A Theology of Virtual Sacraments

Oftentimes, I have people asking me my opinion on the validity of virtual sacraments. So here’s the foundation of theology of virtual sacraments.

1. Technology is not autonomous.
No matter how sophisticated the technology is, it still has to be programmed by a human being. Everyday I depend on sophisticated bots to collect and gather information from a variety of sources. But I was the one who programmed those bots to search out, identify, qualify, collect, and distribute the desired information.

So what this means is that every time we interact with some entity virtually, regardless of the skin the avatar is using, behind that is a real person. Which means, the conversations and relationships you build with the individual in the game or virtual world has the same value as if someone had come and sat down in your office or home.

To devalue the individual just because of where you first met them, is to devalue the reality that Jesus loves and sacrificed for that person.

2. Communion is adaptable.
At the last Supper, Jesus shared both wine and unleavened bread as a means of communion. And for hundreds of years, that’s how communion was served. But in the 1890’s, a Wesleyan-Methodist pastor by the name of Dr. Thomas Welch created pasteurized grape juice so that those of the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition who are opposed to alcohol could still take part in the sacrament of communion. I’ve seen the communion “wine” presented via water, kool-aid, soda, and beer as a representative of taking part in the blood of Jesus.

I’ve seen the communion bread presented with the wafers, those weird little tick-tak style of bread, actual bread, and most recently gluten-free bread. I’ve even seen pastors use M&M’s, crackers, pretzels, and slices of pizza as a means of consuming the body and remembering Jesus.

What’s important is not the elements, but rather the symbolism of the elements. Remembering the death of Jesus, intentionally choosing to be part of the body of Christ, and the commitment to love and care for the other believers in our own congregation and across the world.

3. Baptism is fluid.
Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. A river that people used to bath in and clean themselves. A river that people used to wash their clothes in. A Living water that flowed and washed away the impurities.

But today, we baptize in weird, semi-heated bathtubs in our sanctuary. Or we baptized in stock tanks meant for livestock. Occasionally you’ll hear of someone going to a lake or a river to baptize, but that’s rare. Some people just sprinkle water from a container on people.

I’ve heard of some in Africa during long periods of drought, that have baptized with dirt. I’ve heard of others who have used the anointing of oil as a means of baptism. The reality is that if we think that baptism is simply about water, we’re missing what is significant.

What’s significant is the testimony of the believer. The public declaration that they have chosen to abandon the world and have committed to following Jesus. The water is simply a substantive vehicle that physically conveys this public declaration.

4. God doesn’t care.
I can see and understand the animosity of those against this and I can see and understand the affirmation of those for this. However – at the end – I don’t think it really matters to God at all. It matters to us, but not to God.

And if it did matter to God, then I’m not sure I’d want to be in a relationship with God. Because what if I spent my whole life committed to following and serving God, only to have Him disqualify me from being in relationship with Him for eternity just because I took communion with grape juice rather than wine or that I was baptized virtually instead of in a living river like Jesus was? I don’t want to be in a relationship with a God like that and I sincerely doubt anyone else who is serious about their relationship with God would either.

5. You really don’t care either.
I’ll add this one last thought. As a pastor, if someone came to you and said they were saved, baptized, and discipled via an online ministry – are you really going to tell that person that it doesn’t count? That the relationship they have with God is invalidated because they didn’t do it the way you think it should be done?

There’s no way you’d do that. You’d welcome them in with open arms and great them as a brother or sister in Christ. They are family, no matter how they came into the family.

If you did reject them, then I would wonder if you should actually be in ministry at all. Because if we can’t accept that God is going to reach all kinds of people through all kinds of methods – regardless of whether we agree with those methods or not, then it’s probably best to stop being a pastor and take some time to learn what it really means to follow Jesus.

Conversational Church Style

The last church I pastored was a small, well-established church at the end of it’s life. We met in a coffeehouse that had previously been the church building and we engaged in what I called a “conversational service style.” Other’s might classify this as a “dialogical” approach to the weekly gathering.

We had transitioned to this style of service because I had become increasingly convinced that the congregation I served knew about Jesus and the Bible, but they did not know how to talk about Jesus  or biblical concepts. They could listen, absorb, and learn, but they struggled in actually talking about what they were learning.

In all fairness, if you were to ask the members of the congregation, I’m sure that they would deny my assertion, but the reality is that as the pastor leading a group made up primarily of heavily-churched individuals, I recognized the pattern of familiarity had created complacency and recognized there was a need for a different approach to learning how to live and think like Jesus.

Here’s the format we followed:

We gathered at an appointed time on Sunday mornings at 10:00 AM. We were pretty loose with when we started, sometimes we started right on time, other days we spent the first 5-10 minutes just catching up with each other.

Next, we entered into a time of worship singing. Typically this was 3-4 songs. Then the scripture passage for the day was read. Then I presented a 5-10 minute brief synopsis of the scripture referencing culture, timeline, various historical references, etc.

The remainder of the service, the congregation talked about the following questions:

 
1. How would you apply this scripture to your life? (15 mins followed by a brief community discussion about how to apply the scripture.)
2. How would you share this scripture with someone else? (10 mins followed by a brief community discussion about how to share the scripture.)
3. What is something that you need prayer for? (5 mins of sharing prayer requests followed by an additional 5-10 minutes of table prayer, followed by a closing prayer)
 
The results of this approach was varied. For those who were not heavily-churched, they began to grow and learn. I could see how talking about Jesus was helping to build their relationship with Jesus. They may not get the biblical concepts exactly right, but they were trying and learning from each other.

For those who were heavily-churched, this was an incredibly uncomfortable environment. A common complaint was that they just wanted a regular sermon, they didn’t want to have to talk with each other. Because of this, I could see how the conversational environment was a constant irritation to them. They didn’t know how to talk about the Bible that they had heard so much about and because of this, they were unable to see any value in what we were doing.

In the end, this format was terrible for individuals who held onto to the belief that the church was supposed to look and feel a certain way and extraordinary at helping individuals who wanted to actually know and have a relationship with Jesus.

Easy or Hard

At times I get fixated on a theme or concept that I’m wrestling with. For the past couple of days, I’ve been wrestling with this theme of doing hard things versus doing easy things.

When asked the question, “Do you want to do hard things or easy things?” The answer appears to be a no brainer. OF COURSE we want to do the easy thing – it’s EASY. Why wouldn’t we? But then we remember that all of the leadership books tell us to do HARD things and since everyone wants to be a leader, our answer changes from doing the easy things to doing hard things.

I think when we say that we want to do the easy things, we are afraid that will be interpreted as being lazy or selfish, basically we have a lack of initiative or motivation. Conversely, when we say we want to do the hard things, that seems to reinforce the idea that we are selfless in someway and that our motivation is pure.

What if we have this backwards?

What if the easy way is exactly what God wants for us because it forces us to deny our human nature and become fully dependent and trust Him? What if the hard way is actually a manifestation of independence on God and a our desire to work WITH God instead of allowing God to work IN us?

Let me see if I can give you an example:

It would appear HARD to have to go to prison for our faith. But what if that is actually the EASY way because we are forced into a situation where we are fully dependent on God? It seems EASY to not draw attention to ourselves, but what if that is actually the HARD way because it’s not what God wants for us?

What if we have EASY and HARD confused? What if EASY is God’s way – no matter the difficulties we encounter? What if HARD is OUR way – no matter how comfortable that life is?

Press in or Walk Away?

It seems that there are always to clear responses to any situation.

The first response is that you can walk away. See something that you don’t like? Walk away. Are you bothered by the culture? Walk away. Did you get hurt or wounded or offended? Walk away. Is the task too difficult or too easy? Walk away.

Walking away is always an option. In fact, there are many who would argue that walking away is sometimes the best choice to make if what you are walking away from is actually hindering you from being complete.

The other response is to press in. See something you don’t like? Press in and make a difference. Are you bothered by the culture? Press in and change the culture. Have you been hurt or wounded or offended? Press into that hurt, expose that wound, deal with that offense and become better as a result of it. Is the task too difficult or too easy? Press in and do the very best you can with what you can.

Pressing in requires a deeper commitment to the task at hand. It requires you to not quit, to not give up, to dig deeper into whatever situation you find yourself in. Seth Godin wrote a book about this called “The Dip” – which talks about knowing when to walk away and knowing when to press in.

At the end of the day, it’s your decision – do you press in or do you walk away? Think carefully about this, consider the cost of both sides, seek Godly advice and wisdom, and then follow through with whatever decision you come to.

Do You Have to go to Church?

The simple answer is No. You don’t have to go to church.

But you do have to be part of the body of Christ. And the very best way to be part of the body is to create intentional and purposeful opportunities to build relationships with others in the body. That is best done through serving and worshiping alongside one another.

You can do this in a variety of ways, however, the simplest way is to discipline yourself to attend a weekly gathering where you have the opportunity to engage and serve with members of the body whom you wouldn’t normally encounter in your day to day life.

Is the Bible a Start or an End?

I read this quote somewhere, but I can’t find the link. However, it’s so good that I wanted to share it with you.

The Bible in Jesus world was a scroll that you saw someone reading in the center of the room, in the midst of community.

And then you all discussed it. You surrounded the words…you encircled them literally, physically…and then you engaged with them. Together.

It was a communal experience.

Picture all that energy swirling around the room, picture all those opinions, picture really wise people saying interesting and profound things, picture that crazy uncle rambling on and on and making no sense.

And then you’d come back next week and do it all over again.

The Torah started the discussion.

For many in our world, the Bible ends the discussion.