The chapel at Columbia University, with its stained glass above the altar depicting St. Paul preaching on Mars Hill, is a perfect image for situated Christian truth vis-à-vis the gods on campuses and in Manhattan.
I recently wrote a blog about how to kill a dying church, asking questions about what to do with so many churches dying. I think the challenge is recognizing the signs that a church is dying. The problem is that churches tend to wither, which is a slow, gradual, and often subtle process. It is difficult to pinpoint when in the withering process it is time to take action, to make changes, and to make some vital decisions. While there are many reasons for a church dying, here are some practical observations that I have noticed in my experience. This list is certainly not exhaustive. It is also a list that my congregation has personally had to face, so I give examples of how my congregation has addressed these issues.
I attended a basketball game this winter at the University of Maryland, accompanied by an intern at my workplace, a man in his twenties. For much of the game, we chatted about everything from politics to how North Carolina is far superior to Duke in all the ways that really matter (on the court, of course). During the conversation, between glances at the game, my colleague maintained steady eye contact … with his smart phone.
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, "Woman, here is your son," and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." (John 19:24-27)
Mother's Day is always fun when the kids are young -- the homemade crafts, the valiant efforts of breakfast making, and the conscientious attention a mother receives in contrast to the usual "being taken for granted" and "aww mom, do I have to" gestures. My son is a sweet boy -- caring, empathetic, and a rule follower. When I was pregnant with him, it was as if this little organism had invaded my whole body. I felt pregnant from head to toe -- migraines, severe morning sickness, bloody noses, swelled feet, strong cravings for watermelon, and oh yeah ... my favorite: constipation. Sorry if that is sharing too much, but like I said, I was literally pregnant from head to toe.
In Christian confession, Good Friday is the day of loss and defeat; Sunday is the day of recovery and victory. Friday and Sunday summarize the drama of the gospel that continues to be re-performed, always again, in the life of faith. In the long gospel reading of the lectionary for this week (Matthew 27:11-54), we hear the Friday element of that drama: the moment when Jesus cries out to God in abandonment (Matthew 27: 46). This reading does not carry us, for this day, toward the Sunday victory, except for the anticipatory assertion of the Roman soldier who recognized that Jesus is the power of God for new life in the world (verse 54). Given that anticipation, the reading invites the church to walk into the deep loss in hope of walking into the new life that will come at the end of the drama.