Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Church or Stock Photo?

My kids are due for a checkup from the dentist. Because of changes to our insurance, this means finding a new one. Word of mouth only goes so far when many offices aren't "in network" so we have resorted to listings and reviews online.

Naturally every website has pictures of happy children flashing their whites. (Why did you have to bring race into it? Well I was talking about their teeth, but now that you mention it nearly every picture is of a perfectly groomed white child- contrary to the real demographics of our community.)Unfortunately online reviews aren't much help- one bad review out of two doesn't really tell a whole lot. So we have to rely on the flash and glam of their websites. My wife was the brave one to first make calls, ask about services, and schedule appointments so I can only speak to what she described to me. I shouldn't have been surprised, but as my wife described it- the customer service on the other end of the line seldom matched the happy faces on the websites.

So why bring up the oral hygiene of my children here on this blog? Because the experience reminds me of the extent some churches will go in order to be attractive to "customers". Currently my church is undergoing a transformation, embracing and pursuing social media. The "model" we are following is another church, admired for its size and social media ministry. And although I am excited for this new direction, I'm not all that impressed by the church we are attempting to model.

A couple of Sundays ago I watched their online service. It was flashy and polished- they literally thought of everything. No doubt we have a long way to go to match their production value, and we recognize that. But it wasn't the production or its quality that left me cold- it was the lack of authenticity. The person welcoming viewers to the online service might as well have been the model for the stock photos from the dentist office. The video playlist of announcements and events could have been an infomercial. The pastor welcoming "all of you tuning in from the Eastside campus!" acted as though he was leading a pep rally, not a church service. So by the time the actual sermon started, I wasn't interested.

There is a risk to making oneself too polished, to glossy, to the extent that you come across as unauthentic. Picture your church as the supermodel that has every imperfection airbrushed before the photo ever sees print.

James Nored, over at the Missional Outreach Network wrote a post a few weeks ago making the argument that one reason the Churches of Christ are shrinking is because our fellowship offers a "right brained service to a left brained world." His post went viral in Restoration Movement circles. I don't think he's necessarily wrong, and he admits that the Gospel can never be sacrificed for the sake of image, but there are risks. Glynn Young posted recently about his experience trying to tune in to his congregation's online service and was left disappointed, wondering what the future holds for authentic community. Not long ago my wife and I woke up early to catch an east coast feed of a sermon series covering a book we were reading. It was streamed from the camera on someone's laptop. I could barely hear the lesson, but I could hear every cough and paper rustle coming from those sitting nearby.

I don't want the airbrushed stock photo. If one of my kids needs oral surgery, the reality is that it is going to hurt. On the other hand, I want someone who is honest and gentle when doing their examinations. A glossy picture of a staff that doesn't exist cannot provide that.

The same is true of church. Jesus drew crowds because he walked among the people rather than confining himself to the pulpit. He calls us to be real with one another, to love one another, to be authentic. Online services and social media only go so far- eventually we need to interact with someone physically, to carry each others' burdens, to sharpen one another. And no matter how pretty a picture, most churches are made up of people who are real, broken, and sometimes ugly. The internet might not, but Jesus loves us that way.

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