Analog Church | Book Review


Jay Y. Kim’s Analog Church had the misfortune of hitting bookstores at the precise moment American churches were rushing to go digital due to COVID-19-related shelter-at-home orders in many places across the nation.

Bad timing aside, the book’s message is timely. “People are hungry for human experiences,” Kim writes, “and the church is perfectly positioned to offer exactly that.” The longer people shelter at home, the more that hunger will grow, and the greater the Church’s opportunity will be.

But will churches be able to satisfy that hunger? Kim worries they won’t. (His worries long predate the current crisis.) The reason is not that churches use digital technology. Rather, it is that they often embrace digital values, which Kim enumerates:

  1. Speed. We have access to what we want when we want, as quickly as our fingers can type and scroll.
  2. Choices. We have access to an endless array of options when it comes to just about anything.
  3. Individualism. Everything, from online profiles to gadgets is endlessly customizable, allowing us to emphasize our preferences and personalities.

Kim acknowledges that digital technology has made “major contributions to the improvement of human experience.” Sheltered at home with my family, I can confirm that a speedy internet, multiple iPads, and an array of online entertainment choices vastly improved our experience of confinement. Additionally, digital technology made church services and small groups accessible to believers who couldn’t walk through their church doors.

And yet, those digital values also have a downside. In Kim’s words:

The speed of the digital age has made us impatient.
The choices of the digital age have made us shallow.
The individualism of the digital age has made us isolated.

Digital values are good if you’re talking about consuming things. If you’re talking about making disciples, however, impatience, shallowness and isolation are nonstarters. Consequently, Kim warns: “Leading our churches headlong into digital spaces in hopes of creating an easy-to-consume Christian product severely diminishes our ability to meaningfully impact the culture around us and invite them into more meaningful spaces.”

Because of this danger, Kim encourages churches to “lean into analog opportunities” in three areas: worship, community and Scripture. He captures the basic difference between digital and analog with this couplet: “Digital informs. Analog transforms.”

Both information and transformation are important, of course — the former as the means, the latter as an end. But, as opposed to analog, digital has the quality of seeing rather than being. (These are my words, not Kim’s.) Seeing pictures of Yosemite, for example, simply cannot capture the wonder of being there.

So how does this information-transformation distinction apply to worship, community and Scripture?

By worship, Kim means the public gatherings of Christians characterized by “songs and sermons,” two forms easy to represent via digital media. The danger of digital worship is that it takes place in your head, not your whole body. Seeing others sing or preach isn’t the same as being in the room where it happened. An observer isn’t a participant.

The being-there quality of analog applies even more to community. “Digital technologies are exceptional and efficient when it comes to the exchange of information,” Kim writes, “but they are abject failures when it comes to the exchange of presence.” We may speak of “online communities,” but that is a useful fiction. Communities must commune, not just communicate.

The gospel didn’t come to us as a movie played on the screen of heaven, after all. It came as Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, who gathered around himself a community called His “body.” Digital technology cannot do this. It cannot reproduce the embodied character of community.

Finally, Bible. Digital technology provides tremendous tools for Bible study. I use YouVersion’s search function all the time, for example. The problem is that a search-function approach to Scripture is reductive.

Consider that God did not inspire the Bible as an answer to a Google prompt, “What does the Bible say about ______?” Instead, over the course of 1,500 years, He inspired 66 books that tell a unified story: the gospel. Understanding that story requires reading slowly for “deep comprehension,” rather than swiftly searching for “self-help tidbits or small morsels of encouragement or inspiration for the day.” Unfortunately, this latter approach is how millions now “read” the Bible.

Kim concludes Analog Church by talking about Communion, which is so analog — “you can’t eat and drink together online” — that it is an antidote to digital values. Given the extraordinary circumstances of the current pandemic, some have experimented with “virtual communion” as a concession to short-term realities.

Pandemic aside, though, the long-term reality is that the Church is intrinsically analog. Facebook and FaceTime may supplement a church’s communication capabilities, especially in a crisis, but they cannot substitute for face-to-face experience. If we Christians fail to remember this, we fail to feed the very hunger our contemporaries so strongly feel.

Book Reviewed
Jay Y. Kim, Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2020).

P.S. If you like this review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review appears in the May-June 2020 issue of Influence magazine.

What Christians Should Know about Artificial Intelligence | Influence Podcast


“AI is changing everything about our world and society. And we aren’t prepared.”

So writes Jason Thacker in The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity. In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to him about his book, focusing on how Christians should evaluate and use AI technology.

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host. Jason Thacker is the creative director and an associate research fellow at The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. In addition to writing The Age of AI, he helped write the ERLC’s “Artificial Intelligence: An Evangelical Statement of Principles.”

P.S. This podcast is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

The Age of AI | Book Review


Popular thinking about artificial intelligence (AI) alternates between the utopian and dystopian. Will our future be like the 1999 film Bicentennial Man, in which a robot becomes human over the course of 200 years? Or will it be like the 1984 movie The Terminator, in which a cyborg assassin travels back in time to kill the mother of the man who will prevent an AI-initiated nuclear holocaust?

Perhaps the future will be a little of both. As Jason Thacker demonstrates in The Age of AI, humanity is the image of God, and “God gave us specific jobs and responsibilities to perform as we seek to reflect him in this world.” Technology — even complicated technology like AI — is simply “a tool that helps us live out our God-given callings.” The problem is that humanity “brought sin into the world and broke the natural order of things.” Our technology reflects our mixed character as the image of God marred. It helps, and it harms.

Thus, AI holds both promise and peril. In the medical field, AI promises to make more accurate diagnoses and perform more intricate surgeries. But will it also deny medical care to those with low odds of survival? AI promises to make factory work less arduous, but will robots take jobs from humans? Social media helps people connect across distances and barriers, even as AI runs complex algorithms in the background and sweeps up personal data. Is that information safe from hackers, criminals and authoritarian governments?

Underlying these ethical dilemmas is a theological paradox. Some AI advocates — called transhumanists — believe humans are simply complex machines. When machines become sufficiently complex, they too will become almost human, like Robin Williams’ robot character in Bicentennial Man. The hope is such machines will avoid human failings. Thacker identifies the paradox: “We dumb down what it means to be human and treat each other as simple machines, but at the same time put our hope and faith in these machines to solve the problems and ills that we deal with each day.” In the process, we idolize our creations but demean God’s — people made in  His image.

“AI is changing everything about our world and society,” writes Thacker. “And we aren’t prepared.” Reading The Age of AI is a good starting place.

BOOK REVIEWED
Jason Thacker, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Trends in Bible Engagement | Influence Podcast


Sixty-three percent of U.S. adults “agree somewhat or strongly that the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life,” with 38 percent “strongly” agreeing. That seems like a good thing, right? Unfortunately, the “data shows a continuing downward trend from the previous year (42% who agree strongly) and the all-time high of 53% in 2011.”

For the past decade, the American Bible Society, in conjunction with the Barna Group, has released an annual State of the Bible report, surveying what Americans believe about and how they use the Bible. In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Dr. John F. Plake about Bible engagement trends, based on the 2019 report.

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine, and your host. John F. Plake, Ph.D., is senior manager of Ministry Intelligence for the U.S. Ministry section of the American Bible Society, as well as an ordained Assemblies of God minister. Founded in 1816, the mission of the American Bible Society is “making the Bible available to every person in a language and format each can understand and afford, so all people may experience its life-changing message.”

Eight Purposeful Habits for a Spiritually Focused Life | Influence Podcast


Every New Year, millions of Americans take time to write resolutions about who they would like to become or what they would like to do in the next 365 days. Researchers at the University of Scranton suggest that only 8 percent of people keep their resolutions. According to U.S. News & World Report, 80 percent of those resolutions fail by the second week of February.

What if we’re chasing the wrong thing? What if we need new habits, not New Year’s resolutions?

That’s the question I asked myself as I read Justin Whitmel Earley’s new book, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction, which InterVarsity Press will publish on February 5th. According to him, “We are all living according to a specific regimen of habits, and those habits shape most of our life.” He goes on to propose eight purposeful habits Christians should develop to lead spiritually focused lives.

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influencemagazine and your host. In Episode 163 of the Influence Podcast, I talk to Justin about his new book, those eight habits, and what to do when we fail.

Justin Whitmel Earley is the creator of The Common Rule, a program of habits designed to form us in the love of God and neighbor. If his name sounds familiar, that’s because he wrote “Habits of the Tech-Wise Heart,” the cover story of the November-December 2018 issue of Influence. He is also a mergers and acquisitions lawyer in Richmond, Virginia, who previously spent several years in China as a missionary. He and his wife, Lauren, have four sons and live in Richmond, Virginia.

5 Lessons I Learned by Fasting Social Media | Influence Magazine


My wife Tiffany could tell something was wrong with me. We had just spent a day with the kids at the local amusement park, Silver Dollar City. (Tiffany calls it “Steal Your Dollar City.”) The weather was perfect, the ride lines were short, the food was delicious, and the kids had a great time. And yet, my face gave away my inner turmoil.

“What’s wrong, honey?” Tiffany asked.

“My emotions are off,” I replied. “I’m not responding emotionally as I should.”

The immediate cause of my unease was an exchange on Facebook. A friend posted about a national tragedy that had just occurred. Rather than grieving about that tragedy, I commented about how people were using that tragedy to score political points. A third person jumped all over me for my comment, going so far as to question my Christianity. It got ugly.

All this took place while my family enjoyed their day out. In the midst of an amusement park, I was angry and unamused. My kids were riding rides. I was on my iPhone arguing with a stranger.

My wife asked, “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to fast social media for a while,” I finally responded.

Right then and there, I resolved to fast social media through the month of November. When I got home, I announced on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram that I was taking a break from social media — except for work-related matters— and then deleted those apps from my iPhone and iPad. I kept my resolution, except on a handful of occasions, for which my wife gently reproached me.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that my fast instantly solved the problem of my emotional out-of-whackness. It didn’t. I’ve still got work to do. But my fast did teach me a few lessons about myself and social media that I think are worth sharing, five in particular. Here they are:

First, I spend too much time on my iPhone. According to my most recent Screen Time report, I spend, on average, four hours, 7 minutes per day on my iPhone. And that’s after my social media fast. Evidently, I was spending even more timeon my iPhone before the fast.

In my defense, I do a lot of work on my iPhone. Plus, I usually stream TV shows on it when I’m at home. (At my house, Tiffany controls the remote.) Still, more than one day out of every week seems like an excessive amount of time to stare at a small pixelated screen. And yet, studies I’ve seen peg the average time Americans spend on smartphones at between three and five hours daily. So I’m average in my excessiveness. That’s not good.

Second, time is an exclusive commodity. Each day, God gives us 24 hours. Time doesn’t come with a pause button, let alone one for rewind or fast-forward. We use it; then we lose it.

The question I have to ask myself is whether spending more than four hours a day on an iPhone is the best use of my time. Just asking the question answers it. No, of course not!

Even granting that I need a smartphone to do smart work — which is true in a modern economy, to a certain degree — I’ve been reminded again and again that there are other things to do than stare at my iPhone. At the very least, arguing on Facebook with a stranger while my kids are riding roller coasters at an amusement park is a waste of time — mine, his, theirs.

Third, I have learned that I am easily distracted. In his Pensées— “Thoughts” — the Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

In other words, we long for the distraction of constant activity. If you don’t believe me, try sitting quietly in a room for an hour all by yourself. No TV. No radio. No book or newspaper or crossword puzzle. And definitely no smartphone or tablet.

It’s difficult. In my case, it’s difficult in large part because I have three kids, ages 5, 6 and 10, clamoring for my attention, as well as a wife who likes to unwind by watching reality TV. There’s not a quiet room at Chez Wood.

And yet, it’s also difficult because I don’t like being left alone with my thoughts. So, I unlock my iPhone and browse the web for news. I like and comment on friends’ posts on Facebook. I unleash a string of bon mots on Twitter. I look at pictures on Instagram. I stream a movie on Netflix.

Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Think about that for a moment. It implies that unless we can be still, we cannot know God. No wonder Pascal thought all of humanity’s problems stemmed from our inability to be still!

Fourth, I fear missing out. When I am still, I know God. I know that He loves me because of what Christ has done, not because of what I have done. This roots my identity in His grace, mercy, and forgiveness rather than in any accomplishment on my part. And this identity gives me a deep satisfaction with life, whatever my lot in it might be. “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances,” Paul writes (Philippians 4:11).

Compare that statement with what social scientists call FOMO — the fear of missing out. One of the reasons I spend so much time on social media is because I fear missing out on the news, on the latest gossip, on the newest and best in online entertainment.

And yet, there is an irony at work on social media. Think of it this way: I present my best life online. I take (and retake) pictures to get just the best one. I write (and rewrite) posts to be the funniest or most insightful. What you see of me is the me I want you to see.

And that means what I see of you is the you that you want me to see. I’m not seeing reality online. I’m seeing filtered reality.

The problem is that when we view others’ filtered lives online, we get jealous. We think others are leading better lives than our own, and we want the lives they appearto be leading more the lives we ourselves are actuallyleading. Ironically, then, we end up fearing that we have missed a reality that is in fact fake.

No wonder studies indicate that people who spend too much time on social reality are depressed! After spending nearly a month off social media — with clearly defined exceptions — I found that my mood had improved considerably. As I said above, I’m still working on out-of-whack emotions, but I’m in a much better place than I was at the end of October.

That brings me to a fifth and final lesson: I need discernment and discipline. At one point, I considered trading in my smartphone for a dumbphone and deleting all my social media accounts.

I didn’t do that for two reasons. For one thing, my iPhone has become a helpful tool at work. For another thing, the real problem isn’t the tool; it’s how I use the tool. The abuse or misuse of a thing doesn’t destroy its proper use, after all.

So, after my social media fast, I’m trying to be more discerning about how I use my iPhone, starting with simply using it less. Less time on it is more time for my wife and kids, friends, coworkers, neighbors … and for God.

I’m also trying to be more disciplined. Instead of reaching for my iPhone to distract me from my boredom, I’m trying to sit quietly in that room, attentive to God and to how He might be leading me. That’s always more important than whatever is happening online.

P.S. This article is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Speaking Truth in a Distracted, Secular Age | Influence Podcast


To be a Christian is to bear witness to Jesus Christ in the place and time in which you live. Every age presents unique challenges to, as well as unique opportunities for, Christian witness. In this episode, I talk to Prof. Alan Noble about how Christians can bear witness to Christ in the midst of a distracted, secular culture.

Alan Noble is assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University, cofounder and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, and author of Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, published by IVP Books and hitting bookstores on Tuesday, July 17.

P.S. This podcast is crossposted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Review of ‘The Tech-Wise Family’ by Andy Crouch


The first computer I ever owned was an Apple Macintosh Classic II. Released in October 1991, my Mac Classic boasted a 16 megahertz CPU, 2 megabytes of RAM and 40 megabytes of memory — 80 if you splurged. It weighed 16 pounds. I felt privileged as a graduate student to have such computing power on my desk. Some of my peers had to make do with word processors or, even worse, typewriters.

Today, my iPhone 6SE weighs 4 ounces, has a 1.85 gigahertz CPU, 2 gigabytes of RAM and 128 gigabytes of memory. It wakes me up in the morning, tracks my diet and exercise progress, and handles all my emails, texts and social media. It takes pictures, shoots video and streams movies, TV shows and music on demand. It stores books and magazines that I read, including the Bible. When my kids get bored — or, to be honest, when I get tired of paying attention to them — it entertains them.

My Mac Classic was a tool. My iPhone is (almost) my life. And that’s a problem.

All of us know how useful technology is. We can do things with it that we cannot do without it. In The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch points out what many of us fail to see as we use technology, namely, that it is changing us and our families, and not always for the better.

To understand his point, think of what technology is and what families are for.

First, according to Crouch, the defining characteristic of technology is that it is “easy everywhere.” Think of your smartphone. It is easy to use (my 3-year-old has it figured out) and it can be taken everywhere. Twenty-six years ago, I had a phone (landline, not mobile), a camera, a video camera, cassette tapes, a boom box, a TV, videocassettes, a VHS player, boxes of books, stacks of magazines and a computer. Together, they filled a small room and weighed several hundred pounds. Now all those things are accessible on a four-ounce device that fits in my pocket.

Second, although families have many purposes, Crouch suggests that its key purpose is “the forming of persons.” This has less to do with “being” (what we are) than “becoming” (who we can be). Becoming a person is a matter of virtue formation, and Crouch focuses on two virtues in particular: “wisdom and courage.” Wisdom, he writes, is “knowing, in a tremendously complex world, what the right thing to do is — what will be most honoring of our Creator and our fellow creatures.” Courage is “the conviction and character to act.” Forming these virtues requires loving relationships: “If you don’t have people in your life who know you and love you in that radical way, it is very, very unlikely you will develop either wisdom or courage.”

Anyone with a family knows that long-term, emotionally intimate relationships are the exact opposite of easy everywhere. The phrase, “There’s an app for that,” applies to many routine tasks, but not to cultivating intimacy with your spouse, rearing your children to be responsible adults, contributing to the wellbeing of society or leaving a legacy for your descendants. These require hard work at specific times and in specific places. Technology and family, in other words, point in different directions.

The question Crouch seeks to answer in The Tech-Wise Family is how to put technology in its proper place. How can we use it without our families being overcome by it? Crouch offers 10 principles that his family has tried to live by — not always successfully, he admits.

  1. We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.
  2. We want to create more than we consume. So, we fill the center of our homes with things that reward skill and active engagement.
  3. We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So, one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play and rest together.
  4. We wake up before our devices do, and they “go to bed” before we do.
  5. We aim for “no screens before double digits” [i.e., age 10] at school and at home.
  6. We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.
  7. Car time is conversation time.
  8. Spouses have each other’s passwords, and parents have total access to children’s devices.
  9. We learn to sing together, rather than letting recorded and amplified music take over our lives and worship.
  10. We show up in person for the big events of life. We learn how to be human by being fully present at our moments of greatest vulnerability. We hope to die in one another’s arms.

To be honest, I found many of Crouch’s suggestions radical, especially when compared to how I and members of my family actually use technology. Crouch jokes that he’s suggesting people become “almost Amish.” He also insists that his family’s commitments need not be your family’s commitments. Still, these commitments and the rationale behind them should spark some new ideas in you, your spouse and your kids, hopefully leading to a chastened use of easy-everywhere devices and a wiser, more courageous home.

 

Book Reviewed:
Andy Crouch, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017).

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P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.S.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

Friday’s InfluenceMagazine.com Articles


Today, over at InfluenceMagazine.com:

  • Chris Railey offers three helpful insights about the importance of delegation.
  • We interview Brian Schmidgall about how MiddleTree Church is building bridges between racial and socioeconomic divides in North St. Louis, Missouri.
  • I review Andy Crouch’s new book, The Tech-Wise Family.
  • And Christina Quick notes Pew Research about faith commitment and levels of education.

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