The Christian church has always been marked by her ability to create and invite people into transcendent spaces and experiences. The church has always been most dynamic and effective when she has stood in stark contrast to the dominant culture of the day—zigging when the world is zagging. This sort of creative resistance and prophetic posture is what we need most in the digital age. And the most creative, prophetic way to stand in opposition to the digital age is to lean into analog opportunities.
To gather when the world scatters.
To slow down when the world speeds up.
To commune when the world critiques.
Slow Church in a Speedy Age
As we serve and lead in the local church, we must remember that the goal isn’t selling a product or service but discipling our people. And discipleship requires patience, depth, and community—the very things that stand in contradiction to the values of the digital age. Dallas Willard reminds us that “character is formed through action, and it is transformed through action, including carefully planned and grace-sustained disciplines.” Carefully planned and grace-sustained disciplines. This is intentional, methodical, slow and steady work. It’s why Jesus used metaphors like vines and branches to describe the life of discipleship:
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the re and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:5–8)
No matter the fruit, it takes a while for branches to produce it. It requires constant care, regularly scheduled watering and pruning, and daily upkeep. The invitation to remain in Jesus is an invitation into this sort of work, distancing ourselves from the frenetic shallowness of our digital distractions in order to learn and practice the way of Jesus in the big, little, and everything-in-between aspects of life.
Tangible Experience Over Digital Convenience
I believe there is tremendous opportunity for this, especially with younger generations. Despite the grim news of declining church attendance and engagement among young people, we are also beginning to see these same young people intuitively recognizing and responding to the digital tensions of our day.
The most creative, prophetic way to stand in opposition to the digital age is to lean into analog opportunities.
David Sax’s fascinating book The Revenge of Analog presents a variety of ways younger generations are growing more interested in non-digital stuff. Things like Polaroid cameras and moleskin journals are experiencing a renaissance. One of the clearest examples of the analog comeback may be the resurrection of vinyl records. Vinyl record sales have grown from less than one million in 2007 to more than twelve million in 2015, with an annual growth rate of more than 20 percent. In the book, Sax quotes Jay Millar, the former director of marketing at United Record Pressing, as saying, “Digitization is the peak of convenience, but vinyl is the peak of experience.”
According to many tech-industry experts, the meteoric rise of Amazon signaled the end of bookstores. But this has not been the case. Amazon recently announced plans to open three thousand brick-and-mortar bookstores. Why? Because, as Millar suggests, while buying a book online is convenient, it cannot offer the experience. Younger generations, having grown up in an over-digitized world, feel this on an intrinsic level and are seeking out experiences they can see, hear, feel, and touch. They realize that ordering a book online and walking through a bookstore are two palpably different things. They’re longing for analog. And this offers the church a never-before-seen missional opportunity, to provide these sorts of transcendent spaces that are so few and far between in the digital age.
Unplugged and Alive
Several years ago, Jenny and I took an anniversary trip to a sleepy little town up the coast of California called Mendocino. We booked ourselves a room at a bed and breakfast that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. When we arrived at the front desk to check in, I asked the customary question, “What’s the WiFi password?” The lady gave me a knowing, oh-you’re-one-of-those smirks. I was confused. She replied, “There’s no internet here. Honestly, you’re probably not going to have very good cell service either.” At first, I thought she was kidding. Then, she pointed to the table in the corner of the room and said, “We do have some great board games right under that table. Feel free to take a few.”
Younger generations, having grown up in an over-digitized world, feel this on an intrinsic level and are seeking out experiences they can see, hear, feel, and touch.
I felt the withdrawal symptoms immediately. We were going to be in Mendocino for several days. How would I possibly make it that long without checking email? How would I survive without knowing what was trending on Twitter? How would anyone know what a great time we were having if I didn’t post dramatically filtered photos on Instagram?
Jenny and I got to our room, set down our bags, opened a bottle of wine, and stepped out onto the small balcony. The view was breathtaking. Nothing but the big blue ocean for as far as our eyes could see. We sat in stunned silence for a while, then began to talk. No phones, no laptops, no WiFi, no social media. Just us and the endless sea, seen clearly with our very own unfiltered eyes. Slowly but surely the anxiety of digital disconnection began to fade, and I started to feel an aliveness I hadn’t felt in a long while.
This is the opportunity and the challenge before us today as we serve and lead our church communities—to help people lift their collective gaze away from the abyss of their digital devices and spaces, to see Jesus out on the water, inviting them to step out in faith, one small step at a time, to go about the patient and deep work of following him, together.