This is the fourth in a six-week Easter season series on celebration and social media.
Martin Luther famously defined Christian worship as an ongoing conversation with God. What he had in mind was this: In listening to biblical texts and the sermons that expound them, worshipers listen for God’s voice—and then, through our prayers and praise, we respond. Likewise, God listens to our prayers and praise, and responds in turn with the good news of the gospel. For Luther, then, a life of Christian worship is a life of ongoing conversation.
Not just chit-chat, mind you, but the kind of engaged, ultimately joyful dialogue that we’d expect to see between friends—and in particular, between friends who have just shared and received wonderful news. To the extent that we really do receive God’s good news, we celebrate. Or, to put the same point the other way around, if a service of Christian worship does not in some sense culminate in celebration, we may well wonder whether any “good news” has been received at all. So, to coin a two-word definition, Christian worship is celebratory conversation.
What’s more, a basic theological claim about Christian worship is that it typically and irreducibly takes place in community—which is to say, socially. There’s a place in Christian life for solitary encounters with God, but the primary paradigm is social. God calls a people (Israel), not an individual; Jesus calls a choir (twelve disciples), not a soloist; the Holy Spirit indwells a throng (the church), not a single hero; and so on. In this sense, Christian worship has always taken place in and through “social media.”
It’s a helpful way of thinking about it: the earliest Christian worship services used the technology of the scroll, of literacy and language, of speech, of music, of gathering together in particular locations within particular architectural forms characterized by particular visual and acoustic arrangements, and so on. Later, innovative technologies of the book were added (a book gives a very different experience than a scroll—and today’s digital technologies “click” and “scroll down” combine a bit of both), as well as other social media such as public art (think Sistine Chapel), printed hymnals (first for the choir only, later for the congregation), and that new-fangled technology of the European Reformation, the church pew!
At their best, all of these are technologies of celebratory conversation, social media through which the good news of the gospel may be proclaimed and experienced in and as communal Christian worship. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are no different. In fact, I’m confident that in just a few years, the term “social media” will go the way of terms like “horseless carriage,” since virtually all media will be “social” in the sense of being intentionally interactive, conversational, and easily sharable through online networks. My kids will ask, “‘Social’ as opposed to what?”
All of which opens up exciting new opportunities for Christian worship and for Christian lives of celebration and discipleship. In his little classic, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer posed the deceptively simple question, Why do Christians gather together in a group when they worship? His answer isn’t to hear a great sermon and some inspiring music, or even “to see friends you haven’t seen in a week or more.” His answer: We gather together in order to proclaim the gospel, one to another. Put another way, for Bonhoeffer, the technology of coming together is properly used for proclaiming the gospel, an idea that renders every person both a preacher and a hearer of the gospel. But what happens when that proclamation can happen over great distances, and through quite different (but nonetheless real) modes of presence and celebratory conversation?
There will never be a substitute for face-to-face presence in Christian worship, or for in-the-flesh presence in Christian celebrations. But the rise of what we (for the time being) call “social media” presents a promising, fascinating new range of possibilities for keeping worship’s conversation going—with each other, and with God.
Matthew Myer Boulton is president and professor of theology at Christian Theological Seminary. In his teaching and research, Boulton has explored ways in which Christian worship founds and forms Christian life. He is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
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