Our world today is marked by something so obvious we miss just how peculiar it is: the existence of another world that is both “in and not of” our physical world. Not because the other world is purely spiritual; I’m speaking about the existence of the digital realm. Of course, it’s not actually a separate “realm” at all. It is a world of algorithms and processors, networks and codes, and servers and cables that all belong to our actual world just like everything else. It is part of the created order, yet we experience it as being somewhere else.
The concrete realities of the predigital age were pews, town squares, pubs, malls, and classrooms—human-scale spaces where real people were introduced, learned, had conversations, fought, prayed, and fell in love. The hardware of the digital world comprises giant warehouses filled to the brim with wires, buzzing fans, steel-framed cabinets, and blinking lights—instruments that “pour forth speech” to one another and in so doing create a world. In that world, you’ll find a lot of the same things, though never in the same ways.
When meeting a couple for the first time and asking where they met, it’s not uncommon today to hear, “We met online.” To these couples, where they met is a real place with a meaningful story—whether that place be Facebook, eHarmony, Bumble, or Tinder. But the fact remains that if any of us actually showed up in person to the physical places where our Facebook feeds live or our Zoom calls are hosted, we’d be very much alone. In this way, digital spaces both do and do not actually exist.
This digital realm is where many of us work now. It’s the main place where large swaths of our social interaction take shape. While it might not be where we live and move, it’s arguably where we have our being. We’ve placed into its virtual hands untold influence over our meaning and identity. What, then, does it do to us in return, as those who spend so much time in a “there” that may not be there at all?
In this essay, I want to explore the peculiar nature of what it’s like to live in a digital reality. I want to reflect on what it means to be human beings (especially Christians) spending so much of our lives existing within a realm that both does and does not exist. Let’s focus on three important ramifications.
Between Two Worlds
First, we have become bifurcated beings. We are constantly in two (or more) places at once. We’re located wherever our bodies happen to be, and we’re also connected to someplace else. Formerly, and in a simpler time—maybe just ten years ago!—there was a generally acknowledged concern that video games like Everquest, World of Warcraft, and Second Life posed a societal threat of the digital bleeding into the real.
What would happen, we wondered, when gamers wanted to invest all their time, relationships, and energy into these digital worlds to the neglect of their nondigital lives? The satirical cartoon South Park created an episode at the time panning World of Warcraft. Its storyline followed several young boys attempting to play the game while being hopelessly outmatched by a middle-aged, overweight man living in a filthy basement who does nothing else. As the entire world (of Warcraft) is mercilessly brought under the dominion of this basement-dweller, the characters keep asking one another the comically epic question, “How does one kill that which has no life?” How indeed.
At the time, this felt like a niche problem for overly zealous gamers. Perhaps video-game addiction would become a struggle for young boys, but that’s a small demographic. Almost twenty years after World of Warcraft came out, it now seems as though our collective fears weren’t exaggerated. If anything, we may not have been fearful enough.
Gaming isn’t the only way we spend bifurcated lives in the digital realm. What’s the practical difference between a massive multiplayer online roleplaying game (or MMORPG, like World of Warcraft) and social media? Both present an alternative world for us to get caught up in—a world that tracks our engagement in it through quests, notifications, likes, and upgrades; a world in which we form complex and sometimes close relationships and communities.
Perhaps most importantly, both online gaming and social media entice us to begin to filter our experience of the real world through the lens of the digital. Our children become less objects of our enjoyment and more opportunities for comment-worthy pictures to post on social media. Conversations and dinner dates are no longer private but captured with selfies to give everyone the chance to eavesdrop or engage. Our daily life and decisions are now graded on pass/fail standards, wherein failure could mean an excruciating death in a fantasy dungeon or (much worse) no “likes” on our latest post. The digital world has become a new place for us to invest and get involved, to pursue meaning and competency, to matter, and even a place for us to be hurt and fail—but not in the same ways, or with the same stakes, as in the real world.
A World under Our Control
One reason so many of us are attracted to life in the digital realm despite its bifurcation (and this is the second ramification) is that it offers the allure of a completely curated experience. During the pandemic, I was working as a school chaplain. As in most schools, when we came out of lockdown, our students had the option to attend in person or online. The online students were functionally a part of the class: their video feed would be broadcast to the classroom, they could ask questions, take tests, and talk to friends. The staff and students did as much as we could to make it feel normal (even though it felt far from normal). As time went on, however, I noticed that many students were starting to prefer attending online. This surprised me. I was sure they would want to be at school in person with friends rather than stuck at home with everything mediated through a screen. I asked one student why they liked it and if they missed seeing their friends. “Oh, I still see my friends. I just don’t have to see the other people.”
I then realized the draw—and the danger—of a completely online experience. It offers the potential for a completely curated experience wherein we interact only with people we choose (which are almost always people we like or who are like us). The digital realm allowed these students to circumvent all the social awkwardness and complexity in school, brushing shoulders with people they don’t like or who don’t like them. The digital world allows us to ensure that we come into contact (if you can call it contact) only with those with whom we prefer to interact.
Another way to think of the appeal of curation is to call it by another name: control. The digital realm promises us almost complete control, a control we are altogether aware of lacking in the real world. There are no blocks or mute buttons in Walmart. We can stop talking to individual people of course; in real life, however,most of our relationships are not formed abstractly or by pure preference but are part of broader, messier social networks of relationships in our churches, schools, or sports leagues. In real social networks, while we might stop seeking out a relationship with someone, we still usually have to figure out how to live with them or work around their very real presence.
Being Known—or Being Stalked?
Our third and final ramification of living in the digital realm is that we have become used to being constantly catered to. Through expensive and sophisticated marketing systems and predictive algorithms, we enjoy the thrill and affirmation of being known.
Companies in Silicon Valley have processes and datasets that can pretty accurately sum up our desires and fears. We’ve all experienced the eerie feeling of having a conversation with friends about a product or service and then getting an ad for it on our phone sometime the next day. Princeton sociology professor Janet Vertesi described the incredible lengths she had to go to keep her pregnancy out of the digital world. She used encrypted web browsers, paid only in cash or with Amazon gift cards (which she had shipped to an Amazon locker so that the company wouldn’t know her home address). She even had to delete and unfriend her uncle who privately messaged her on Facebook congratulating her about the pregnancy. All of this led Vertesi to remark, “Those kinds of activities, when you take them in the aggregate . . . are exactly the kinds of things that tag you as likely engaging in criminal activity, as opposed to just having a baby.” She had to operate like a money launderer to keep her personal life off the internet. And that was way back in 2014. Good luck avoiding the algorithms now.
Beyond the creepy Big Brother factor, what does this kind of hyper-personalized catering do to us? It begins to reshape the world to be focused on me. The digital world is my world, directly accommodating and gratifying me. I can tell the algorithm what I want to see or what I don’t. Even when it shows me something I didn’t ask for, it often knows me better than I know myself. The momentum of the digital world is centripetal—its goal is to drive us forever deeper, with ourselves at its dark center.
On June 13, 2023, St. Paul’s Church in Fürth, Germany, hosted a special worship service complete with psalms, prayers, and a sermon. More than three hundred attendees quietly laughed at the jokes in the sermon, mumbled along with the Lord’s Prayer, and smiled uneasily at the people on the screen smiling back at them. In many ways, it looked like a normal, digitally enhanced church service in the twenty-first century. The only difference was that the entire service was planned, produced, and performed almost completely by AI. AI-generated avatars selected the psalms, crafted and delivered the sermon, and read the prayers. The only real thing about the service was the real human beings obeying the computer when it told them what to pray.
Everyone knew the service was fake, of course, but what should be fascinating and disconcerting to us is how simple it all was to accomplish. The creator of the spectacle, Jonas Simmerlein, said that all he did was tell the chatbot to create a service with a particular theme following certain guidelines and voilà! Indeed, most of the media for such a wholly digitized worship service have been in place for some time—to the point that much of the service wouldn’t feel strange at all to many contemporary Christian worshipers. Watching a pastor and reciting lyrics and prayers from a screen has become par for the course in today’s church.
Churches have almost completely, nearly 100 percent, invested in the digital world. Go on to a church website, any church website (it proves my point simply that I can safely assume that almost every church has a website), and you’ll be surprised if you can’t find a livestream of worship. During the COVID-19 lockdown, almost all of us invested in live-streaming abilities, for justifiable and even noble reasons. But how many of us turned the stream off after the last protocols were lifted? If not, why not? Your reason is probably the same as everyone else’s: because we didn’t want to miss out on being in the digital realm. We had engagement there, or at least the hope of future engagement.
I’m not here to argue against churches streaming our services. Some congregations have found that their elderly or housebound members are now able to participate in the service whereas before they were completely left out. My point is simply that now the church is trying to occupy another world as well, and that world has its own strange ways. By moving church to an online consumable, we have in some ways abstracted it. “Attending church” now in the digital realm exists on the same continuum as watching Netflix, YouTube, or Amazon Prime. Whatever the “it” that church offers people is a product of the same type being produced in Hollywood. You and I may recoil at this suggestion: we hate the idea of the church as a product. So, I ask again, why do we participate? Because to stop streaming would feel as though something ceased to exist somewhere. When churches moved online, we became online beings, and going offline feels as though we would be losing something of ourselves or abandoning our place—no matter how tenuously that place exists.
This digital localization has led to actual de-localization, a loss of real place within churches. Most of us are a long way from being village or neighborhood parishes made up of local believers who, upon hearing our bells toll on Sunday morning, answer the summons by walking to our local house of worship. Instead, we’ve gone to the other extreme. It’s quite normal for us to drive past half a dozen churches (sometimes even churches within our own denominations!) to get to the community church with the mass-produced programming, preaching, and services that appeal the most to us. I don’t mean to say that smaller is inherently better or that faithfully using God-given resources to benefit a broad audience is inappropriate. I’m simply pointing out that these things can easily tempt us to treat the church like one product among the rest.
To put church online isn’t only to say something about the digital realm; it’s to say something about church. When this occurs, we compromise our ability to offer something truly distinct—or any respite or solace from the digital age. But what if the doctrine of the communion of saints offers something unique and much needed in such a time as this? What if rather than being an abstract doctrine out there, one more thing among the multitudes of things out there, the communion of saints offers a local, analog, concrete expression of the gospel? A place right here, a place to belong and rest.
The Communion of Saints
One of the first things that stands out to me about the creed’s confession of “one holy catholic and apostolic church” is that I’ve never seen one. Besides, how would you find one? One cannot walk into the narthex of First Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and hurriedly smile at the ushers as you take your seat. It doesn’t exist in its fullness in brick and mortar but somewhere else: as an article of faith. This is something far more than digital, however—more than an artificial construct. The church catholic is a real thing, perfectly realized in heaven and in the age to come. It exists as a theological reality in the proclamation of the gospel, a worded reality. But it’s increasingly easy to think in a digital world, with the investments the church has made into streaming, that you can have the article itself without the concrete instantiation of the article. A way of grasping at the Form without having the Particular. Reaching over and around your beloved to grab hold of Beauty itself.
But the church, as actually experienced, is never taken directly as the one holy catholic church. It defies digitalization. It’s experienced in concrete, particular churches—real places with architectures and histories, traditions and cultures. Our local expressions of the church are not denigrated by this doctrine, as if they’re a problem to be solved, but rather upheld and dignified. My local neighborhood parish is part of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church,” wherein exists the communion of saints.
Church, the real church, does not exist in server farms and lines of code. Think of the most digitally resourced church you know. If the streams go down, that church still exists and functions in a real place. Perhaps it’s important in our day and age to let the titles of Paul’s letters have their input on our ecclesiology. St. Paul wrote to the church “in Ephesus” and “in Rome” and “in Corinth.” St. John wrote the circular letter of Revelation with individual, local congregations in mind—congregations he knew and could encourage, rebuke, and pray for. And it’s just this local, rooted, physical expression of the communion of saints that might offer a salve for people in the digital age.
There’s no bifurcation in the church. We are whole people and whole sinners at that. In my church, we begin every service with the Collect for Purity:
Almighty God unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The church consists of human beings who are fully and completely known and laid bare before God. He doesn’t care about our image or social clout. We stand together before the cross without our reputation or supposed virtue meaning much of anything. Rich lawyers serve as ushers alongside middle-school teachers, retired judges sing in the choir with stay-at-home parents, and ministers kneel and confess their sin along with everyone else. We are wholly known, just as we are; and through this knowledge, we come to know others just as they are.
We also can’t cultivate the church to be exactly what we want. We often try, though. We bounce from church to church, we get on to sessions, elder boards, and vestries, with the hope that we can shape the church into the image we want of it. But churches always have a knack for resisting this kind of alteration. Try as we might, we just can’t quite get rid of everything we don’t want. That one car in the parking lot with the political bumper sticker we despise is still there every Sunday morning. That minister, who you swore would be better than the previous one you ran out of town, is now perpetrating the frustrating crime of telling you what he really thinks, again. They continue to sing that hymn or praise song you despise that’s borderline heretical.
Whatever it might be, and for all its faults and flaws, the local church is a place where you bump up against a truly uncomfortable fact: you are not God. You are a creature among many creatures, called into loving relationships with those different from you. Much more, you are called to the table to eat with them, to share the Lord’s Supper at the same communion rail together. The communion of saints is not a doctrine that exists in the abstract; it’s altogether real, held closely by faith along all kinds of polarities and differences that attempt to pull us apart. It’s the community of faithful sinners who have been called out of darkness by a merciful and compassionate God. A God who did not remain in the abstract, “digital” world where we might be able to craft him however we want, cultivate him to be exactly what we think he should be, love the people we love and hate the people we hate. We are called into relationship with a God who became flesh and blood, who walked the earth gathering followers from those broken by demands of the law, who healed the bodies of the sick and lame, and who spoke tenderly to the deaf and the dead. Jesus formed his church not to be another product in the marketplace, but a present community of faith, rooted and localized in almost every street corner in the world, where children are baptized with water, prayers are offered in native languages, bread and wine are received, real sinners are prayed over and forgiven, and the dead are buried in hope of the resurrection. All these are physical manifestations of the spiritual reality of the communion of saints around the throne room of God—the very real place in heaven where the dead are welcomed, prayers are heard, and sinners are invited to truly “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
In other words, the future of the church must be a return to seeing people not first and foremost as attenders, consumers, or demographic projections, but as neighbors. This leads us to ask, like the scribes thousands of years ago, “Who is my neighbor?” To which Jesus still responds as he did in the parable of the good Samaritan: our neighbors are the people right in front of us; our neighbors exist in our neighborhood.
Our calling as Christians is to minister in specific, local contexts, not primarily “out there” in the digital world. Insofar as the digital world helps us to connect better to the actual world, then it’s a good and useful tool. But the goal should always be to connect people to their local community or neighborhood church, to bring back the parish in our parishioners. Because it’s in the church that we find rest from the exhaustion of living in a digital age.
“How One Woman Hid Her Pregnancy from Big Data,” Mashable (April 20, 2014), https://mashable.com/archive/big-data-pregnancy.Back
“How One Woman Hid Her Pregnancy from Big Data,” Mashable (April 20, 2014), https://mashable.com/archive/big-data-pregnancy.Back
“AI-powered Church Service in Germany Draws a Large Crowd,” arsTechnica (June 12, 2023), https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2023/06/chatgpt-takes-theBack