by Matthew V. Moss
During college I worked at a specialty shop that sold running shoes and apparel. My primary job was to help customers find the right fit. Buying running shoes is a more taxing errand than merely picking out your size and style. Choosing a pair that will help you avoid blisters and injuries over many miles of pounding pavement requires you to talk to a trained associate, try on a bunch of brands, models, and designs for different foot-types and even run up and down the block a few times. A brick-and-mortar store filled with sales associates is a must-have for the running community.
In the wider retail world, store fronts now are closing on a seemingly weekly basis. Explanations for this meltdown abound, most pointing to technology and online shopping. My experience in running and retail leaves me mystified at how people could order products without first seeing, touching, trying or even smelling the product, but this seems to be the brave new world of retail! As some of the linked articles above suggest, the brick-and-mortar stores we used to know are expected to change significantly, and many of them will close. How people buy and consume goods and even experiences has changed. Not only is shopping done via technology — even “community” seems to be shifting to online media.
The Church cannot help but look at this “retail crisis” and think of its own brick-and-mortar buildings and the communion of saints that fill them on Sunday mornings. We need not fall into the trap of treating the Church like a business to see that changes in consumption and community are having an effect on the Church in Her life together. Think about some of the fellowship opportunities we often associate with the Church and how many have been replaced by online equivalents (rightly or wrongly, wisely or unwisely are questions for another time!).
How many have found godly Lutheran spouses through online dating? How many find social media and message boards as the best and most consistent way to find and converse with other Lutherans who share a biblical, Lutheran worldview? Solid, Lutheran teaching and preaching can be found in abundance on YouTube and church websites.
Now does all this online activity spell doom for brick-and-mortar congregations? Will youth rooms be emptied as young people migrate to private Facebook groups? Will Christianized versions of YouTube subscriptions and Netflix accounts do to church membership what they have done to Blockbuster Video?
Many beloved aspects of life in the Church give us reason to hope not! Singing along to a YouTube video cannot compare to the fulfilling experience of rehearsing and singing as part of a choir, filling the sanctuary with awe-inspiring harmonies. The weekly handshake and check-in with a fellow parishioner whom you only see on Sunday offers a tangible comfort that is impossible to reduplicate online.
And yet, if social interaction is all a church has or does, the fellowship of such churches may still wane into nothingness. Choirs and coffee hours do not have the promises of Christ attached to them to survive the changes of this world.
So what should we expect of Jesus’ Church where His rightly administered Sacraments are inseparably connected with His purely taught Word? We should expect Him to provide for them until the day He returns. What Christ has instituted cannot be replaced!
There is no electronic substitute for parents bringing their newborn to the font where the pastor will pour the water that is combined with God’s Word over the child’s head, uniting him with the death and resurrection of the incarnate Lord Jesus. There can be no internet alternative to receiving on your lips the true body and blood of your Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine for the forgiveness of sins. The internet and community developments can change a lot of a society’s life, but they can never undo what Christ has instituted!
The Rev. Matthew V. Moss is pastor of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Immanuel Lutheran Church of Klinger and Community Lutheran School in Readlyn, Iowa.