Virtually Sacred Time

I continue to ponder the nature of church, community, and technology, wondering how the tools around us can be used to build up the Body of Christ. This is largely speculative; I’m not looking for quick answers here, but for reflection.

During last week’s four-hour-lunch, one of the topics of conversation between Human Hankie (and beverage connoisseur) Ted and I was about the nature church and the “missing generation” of young people (roughly, oh, high school graduation through baptism of firstborn child). Why do folks my age not go to church?

And, understand, I’m kind of a bad person to ask, because I do. I go to church a lot. Like, five days a week.

But for the most part, I think young people, professionals building their careers, and fledgling families have two big problems with church, or rather, are lacking two big things that would help them get to church:

Sacred space.

Sacred time.

The sense of a permanence of place and an identity shaped around place is significantly lacking in many people in my generation. We travel a lot more than our parents did; we’re more likely to have moved out of the house–out of the state–out of the time zone–for college, and are more likely to relocate for our jobs. We’re more likely to drive additional miles (provided we can afford the gas) to go to a better grocery store or movie theatre, rather than practice loyalty to one nearby just because it’s there. We’re more likely to see the space around us change shape and be able to separate those changes from any importance the space around us has. Place is fluid, dynamic, not a constant. Why, then– how then, can it be considered sacred?

If place has lost some of its sacredness, that’s nothing compared to time. Time is no longer a clear measure of the hours of sunlit productivity, or a steady count of days in a week. Many people in my generation work flexible hours, from home, from the car, from the office, on a train, over an internet conference call in the middle of the night with a colleague in Asia. Many people in my generation communicate not instantaneously via meetings or phone calls, but over email and text messages and Facebook updates, which can be accessed when the mood strikes and when time allows. What does it mean to meet at a particular time? Is there a way information can be dispelled on time delay? Can I TiVo it and watch it when it fits my schedule? In such an understanding of time, how can we define any of it as sacred?

I see two responses to this.

First, we can get upset and try to ‘fix’ the emerging understanding of time and place. We can insist that people should make a priority of sacred space and time, and rage against a system that increasingly tells us that location doesn’t matter (unless you’re in real estate) and that being on time is a nuisance (your schedule should fit you, not visa versa), that Sunday morning at ten o’clock is the best time for golfing or picnicking or sleeping in, that school clubs and games can and should schedule matches Sundays at eleven. Many of us do this. Heaven knows, when my sanctuary is looking a little empty, I do.

Or we can ask if there are ways that we too can be fluid in our understanding of what it means to gather in a time and place. If Christ is present wherever two or three gather, is not all space sacred? What about “space” that is a collection of electronic signals? Can virtual space be sacred? If God is eternal and present in all time, then cannot a gathering take place with a time-delay?

I’m intrigued, if not wholly convinced, by ministries like NuFaith Community, a United Methodist Church that exists, at least mostly, if not entirely online. A new church start, NuFatih doesn’t yet have a building, but that doesn’t stop them from having church. Go ahead, poke around a bit and tell me what you think. Try the online worship, sermons, prayers. Is this a gathering? Is it church? Is it sacred space? Sacred time?

I don’t know what the best response is to all of this. I do know that we need to have better responses, that we need to make better use of the tools at our disposal to equip, nourish, connect, uplift, and share the news of the people of God.

But there’s something else, too. There’s something that the church is missing that, whether people tune in online or in the pews, at 10 a.m. Sunday or when the mood strikes, we still need to provide.

We need to give people a reason. A reason to carve sacred space out of their lives and their websites, a reason to schedule sacred time in the dayplanners and iCal(endar)s. We need to have something real and authentic and honest and lifechanging to offer. We need to have a relevant Word and a timeless Word. Too often we step back from who we are called to be (God’s people) and worry about how we might do that (our programs). Really, people will make accommodations in their lives for anything, as long as we are willing to let those accommodations look a little different than we might expect, and as long as they can see that its worth it.

Give us a reason, my generation screams. Tell us–no show us– why God makes a difference in life, why church is vital. Gimme one good reason to consider your time and space sacred.

What’s our reason?

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