Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Disembodied Gospel: Screens in Church

I’ve often heard it said that the central piece of the Catholic Mass is the Eucharist, while the central piece of evangelical services is the sermon. Granted, evangelicals sometimes celebrate the Lord’s Supper (whether it’s once a week or, more often the case, a few times a year), and the Mass has preaching. But there is a different focus between the two.

Think about this: If you’re late for church, what is the one part for which you want to make sure you get there? If you’re Catholic, it’s receiving the Eucharist. If you’re an evangelical, it’s hearing the sermon. When one talks about ‘being fed’ at church, a Catholic is usually talking about the Eucharist. An evangelical is usually talking about the sermon.

Now, the thing about sermons is that you don’t have to be present when they’re given to benefit from them. And evangelicals know this. For example, if an evangelical misses church, what do they usually do to try to ‘make up for it’? Listen to a sermon online (at least tech savvy ones do!).

Some recent visits to Willow Creek Community Church offered some other poignant examples. A few weeks ago, I attended a Sunday service at one of their satellite campuses. The service was just what one would expect at an evangelical church. A really good band led the congregation in worship songs. There was an offering and some announcements. But when it came time for the sermon, a video was played of the sermon given at the main church.

A week later, I attended the Sunday service at Willow Creek’s main campus’ +7000 seat auditorium. The pastor was there preaching in the middle of the stage, but I kept looking at the big screens that were beside and above him. For one, you could see him better on the screens, and two, it’s hard not to look at screens when they are all around you. So even when I was present, I watched most of the sermon on screens.

(I might add, even during music worship, where is the evangelical gaze directed these days? Toward screens. Such use of screens is so prevalent today that when an evangelical friend of mine attended a Catholic Mass for the first time, he said he felt something was different and eventually realized that it was the first time he’d ever been in a church that didn’t have a screen.)

This is taken to it's highest extreme with so-called internet churches. Type 'internet church' into Google and you will find the sites of several churches that are either partially or entirely based on the internet.

Now, it’s not problematic to think that one can benefit from watching a video of a sermon. Obviously a person can. But it is problematic that the central piece of these services can be, and now is, disembodied.

The central piece of the Catholic Mass, the Eucharist, is necessarily embodied. One cannot receive the Eucharist via the internet or over the radio. One must be physically present at a Mass to receive it (or have someone physically bring you a host if e.g. you’re in the hospital).

So why is this important? Because at the center of Christianity is the Incarnation - Jesus, the God-man. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1.14a) At the climax of salvation history, God himself came to us in a physical form. And why did He do that? Because we are physical creatures.
 
Evangelicals implicitly communicate the opposite as their worship life becomes more and more disembodied. They're trying to be the disembodied body of Christ.

As the body of Christ, we are supposed to manifest Christ to the world. And it ultimately can only be done in the manner Christ did it – in the flesh, physically, embodied.

7 comments:

  1. Well stated. I am trying to come up with a gentle way of responding to a protestant minister (who is a very good friend of mine) who wrote disparagingly of the Catholic Church's "refusal" to administer the Eucharist to non Catholics (as if that is a bad thing). Maybe that could be a future post of yours and I could just point him in your direction?

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  2. I think you have a few issues in this post. First is your emphasis on the Eucharist. In Protestantism the lack of a priestly class implies that any bread and wine partaken in Jesus name is equally valid to that which had a priest wave his hands over. The consequence of this does imply that a formal gathering is less of a requirement. That being said a community is integral. (Where people gather in my name, I am there...) I think its a tad hypocritical that you disparage an online church community when you have an online blog. Implicitly at least you are trying to form an online community. Do you think prayers offered up by your blog community would be less valid? I regularly correspond with friends on 5 continents. I consider these important relationships even though I have never met them in person. I suggest one day you try a skype fellowship!

    Moving back to your post, your concern about screens in churches seems a bit misdirected to me. Perhaps the screens, online sermons, and other technology are more a byproduct of logistics trying to maintain a community of over 7000 people. When was the last time you went to a catholic church with over 7000 attendees? Made me think anyway.

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  3. Hey Googlist,

    Thanks for your comment.

    You wrote:
    "First is your emphasis on the Eucharist. In Protestantism the lack of a priestly class implies that any bread and wine partaken in Jesus name is equally valid to that which had a priest wave his hands over. The consequence of this does imply that a formal gathering is less of a requirement. "

    In my post, I don't deny that evangelical celebrate the Lord's Supper. But it is definitely not the focus. I'm talking about the central focus between Catholics and evangelicals in their worship. Besides, and this is a different issue, most evangelical deny any kind of real presence of Jesus in their celebrations of the Lord's Supper, which means that it is still not a physical encounter with Jesus. It's merely a mental memorial, which keeps is mental and ethreal.

    You wrote:
    "That being said a community is integral. (Where people gather in my name, I am there...)"
    I agree that community is integral, and that evangelicals have community. I suppose I didn't state this in my post, but I do not believe that everything evangelicals do is disembodied. That would be impossible since we as humans are embodied creatures. Again, I just pointed out that the central feature of their worship can be, and now is, disembodied.

    You wrote:
    " I think its a tad hypocritical that you disparage an online church community when you have an online blog. Implicitly at least you are trying to form an online community."

    I am not against the Internet, i'm not against screens, I'm not against people even listening to sermons on the internet. I say in my post that people can benefit from that. But these things cannot replace physical encounters. They cannot be sum or even the central focus of the BODY of Christ. Jesus didn't fax himself to us. He came in the flesh. We are called to now be his body.

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  4. continued...

    You wrote:
    "Do you think prayers offered up by your blog community would be less valid? I regularly correspond with friends on 5 continents. I consider these important relationships even though I have never met them in person. I suggest one day you try a skype fellowship!"

    Yes, I think there is a difference between mediated encounters with people and face to face encounters. I think there is a qualitative difference. We have bodies. We are physical. Fully human interaction isn't simply a meeting of the minds. We can communicate that way, obviously I am right now as you've pointed out, but it does not replace real physical encounters.

    You wrote:
    " Perhaps the screens, online sermons, and other technology are more a byproduct of logistics trying to maintain a community of over 7000 people. "
    Perhaps, but such solutions are only possible because of their underlying theology to begin with.

    You wrote:
    "When was the last time you went to a catholic church with over 7000 attendees? Made me think anyway."
    The Catholic Church manages somewhere around 1 billion people on the planet. And yes, there are particular churches that are very large. But remember, particular Catholic churches aren't trying to get people to come to their specific church. Any Catholic church will do. Catholics are generally more spread out, and people are better for it.

    Anyways, thanks for your comment!

    Brantly

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  5. Something I've always loved about Catholicism: you can go to mass and have no idea who the priest is. He never says his name and it's not usually listed on the church sign outside like many Protestant churches do. Because it's not about him. It's about Jesus. It's about the Eucharist.

    Something funny though - my hometown's parish has a screen, built into the altar and everything. It's for the slide projector that projects the lyrics to the hymns up onto the screen (now it's a projector hooked up to a laptop, but same thing). But we never had to buy hymnals, just much smaller missalettes with hardly any songs in them. It probably saved the parish a lot of money over the years.

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  6. I went to a parish here in Marietta, GA for midnight mass. The parish had been "redone" and to my horror it had two big screens on either side of the altar. I firmly believe that this shows too much protestant influence and makes me quite sick. Needless to say I will stick to parishes that do not have this disrespect to the altar of God.

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