June 1, 2016

Armchair Religion

What doesn’t move me from the couch will probably also not advance my journey to the kingdom.

Bill Knott

It was one of those ego-deflating moments for a preacher that some believe don’t happen often enough.

I was walking one afternoon through the cavernous venue of a campmeeting facility in which I was scheduled to preach for the first time later that evening. A retired church employee recognized me as I wandered about the stage, introduced himself, and said he was looking forward to the evening’s sermon.

Brimming with naiveté, I smiled and shook his hand. “Then I’ll look forward to seeing you tonight.”

“Oh no,” he guffawed, half-pushing me away. “I won’t be here. I’ll be at the retirement village, watching you from my armchair in air-conditioned comfort.” With another chuckle, he indicated that dozens, probably hundreds, would be doing the same thing. “That’s the beauty of live broadcasts and live-streaming,” he chortled. “We get all the value, without all the discomfort.”

His line came to mind—again—a week ago as I sat in a church business meeting discussing my congregation’s plan to broadcast its weekly worship services. Across North America, in churches ranging in size from 50 to 5000, live-streaming and, in some cases, live broadcasts of worship services are rapidly become the new norms. With high-quality video cameras and dedicated teams of tech-friendly volunteers available in many locations, Adventists are now discovering that they can experience a virtual worship service in loungewear or bathrobes, without the inconvenience of battling—(circle all your favorites)—snow; rain; cold; heat; hard pews; long drives; too-cold air-conditioning; too-warm air-conditioning; crying babies; absence of anyone under 30; discomfort at meeting people they don’t know—or like.

Let me quickly add that there is also a genuinely valuable service that such broadcasts and live-streams perform, particularly for those physically unable to attend worship, or to those for whom the trip to church could prove unsafe or unwise. But the percentage in such categories is usually less than 20; the promised large non-Adventist viewing audiences have in most cases failed to materialize or remain undocumented; and yet the availability of stay-at-home worship is cheerfully offered to all believers as if it were, in fact, a God-ordained blessing.

Intriguingly, it’s a discussion that has been going in some form among Adventists for a long time. A May 1865 correspondent from Vernon, Iowa offered the Review’s first editor, James White, 17 reasons why believers should attend worship, even on a rainy Sabbath.1 While many of his reasons depend on the physical proximity to the music, prayers, and preaching of the Word that can—to some modest degree—be captured by video cameras and adequate audio, four of his points have weathered well the intervening 150 years:

10. Because, those who stay [away] from church because it is too warm, or too cold, or too rainy, frequently absent themselves on fair Sabbaths.

12. Because, there is a special promise, that where two or three meet together in God’s name, he will be in the midst of them.

15. Because, such yielding to surmountable difficulties prepares for yielding to those merely imaginary, until thousands never enter a church, and yet think they have good reasons for such neglect.

17. Because, I know not how many more Sabbaths God may give me; and it would be a poor preparation for my first Sabbath in Heaven, to have slighted my last Sabbath on earth.”

Public worship is, in fact, about the offerings I bring to Jesus—in praise; in prayer; by joining in the hymns; through returning tithes and supporting worthy projects; by sharing faith with other believers; by holding them as they tell their stories of grief and joy—and not only in the highly-privatized emotions that watching others worship may produce in me. What doesn’t move me from the couch will probably also not advance my journey to the kingdom.

So I’ll see you next Sabbath—in church.

1 F. Morrow, “Why I Attend Meeting on Rainy Sabbaths,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, May 9, 1865 (Vol. 25, pp 178-179).

Bill Knott