What happened to online church?

Are you still going to church? Virtually, I mean. Some places are holding physically distant, reduced capacity meetings, of course. Some have experimented with outdoor services, although winter is coming quickly. But the majority of churches are still holding online, virtual services. The people, though, are giving up.

The research from the Barna Group in June gave a pretty shocking picture of the state of faith in America. About half of people were still “attending” virtual church, less than a third were engaging with church leadership, less than 15% were participating in a discussion group or bible study. It isn’t a surprise that people wouldn’t immediately embrace this unusual method of churchgoing, but the shocking part about these statistics is that they are amongst regular churchgoers! That means, even within the church’s most devoted followers, membership is waning in an unprecedented way.

Personally, I was pretty committed to regular Sunday viewing in the spring and early summer. I was definitely one of the “hoppers” that the research mentions, switching freely between several services at congregations which I wouldn’t normally attend. The incredible ease of access to a variety of churches made “attending” different services fun and novel. I would switch between several live, or watch portions of other churches’ later in the day.

That has slowly dwindled, and now I find myself zipping past Sunday without even thinking about booting up a live stream. The incredible variety of online services available was also its undoing: although I enjoyed getting to experience each church’s take on virtual service early on, after several weeks I wasn’t engaged enough to continue. There is only so much novelty a virtual service can offer, after all, and by simply passively watching I wasn’t really engaging with any one church.

I wonder how much the numbers have fallen off since June. One can only assume that my personal experience mirrors a trend. One also has to wonder how this will change churchgoing in the future; it seems equally as likely that churchgoers who have fallen off in virtual attendance will happily return in person as it does that they simply become lapsed practitioners.

One thing is certain: in order to maintain worshipers, churches have to find a way to increase real engagement. Not just getting people to passively watch their productions, but engage in community in a significant way, as they would by attending. Many congregations are constantly innovating new ways to address this. The social and communal aspects of church are lost in a virtual ceremony, and these are the primary factors in retention in a normal church setting. If churches are going to continue to be restricted in their ability to hold in-person services, they will need to find a better way to simulate this communal engagement if they hope to retain parishioners in the short-term.

Holy Murals: how a new WPA could save the church

We don’t really make murals anymore. Not like we used to, at least. Lots of old post offices or fancy lobbies from a certain era have sweeping wall art, mosaic or hand painted, depicting industrious Americans or verdant farms or, sometimes, nothing specific at all. Most of these are a creation of artists employed by the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s, where artists unemployed by the Great Depression were hired by the federal government to beautify public spaces and enrich American culture.

San Pedro, CA post office

These WPA murals are from the 30s, but if you’re like me you almost think of them in a similar class to the ubiquitous murals behind altars in churches. These reredos or apse walls tend to date more to the 60s, when there was a huge boom in contemporary church architecture. They tend to be gold.

Cabrini Shrine, NYC

Although the WPA had branches funding all the major arts, the murals are the most striking example of that cultural infusion today. There are, of course, the many important buildings created under the auspices of the WPA, but we now consider those remaining structures simply part of the fabric of our cities. The music and theater and writing have been relegated to libraries as trends changed. The murals, though, seem trapped in amber, a relic of a different time; stylized with distinctive Deco details, they remind us of an inter-war America that seems like a story told by our grandparents. There are so many of these murals in part because so much of the WPA budget was allocated for their creation.

Nearly 90 years later, we are, once again, facing wide-spread unemployment amongst artists. The ongoing shutdown has put many out of business entirely, while others survive only on enhanced unemployment opportunities. Additionally, churches have been unable to meet regularly, which has caused communities of faith to struggle both financially and spiritually.

We can look to the past for an answer to this problem. We can create a New WPA.

Georgette Seabrooke working On Her WPA Federal Art Project mural,  Recreation In Harlem, for the Nurses’ Recreation Room in Harlem Hospital.

The WPA appropriation in 1935 was 6.7% of GDP. A similar amount in today would be less than $1.5 trillion. The CARES act, passed in the infancy of this emergency, was well over $2 trillion, and we didn’t get a SINGLE mural out of it. A new WPA could be funded with a fraction of the amount we’re already freely willing to give to mega-corporations who have plenty of money in the bank. Funding artists instead not only stimulates the economy and provides for struggling Americans, but also enriches our culture, furthers artistic development, and beautifies our public spaces.

Of course, the current challenges make music and theater productions difficult, but visual art, construction, and writing can largely be done independently. As we understand more about the risk involved with gathering for performance art, we can fund new and innovative ways in which people in those disciplines create. In the meantime, artists can pass along the technique of their trades by teaching (remotely), and a large scale arts education initiative would both save artists and enrich schools. Other countries are already doing this.

If this New WPA is also allowed to install public art in churches, this could be a way to save our struggling houses of worship. Doesn’t your church need some refurbishment? Maybe a renewed exterior, complete with outside art for everyone to enjoy? Or perhaps there is a large blank wall, waiting for some benefactor to fund a fantastic mural on it. Of course, there are problems in using secular funding for sacred art, and people would probably be more amenable to funding church art publicly if churches paid their fair share in taxes (a discussion for a different time). Still, this could be a productive, creative way to support churches, artists, and communities in a way that doesn’t simply throw money at an ever-increasing problem.

The one type of presidential candidate everyone hates

Many glass ceilings are being smashed with the announcement of the democratic party’s vice-presidential nominee. It is rare to have a woman as a national party’s candidate, and even more unusual to have a person of color. There’s one barrier that hasn’t been crossed, though. There hasn’t been an openly atheist presidential or vice-presidential candidate, and there won’t be anytime soon.

Research continually demonstrates that nearly half of voters will not support an atheist. Also, although trends show quick and increasing acceptance for other diverse voices including people from the LGBTQ community or people with non-white racial heritage, the needle is barely budging on atheist acceptance. It simply is politically unfeasible to self-identify as an atheist when such a broad swath of voters will disqualify you on this merit alone. A candidate is more likely to identify as a socialist than an atheist, even when they’re probably both.

It is past time for an atheist president. Getting past this hurdle of public opinion, though, will take some time.

The Age of Reason; Justice

I think often of Thomas Paine. Don’t we all? Consider this quote from The Age of Reason, his great humanist treatise on religion which often gets overlooked in favor of Common Sense.

If I owe a person money, and cannot pay him, and he threatens to put me in prison, another person can take the debt upon himself, and pay it for me. But if I have committed a crime, every circumstance of the case is changed. Moral justice cannot take the innocent for the guilty even if the innocent would offer itself. To suppose justice to do this, is to destroy the principle of its existence, which is the thing itself. It is then no longer justice. It is indiscriminate revenge.

Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

The point is that, if Jesus “died for our sins,” then the idea of justice is meaningless. We must be held accountable for our crimes; if we simply substitute some other avatar in for us, we’ve escaped justice. If Jesus is simply inserted between us and a just resolution to our sins, then we’ve avoided the repercussions of those actions. If Jesus has protected us from all consequences then there isn’t any way justice can operate meaningfully.

This was, of course, part of his radical message. The kingdom of heaven supersedes this one, and justice is doled out on a cosmic scale. Even still, if the sacrifice of Jesus truly absolves us of sins in this life and the next, we’re faced with a situation where justice has no meaning, since evil deeds have no consequence.

Our modern justice system recognizes this. Sure, someone might pay “damages” for an injury committed, but this is meant as restitution for real costs incurred as a result of the crime, not necessarily as a replacement for justice. Of course, there is also a long history of the guilty being able to pay their way out of their just rewards by way of expensive lawyers or the bail system, which is an entirely different problem. Ultimately, though, we punish crimes with jail time or some other loss of rights, which no other person can serve on my behalf. We wouldn’t imprison a person on someone else’s behalf because we “cannot take the innocent for the guilty.”

So why does it work for Jesus?

Do Biblical contradictions make homosexuality ethical?

I was pulling up the old Biblical gem about rabbits chewing cud the other day and my search resulted in several pages defending Biblical literalism and “disproving” the error. The argument broadly goes that, although the Bible says unequivocally that rabbits chew cud, and although rabbits are not ruminants, that rabbits do re-digest their food through a process called cecotrophy. The word which we translate as “chew the cud” today would, when the document was written, have been meant to encompass a larger group of activities, and so although the rabbit doesn’t chew cud by our classification today, rabbits can be said to fall under the qualifications of the original term used.

GAY RABBIT

This is obviously quite a stretch, but it is this statement, shared by many pages making a similar argument, which really jumps out at me:

Simply stated, it is not reasonable to accuse a 3500-year-old document of error because it does not adhere to a modern man-made classification system.

Tommy Mitchell

We can extrapolate further; the condemnations against same-sex relationships and gender fluidity rely on a classification system 3,500 years old. Our current understanding of these things is significantly removed from the way the words are used in the Bible. Thus, just as the Bible is not in error regarding rabbits, the Bible also cannot be understood to make any statement about our modern conception of LGBTQIA rights.

You’d all agree, right fundamentalists and literalists?