My son is sick on New Year’s Day which falls on Sunday this time around. I decide not to leave him home while I experience some new church for worship and try online worship instead.

I type “online church” and find

A brief video from the young, white, male pastor shares the mission, “To develop fully devoted followers of Christ.” That’s it. He tells me the church is not about denominations or buildings or fancy structures. They just develop devoted followers of Christ. “If you’re in one of the areas we have physical locations,” he mentions casually, “we invite you to join us for weekend worship.” Looks like the closest location to Worcester is…Toronto. I am surprised to hear “physical locations” spoken so quickly after “We’re not about buildings.” Perhaps physical location is something other than a building? The pastor lives in a physical location in Oklahoma. Maybe he also lives in a building called a house. I suppose the pastor is suggesting that buildings do not consume their energy and resources. Their main focus is reaching people like me who are not, for whatever reason, in a church building or even community, and the best way to do that is online. “Whoever finds God, finds life.” This is their message to the world.

I click on “Try LifeChurch Now” and I’m taken to a page with a scrolling chat log on the right and a blank video box on the left with the words “This event has finished”. I check for next worship and see it will be offered at 10:30AM. That would be fine were it not 8:54AM. I could join the chat for and hour-and-a-half, but that seems like wasted time. I search for another online church looking for “local online church” and find “All Nations Worship Center” in Walpole, MA. All Nations forces me to supply name, e-mail, username, password and they want to know, in a few words, why I wish to register. I give them all of that and promptly receive a response from “pastor” congratulating me: “Great job! You have taken the first step in getting involved in All Nations Worship Center.” I wait five minutes. No new message about what comes next. I check other e-mail. Nothing more from “pastor”. I open a message from my town e-news informing me “Town Gets Internet Kiosk for Fishing and hunting Licenses.” I follow the link and a message from “Mail Chimp” arrives “I’m a little embarrassed right now. Oh noes. Apologies for interrupting your internet fun, but we’ve encountered a small hiccup…” WTF? Apparently the link to the hunting and fishing online kiosk has been sabotaged by animals? Who would have guessed chimps were in league with deer and trophy largemouth bass?

Still no message from All Nations, and now online church is no more or less interesting to me than hunting and fishing licenses and mail chimps. LifeChurch will have to be pretty good to hold my attention. I recheck LifeChurch and see that the worship time indicator is set to Halifax time zone—the maritime zone. I reset the zone to “Toronto” and get EST. So worship begins for me at 9:30 and not 10:30. Excellent! I settle-into my plush couch, the laptop warming my lap. I’m wearing sweat-pants to worship.

9:30 Worship (Eastern Standard Time) January 1, 2012

Convenience. I didn’t have to dress-up for church. I didn’t have to fix my hair, rush to finish my breakfast or even brush my teeth for worship. For one day we didn’t have to schedule a departure or an arrival unlike every other day of the week. I finally understood what Lionel Ritchie meant when he sang “I’m easy like Sunday morning.” During the service I could “mute” the music to hear my son rather than muting my son to hear the music. He’s watching Animal Planet beside me on the couch and who’s to say which screen will be the greater inspiration this morning? If 9:30AM had not worked for worship because my family needed me more or, let’s be honest, because I was more energized by the man paddling through Africa in a narrow boat to catch a giant catfish, then I could have watched a later service. I could have watched at midnight! Or on Tuesday!

Active Participation. Before the service began I sent a message “I’m new here.” “Maria” and “BigDave” respond with “Welcome, Doug!!!” A little later I checked to see if “welcome” was the full extent of the hospitality, so I asked “What does ‘Hallelujah’ mean?” The man with the cute hat and small guitar is sang the word repeatedly in the song “God I Look to You”. Some guy named Jeremy responded “Doug, it means Praise God.” Cool! A little later I asked the singer’s name so I could look him up on YouTube. TerriKToo responded “JT Murrell.” Great! Most of the chat was superficial stuff (see “Wall” below), but I instantly felt fully engaged. When the speaker began the message of the day I clicked a “notes” tab to see his outline. During the offering time I checked the church’s financials. Income for 2010 was $43.2 million. Expenses were $33.3 million. $8.4 for leadership and campus operations; $5.7 million for weekend experiences; $6 million for children and youth services; $4.6 million for compassion; $3.9 million for tech, etc. If I had felt moved to give I would have followed a link to a PayPal section. There was no option for giving $2, the U.S. average worship donation, however I was encouraged to set-up an electronic, automatic debit account.

Live Prayer Button. At 9:30 two praise songs “Freedom is Here” and “God I Look to You” were presented with an MTV “Unplugged” aesthetic (I counted ten eclectically placed lamps). At 9:42 a young man tells us that the problems of 2011 are not simply eliminated by the start of a new year. That would require a miraculous intervention! The pastor held up a new book by John Maxwell, The 5 Levels of Leadership, and told us that his dear friend John would speak about miracles. John’s message wrapped-up at 10:05 and we were invited to pray for Jesus to come into our hearts. As we did, little blue hands appeared in an information box telling us how many people had clicked the “Raise hand” box. “5, 7, 9, 11.” These were new commitments to Jesus? At 10:19 the pastor encouraged us to worship God through giving and then the service was over quite abruptly at 10:25. That transition was jarring and I no longer felt that I could connect with anyone through the chat box (see “Wall” below). However, I knew I could click the red “Live Prayer” button to be connected to someone who would allow me to process what I had heard and what I was feeling. I didn’t hit the button, however, because I assumed some other person needed the attention more than me, but it reminded me of how important it is to offer participants an opportunity to work through their thoughts and feeling after experiencing worship. How many churches offer space for meaningful follow-up through prayer with pastors or lay leaders or even simply chairs to sit next to someone assuming the role of listening-friend?


Banal Message. The fifty or sixty-something speaker arrived at the stool, sat down, splayed his legs in an uncomfortable display of informality (and his crotch), and shared “My name is John, what’s your name?” The crowd shouts a cacophony of names. He laughed and claimed he loved all of us. My deceit-detector flashed red with insincerity at this opening and continued blinking throughout the brief message. My son could see the light too. When John said “Most of you are too young to understand this, but I think grandchildren are a reward for not killing your children.” My child looked at me, stunned, and said, “Is he kidding?” I wasn’t sure.

Quaker pastor Phillip Gulley, in his 2011 book “The Evolution of Faith: How God is Creating a Better Christianity,” makes the startling claim:

“For too long, the pastor’s function has been that of propagandist perpetuating a party-line view of God that is not always helpful or sound” (p.34).

The party-line view of God, based on a simplistic reading of Mark 6:31-41, is that God will provide a miracle when necessary. Maxwell’s key idea for the day, expressed to us slowly so we could write it down: “When there is a need sensed by a few and each individual understands his or her responsibility and gives his all regardless of the odds, then Jesus works a miracle.” What follows is the hackneyed claim that Jesus can and will do this for any one of us with a problem. “You either need the miracle or you need to be the channel of the miracle,” he assures us. Either way there is no question that the divine gumball machine sprockets will deliver the goods. Banal. Are there any other interpretations of this passage? Are there difficulties with the assumption that God plays fetch for humans?

Luckily, a chat bar to the right of the video offered a place for me to work through my own objections and doubts in real time. Unfortunately the chat bar featured more propaganda.

Superficial Chats. Chat hosts were busy herding inappropriate posts from “aids” (who wrote “I’m gonna kill you all”), “sexsex6” (whom they asked to change his or her chat ID) and others trying to point followers toward personal websites. They were also busy “Handing out muffins” (a virtual church offers virtual muffins…how, um, thoughtful) and expressing their joy in greeting returning participants by hugging them online. “Welcome back (((((((((Blaze))))))))))!” That’s a chat hug, apparently. No hugs for DougRJ today. Maybe next week?

I tested the theological depth of the chat waters typing my discomfort with the idea that God is involved in our petty, personal issues when there are such big problems out there. No response. Later I write, “Shouldn’t we ask for a miracle in Africa rather than for ourselves?” Someone responded to me saying “I pray for everyone.” Seems like a cop-out to me, but how do you respond to that? I am quiet for a while and then, amidst a few tweets and texts of “love this guy” and “now want to read his book”, I suggest “This is a pretty casual discussion on miracles.” No response. No one will really engage. At the end of his message I researched John Maxwell on wikipedia to see just how many books he’d written. Instead I found a news article from a time when John was stopped by Florida airport security for trying to bring a handgun onto the plane. I return to the chat room and toss a rock in the pond by posting the article and saying “I have trouble accepting a message about God’s miracles from a man who seems prepared to perform his own miracle if necessary.” A host gently asks that I remain on-topic. On topic? I write that this is a credibility issue. Someone else responded that there is nothing wrong with carrying a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other. I respond “Really? I didn’t remember Jesus offering as much.” Silence.

I suppose my LifeChurch antagonist might have offered some historical precedent from abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher who considered a gun a “Greater moral agent than a Bible,” but there was no room for this kind of give and take in chat land. Chat space offered the promise of real time engagement but left me feeling frustrated and incomplete. I wished chat hosts had different responsibilities: One could wrangle with “sexsex6” and “aids” while another could ((((((Blaze))))))) and other returning guests, and at least one host could have been looking for questions or responses that seemed to rattle a tin cup on jail bars—the theological queries.

“This Event Has Finished.” When a live, “physical location” service ends, perfume and good will still linger in the room. Some kid is usually waiting for parents to finish a conversation. Some man is usually picking-up paper programs or wrapping-up guitar cables. Laughter can be heard in some other room. But at, the event finishes, the video screen goes black. Chats continue on and the red button continues to glow, but the online parking lot clears in record time and we are all back to our cinnamon rolls and Animal Planet within minutes. The “event” did not feel like “church” to me. These disjointed, non-physical locations events are rapidly becoming that “third” place for many of us, so I am not surprised that a guy from Oklahoma now captains a $43 million cruise ship sailing across the Internet ocean.

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