Imagine for a moment that you’re reading this article from a freshly opened envelope that was mailed to your door.
Instead of distant cold pixels enveloped in the cold light of your screen, you’ve taken out and unfolded something tactile and present, illuminated by warm incandescent light. Instead of the current hipster font of this generation, your eyes stare at something far more ancient: scratches of ink set to paper like an artist setting her bush to canvas. These scratches of ink have been strung together and put into specific shapes and patterns that are unique to each person that makes them. And yet, miraculously you are able to decode the message, comprehending and transmitting what has been written to your consciousness. Most paradoxical and astonishing is that you come to find that you read with my very own voice and inflection in your head, because you’ve received this letter from someone you know and trust.
What you experience in that moment is that the letter in your hand is a form of connection between us. Unlike phones and computers, there is no glass case encapsulating it like an antique on display in a museum, preventing you from imminent access to what was created. With the letter, there is no transcendent virtual glow that you can’t physically touch or experience. This hypothetical handwritten article mailed to your door conveys the thought and personality of the author in handwritten script—it is tactile, present, close. When you receive it in the mail, you come into personal contact with a message someone created with their own hands.
This may seem like an odd way to enter into a discussion about Christian discipleship, but I assure you it’s more apropos than it seems on the surface. As you may already be aware, the handwritten letter is a rather antiquated form of communication. Compare the handwritten letter to other print communication like print, text, e-mail, or even the binary pecking of a telegraph and you discover that handwritten letters are woefully inefficient in how they communicate their message. Imagine how long it would take me to hand-write this article, not to mention how long it would take to arrive at your address.
But, even though letters have an efficiency problem and are, quite frankly, out of style, they do have an advantage over other forms of typed communication: they’re better at creating and conveying intimacy and connection. There is something about holding and reading a handwritten letter that makes you feel closer to the person writing it. Maybe it’s the time put into it, or the fact that the author’s uniqueness shows in their script. I don’t entirely know for certain—I’m not a linguist or graphologist—but I do know that the written word looks and feels very different from any typeface on a screen, even when the message remains the same.
Now, I’m no luddite and I am not arguing for a return to some sort of ideal past where paper was in short supply and the only thing to write with came plucked from the back end of a goose. What I’m pointing out is a simple truth that change is often ecological rather than merely additive. When something innovative comes along, you don’t get the old plus the new; you get something entirely new. It’s important to understand that different forms of communication have hidden presuppositions which aren’t necessarily crystal-clear on the surface.
I believe this is what is playing out in real time as you read this in relation to how we are currently doing discipleship in the modern day church. I’d argue it’s been happening for a long time and that it’s fairly safe to say that Evangelical Christianity has embraced the commercialization and marketing of many aspects of Christian discipleship. Spend any good deal of time surfing the internet or checking social media Christian ads, and you will come face-to-face with the subtle/ not so subtle marketing strategy that the local church cannot disciple on their own without the purchase of some sort of product:
- Want to equip your church leaders? Buy the proven techniques of today’s top leaders.
- Want your church to grow? Pay for marketing strategies with guaranteed results.
- Want to disciple kids? Go check out the glut of well-produced glossy curriculum options.
- Want to seem cool, relevant and worshipful? Buy an epic set of backgrounds and stage lights.
- Are you a pastor struggling with a last-minute sermon? Buy outlines, themes, and in some cases full sermons.
Now, resources are not necessarily wrong. However, I do believe that we need to be asking how the commodification and marketing of Christian discipleship is affecting, and even changing, our message. What are we losing in this environment? This is the ecological question we forget many times to ask in our excitement over the latest and greatest discipleship products. However, by not asking what we are losing, we create situations where congregations fly blind, subject to substantive ecological change while being convinced that it’s all merely additive to their spiritual lives.
Neil Postman, in his book Technopoly, writes, “Any preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience will miss the significant question: In what sense do new media alter what is meant by religion, by church, even by God?” As a Director of Ministry and Connections and having served in multiple contexts over the last decade, I believe the commodities that have been lost in this technological age are community and intimacy.
Along with our previous question, another one we should consider is: What does discipleship look like when our spiritual guidance is coming celebrity personalities that use media to market their products? While Christian celebrities aren’t bad on their own merits, we do need to acknowledge how they also make up a part of a system that has transformed and shaped our churches. Imagine for a moment you receive a card from your local pastor or from someone who has mentored or discipled you. The card simply reads: “I’m so thankful for you and want you to know that you are a blessing to me and to our church.” Now imagine a similar message coming from a small group video curriculum from a well-known celebrity pastor telling all those watching the video, “I am thankful for you.” While a very similar message, the force and impact is different because the former implies relationship, whereas the latter is a mass-produced curriculum designed for consumption.
There is very little, if any, community or intimacy in purchased curriculums and messages from celebrity pastors; yet, many are looked to in order to facilitate that very thing. It’s a cycle where we are encouraged to purchase these things and look outside of our local context for connection on the one hand, and yet that particular medium is unable to lead our churches to the sort of intimacy we both desire and need.
We need relationship, closeness, and connection with our spiritual leaders—not flashiness, or dare I say, perfect teeth. We need a faith embodied in the church where relationship drives formation. Perichoresis, if you are unfamiliar with the term, is a Greek word used to describe the triune relationship between each person of the Godhead. While allowing individuality to remain, there is an insistence that each share in the life of the other two through co-indwelling. As co-heirs with Christ, we are invited to enter into something similar both in our relationship with God and with one another. Our lives are meant to spiritually penetrate one another, sharing intimately in the life of Christ’s body, his church.
For discipleship, I propose that we don’t need celebrity, but we do need Gospel community and intimacy with fellow believers in our local churches. We don’t need the noise of Christian marketing and products, but we do need to be loud in the proclamation of the Gospel and the work of Christ in our communities. Instead of wondering how wide our outreach to the masses can be, maybe we should consider that the loudest and most powerful thing we can do is sit in the puddle with another human being as they wrestle with God and grief. Maybe the loudest and most powerful thing we can do is close the www.benrowe.com’s of Christian industry and go next door to introduce someone to the actual URL. Maybe the loudest and most powerful thing we can do is live the message in word and deed with no concern for how big our audience is.
Marshall McLuhan, a media theorist and devout Catholic, said, “In Jesus Christ there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message. It is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same.” Connection. Intimacy. Tactile. Why seek “better” mediums for our message when we have Christ that exists as one and the same? Christ instituted his church like a handwritten letter. While not always the most efficient or flashy, the church exists as a beacon of connection and intimacy where a body of believers are bound together in Christ and with one another—illuminated by the Spirit, not pixels.