I came across an essay by Alan Jacobs in which he grapples with “The Challenge for the Church in an Age of Distraction”, and no surprise that it’s really pretty good, even in its concluding prescription to the modern church:
When George Whitefield and John Wesley were preaching sermons that created the First Great Awakening, they almost always started by trying to arouse in their hearers a conviction of sin. […] But I don’t believe we can readily reach people today with the same sequence. The very idea that I am a sinner sends me groping for my smartphone to avoid unpleasant emotions. […]
But what if we tried to tell people that by disconnecting, however temporarily, they might be able to hear God? […] We need to put people – those who don’t yet believe, those whose belief is young, those whose lives with Christ have become attenuated in a “technogenic” environment where our thoughts are largely directed by engineers – in a position to “pick up clues.”
If I have read the signs of the times accurately, the first clues are likely to suggest the presence and activity of God; next, God’s love and grace. An awareness of sin is not likely to come early in the process. St. Paul tells us that the goodness of God leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4); that may need to be our watchword in these times. If people can come to know that divine goodness, then they may understand the flaws in their nature through contrast to it. And that may be the path by which people in our world can come to a right understanding of themselves.
All good so far, and what follows is good as well … but …
For Anglicans the major resource is, of course, the Book of Common Prayer, and more particularly Thomas Cranmer’s subtle and ingenious adaptation of the Daily Office for the use of laypeople. As vigorously as I applaud the centrality of the Eucharist to Anglican worship that has developed over the past 150 years or so, I think we may be at a point in our cultural history at which we need to turn more attention to the resources carried by our own versions of the Daily Office. In particular, we should place greater emphasis on contemplative services in the prayer book: Evensong, Vespers, Compline – but also Morning Prayer without music.
We should encourage parishioners to adapt these services for home use as well; and place special emphasis on training people in contemplative practices. Teaching about and reflection on technology should be a permanent and central part of church ministry, including pastoral understanding and regular conversation about the fears associated with silence and a lack of stimulation.
Who among us can resist the temptation of urging ideas on others that look good (to us) in theory but are untested in practice? Not even Jacobs, it seems. I don’t know that I’m any better at it, but some time back I set myself the goal of always backing up an abstract claim with several concrete examples from my direct experience–here’s what I did and how it worked out for me, or at least here are some folks who did and how it’s worked out for them. It helps keep me from launching into flights of fancy like this.
In the case above, as in so many other proposals of the kind, I see the germs of good ideas being buried by the need to cast a grander, more comprehensive vision. I mentioned in a comment a few days back that if a small group of folks were interested in stripping down their worship to a regular practice of unadorned Morning Prayer, I’d be there with them. I think it’s a good idea, enough to sign up for it in advance.
But in the space of two paragraphs Jacobs has conjured up a vision that has your average parishioner engaged in Evensong, Vespers, Compline, and Morning Prayer, both as gathered worship and at home … while also engaged in contemplative practices … while also engaged in study and reflection on technology (a permanent and central part of the church ministry!) … I suppose in addition to the already scheduled Sunday worship services, Bible studies, prayer meetings, potlucks, and the rest.
Is this a serious proposal? If not, how are we supposed to go about processing it?