Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places and Things in the Digital Age
The official publication date for Kim’s book, Analog Church is listed as 31 March 2020. No doubt on that very day numerous church leaders were scrambling to “go on-line” digitally to keep worship services going for their communities during a sudden global pandemic.
“Don’t forget to look directly into the camera at the back of the room …” to connect with viewers, was a disconcerting reminder for Kim as he relates in one of his personal anecdotes (p. 10). The same tension that Kim sensed when he first heard those words would surely be experienced by many others responding to the necessities of the pandemic. Do you really connect with people through a camera?
After a year the full effects of the pandemic are hardly certain, but one early gauge may be a survey conducted by a Dutch Christian television broadcaster and a Christian newspaper. Survey respondents came from various church affiliations and measured a variety of subjects, but the headline producing figure was that almost 16% of all respondents said they had abandoned worship service attendance altogether, whether in-person or on-line. Many others acknowledged seeking on-line services from congregations other than their own, in some ways analogous to ordering take-out food. This Sunday pizza; next Sunday barbecued ribs.
Clearly church leaders will need wisdom to assess conditions in their own congregations and plan for the future. Returning to the status quo ante pandemic may not be enough. Kim’s Analog Church could be a starting point for church leaders to think through the issues of technology and the church.
Kim’s primary intended readership is local church leadership. Over and over he writes of leaders and leadership, While he cites the scholarly, academic, and theoretical work of others, for example, Marshall McLuhan, Kim’s book is ecclesiology at a practical, accessible level. At the same time, it is not written in a “twelve rules for an analog church” style. His goal is more to persuade than to prescribe. He wants to convince his readers that injudicious use of modern technology is warping churches in unhealthy ways, and he points to general directions for “turning the world upside down” and going analog.
No doubt many books will be written in response to the pandemic, but a significant advantage of Analog Church is that it was written just before the virus became news. Therefore, it reflects conditions before the pandemic. It would be a mistake to simply put away the video cameras, cease live streaming of services and go back to “business as usual.” The pandemic did not cause the problems Kim identifies. They have been there for a long time.
One of Kim’s concerns is that churches, in the pursuit of relevance, begin to adopt business models and mimic the patterns of the surrounding society. Along that path a sense of transcendence is lost. Explicitly, Kim wants to see churches where the hope found in Jesus Christ is not smothered in technological smog.
It should be clearly noted that Kim is not a modern-day iconoclast or Luddite advocating the symbolic smashing of image-making projectors and screens. Repeatedly Kim acknowledges the advantages of technology. In making his case for going analog, Kim outlines three advantages of the digital age, namely speed, choices, and customization of individual needs. The flip side constitutes the digital ailment: impatience, shallowness, and isolation. (pp. 15–16)
Kim advocates three things to foster an environment for developing mature disciples of Christ. “To gather when the world scatters. To slow down when the world speeds up. To commune when the world critiques.” (p. 26)
The pattern of three continues for the rest of the book. Kim looks at worship, community, and Scripture. For each subject he first describes the digital condition and then contrasts that with an analog alternative.
By worship Kim means the worship service consisting of preaching and music. He is well aware that this is an oversimplification of the subject of worship, and that a local service will include more elements than preaching and music. Song and sermon are the examples he selects to represent this aspect of local church life.
Regarding music, Kim is not attempting to reignite any church controversies over contemporary versus traditional church music. His point is that music in a church worship must foster participation, and that requires familiarity. One problem in the digital age is that a vast array of lyrics can be downloaded and projected on a screen for a service, but heartfelt singing from the congregation is sacrificed, at least initially until new songs become familiar. Here some leaders may never have considered the consequences of abandoning hymnals and projecting lyrics on a screen. There may be good reasons for choosing one medium over another, but there are also potential disadvantages to consider. McLuhan’s theories are relevant. With changes in the medium (hymnal versus projection) the character of church life begins to change.
Kim’s focus on preaching raises a question of applicability of this book for the global church. Kim lives and ministers in the Silicon Valley area of California. He has done so for over fifteen years and writes out of that experience. Obviously, he knows that environment and can write with authority about large, multisite churches. A major concern is many churches are adopting that format, with sermons being broadcast to multiple campuses. Kim issues an appropriate caution for any church leaders contemplating such a move. The connection between preacher and people in the pews is lost. However, this is not a church format likely to be considered in many other parts of the global church. Hence, some Christian leaders may sense Kim addresses a North American problem that is not locally relevant.
At the same time, it will be interesting to see whether small individual churches that resorted to video broadcasting out of necessity during the pandemic will continue to do so after restrictions are fully lifted. Kim’s observations would suggest continuing to live stream services should be approached with caution.
A more widespread practice is preaching with slide projection such as PowerPoint. Have church leaders considered what happens when the listener’s attention is drawn to a projected slide? Leaders who would never consider a multisite model and who would be happy to never preach into a camera again will preach and project slides without reflecting on the effect this has in a worship service. It would have been better had Kim focused on this issue rather than multisite models.
The second major subject is community. “We live in an impatient, shallow, isolated culture” is how Kim puts it. (p. 87) This is certainly not a universal condition as Kim notes in an anecdote earlier in the book when he witnessed people gathering daily for worship in a remote village in Haiti. In recent decades, however, the migration of people to urban centers has cut deeply into a sense of community in many places, and digital technology exacerbates isolation. In recent years much has been written about multicultural or intercultural church communities, and Kim does not have space to deeply consider that literature. Building community out of diversity is an extraordinarily challenging task as many urban church planters will testify. Kim does not have a “ten steps to community” program laid out. Perhaps his best advice is, this is going to be messy, but it is going to be worth it. The tax collector Matthew and Simon the Zealot, natural opponents as he pictures them, can indeed come together in fellowship, but expect some rough edges along the way. (pp.110–11)
The third part of book, on Scripture, is perhaps the most interesting reading and deals with orality and Scripture. Bible reading, if done at all, is fragmented, disjointed, and lacking context. Public reading of Scripture is often flat, lifeless, marred by mistakes, and short. The impact of hearing, in person, long passages of Scripture read or recited with understanding, inflection, and life can be enormous. Some people do internalize large portions of Scripture for public recitation. Anyone who has been physically present for a live recitation will know the deep impact it can have. One of Kim’s best suggestions is to organize regular public readings, in addition to improving worship service readings. (pp. 161–63)
If one reads Kim’s book with a North American background and mindset, there is much that is useful and thought provoking. The call for churches to be countercultural by purposefully embracing what he calls analog practices is bold and challenging. In the wake of the recent pandemic, many church leaders might be primed to reconsider earlier practices that over relied on technology. This book is a good place to begin considering changes.
Likewise, leaders in other cultural environments are also affected by digital means and methods and would do well to reconsider how technology is changing their church communities. If Analog Church is a good fit for a large church in Silicon Valley, it may be less ideal in other corners of the global church. But if readers can get past the largely North American flavor, so to speak, there may be valuable ideas for adapting to local conditions.
While well done overall, a major opportunity is missed in Analog Church. A few pages at the end could have been set aside for a “further reading” list. A book of this length can do little more than skim the subject, but there is good reason to have a gateway book that describes the subject, suggests its importance, outlines major issues, and then points the way to further reading. An annotated reading list could make up for what gets left out. For example, if readers want a more robust theological background, there are books that devote more attention to theological underpinnings for a minimalist electronic media approach. The church and media ecology, as some have called the field, has been the subject of a number of fairly recent books. The field is wide and deep.
There are “discussion questions” for each chapter. Clearly Kim expects church leaders to collectively read and reflect on the issues. Although helpful, the questions essentially point back to the book itself. This is where a handful of suggested readings for each major section of the book could give leverage to a church council discussion. Church councils would do well to have informed discussions about media and the church. If local church leaders have taken serious, critical reflection on technology choices, this may be a good place to start.