You might think American Christians are focussed on their mid-term elections today, and no doubt some of them are.

But the man who has been dubbed Justin Bieber’s pastor has got something else on his mind.

Last night Judah Smith announced a new location for his church. In a short video on Twitter he said: “People have asked: ‘When are you starting a church in Nashville? When will you come to Texas or Boston?’ Well…we just did.

“I am so excited to announce our newest location: Churchome Global. The location? The phone in the palm of your hand.”

Watch the video for yourself:

To say this announcement has upset Christians would be an understatement. The immediate reaction on Twitter was overwhelmingly negative.

Downloadable church

There are plenty of reasons why this video is shocking. At the top of my own list is the fact that Smith claims the new app can help people “actually build real, tactile relationship”.

I love technology and I spent Saturday at a wonderful conference which is challenging the Church to get more involved in the digital space. When it comes to forging real friendships, technology has a lot to offer us. But even the best online messaging tools are second-best to real life experience. We all know this! Why else do people spend hundreds of pounds on long-haul flights to visit friends in other nations? We could just Skype them. It would be easier, cheaper and require less planning.

Surely we should recognise that building “real, tactile relationship” happens best when its offline.

The other danger with Smith’s announcement is it makes church sound like a downloadable product, there to fulfil your every need and provide you with “daily content” (whatever that is).

It’s somewhat ironic that we Christians, who believe the Word became flesh, would flirt with disembodied visions of church. How exactly are you supposed to be baptised or partake in communion through an app? Answer: you can’t.

While many have been disappointed by this approach to church, perhaps we should not be surprised. Smith is a hipster pastor who is doing a great job of reaching younger generations with the message of Christ. Every generation has something new, fresh and positive to offer the world. But each generation also has its blind spots. Surely one of the next generation’s blind spots relates to consumerism and individualism. Isn’t Smith giving into these concepts by implying that we can turn church into a solitary experience where we become mere consumers of content?

It’s notable how this announcement comes just weeks after one of America’s most-loved pastors was (to use a Salvation Army term) “promoted to glory”. When I interviewed Eugene Peterson, he had strong words for megachurches. And I'm not saying I necessarily agree with Peterson's perspective on big churches. But I think his critique applies to the kind of digital church Smith is advocating: "A megachurch is no church at all. It’s all mega and no church. It is entertainment, pure and simple. No matter how good the preacher is, it is not preaching – there is no participation. Everything that the church has as its core values – names and relationships, quietness and listening and prayer is essentially eliminated.” (Read the full interview with Eugene Peterson here)

Sitting at home in your underpants and watching a live worship service is fine. It might even be beneficial and helpful to your spiritual growth. But it’s not church. That’s the overwhelming response to this video so far. But who knows what the future holds? If advances in technology continue and the lines between the virtual and the real begin to blur, opinions could begin to change. We could easily be eating our words in a decade’s time. 

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