short fiction by Tom Raabe
“You’re going to be out of a job soon, Pastor Bob,” I said to our pastor in the handshake line the other Sunday.
He grabbed my hand and started pulling me through. “You can write a comment about the sermon on the pew card if you want to, Tom,” he said evenly. “Like you usually do.” He kept pulling.
“Oh, not you personally, Pastor,” I said. “But preachers everywhere.”
He released my hand. “I am so relieved,” he said.
“There are some churches now,” I said, “where the pastor doesn’t preach the sermons. A hologram does.”
“A holographic preacher?”
“Know what I’d like to see?” he said. I didn’t. “A holographic congregation.”
“You up there in the pulpit live, and all of us out in the pews holograms?”
“Oh, right,” I said. “You’d love that, wouldn’t you?”
He smiled at the thought.
“Everybody in unison nodding their heads when you make a big point.”
“And everybody laughing at your jokes, all at once.”
“And,” he said, poking his finger into my pectoral muscle, “nobody sitting in the front pew folding his arms and shaking his head every time I make a point he disagrees with.”
Which was a lie. Sometimes I sit in the second pew.
He looked at me, then looked away. There was a pause.
I could tell Pastor Bob was running it over in his head. A bemused expression spread across his face. He was probably reflecting on how fast the tech revolution has intruded upon the ministry. It wasn’t so long ago that the most pressing tech problem pastors had was changing a burned-out bulb in the filmstrip projector during the Sunday school hour. But now, they’re creating preservice announcement videos, and playing YouTube segments during sermons, and syncing up slides to correspond to key points in their messages, and making decisions about fonts and background images for social media “shareables” and setting up the church website for online giving. Yes, it’s a brave new world out there these days, and the church is right in the middle of it.
Pastor Bob brought a hand up and stroked his chin, deep in thought. I could guess what he was thinking: How far should the church go with technology, and how fast? Take virtual reality, for instance. It is happening. It is “real.” And it’s only going to grow in popularity, as people live for hours at a time in virtual worlds. One could imagine it being employed during sermons, as worshipers are thrown via virtual reality headsets into the middle of the pastor’s sermon illustrations. Is this a good thing? Communicating what has been believed by all Christians, everywhere and always, via virtual reality headwear? Yeah, I guess so. But what pastor wants to be preaching to a roomful of people wearing 3-D goggles?
Pastor Bob directed his gaze out the sanctuary doorway, toward the street. He was scowling. No doubt he was wondering about where the next generations of smartphones will take us. Many people already live on their phones — they are islands unto themselves, with their primary forms of community coming through online social networks. As these phones get “smarter,” capable of more and more functions, won’t this atomization get even more profound? And won’t the community aspects of the church, of the body of Christ physically engaging one another, become even more crucial to our spiritual health?
Pastor Bob was looking at the ceiling now, still scowling. Is technology truly neutral, he could have been thinking, an instrument whose morality is determined solely by its use? Or is it maybe okay not to embrace new technology simply because that technology is available, simply because it is there, simply because it makes something faster and more efficient (when speed and efficiency are not necessarily problems to begin with)? Is it true that a church that does not embrace new technology will lose members to a church that does? And if that’s true, does it matter? Is blogger Carey Nieuwhof right when he says, “If the change inside the church isn’t equal to or greater than the change outside our walls, irrelevance is inevitable”?
Pastor Bob tore his eyes off the ceiling and leveled me in his sight. He sighed. “It’s been at least a minute,” he said. “Why are you still here?”
I took a step toward the street. “Just leaving, Pastor,” I said. “See you next Sunday.”
“Send your hologram instead.”
Tom Raabe is a member of Christ Church Lutheran in Phoenix. None of the pastors at his church is named Bob.