Online classes. They’re everywhere. They cover everything—from doing aerobics to playing the zither. For the past five years, I’ve taught an online course for the Bakke Graduate University. The class aims to help Christians connect their faith with their daily work. Unexpectedly, teaching this course has sharpened my insight into shared church.
Church and Online Class: Two Modes
Like the church, my online course operates in two modes—synchronous and asynchronous. In synchronous mode, the whole class “meets” online in a Zoom Room. Computer microphones and cameras let us see and hear each other. So we can present ideas, ask questions, clarify, explain, challenge, illustrate, or whatever. In asynchronous mode, students work separately. They complete assignments such as reading books and articles, watching videos, or posting their written responses to assignments.
In a similar way, the church acts in two modes—gathered (synchronous) and scattered (asynchronous). In gathered mode, we assemble. For most churches this happens on Sundays. When we gather, we should encourage and spur each other on (Heb. 10:24, 25). In scattered mode, we live out our faith at a distance from each other—in our homes, workplaces, and neighborhoods. When we scatter, our paths intersect with those in the world who need grace and light and salt.
How to Disable Synchronous Mode
Suppose, in a synchronous class session, I switch off all the students’ microphones (as professor, I have the power to do that). In that case, I now hold the only live microphone. If, during my presentation, I say something confusing, students have no way to ask me to restate my point. Or if a student recalls a perfect illustration from her own history, she cannot share it for the benefit of the others.
Why do we meet in synchronous sessions? Doing so allows a far richer, fuller learning experience. All of us—including me, as the professor—may profit from the gifts, understandings, and perspectives of everyone else. So if I were to shut down all the other voices except my own, I would deprive students of that fullness.
Traditional Sunday formats have brought us to a place where too many churches are platform-driven. Almost all the actions and words that matter come from the stage. As a result, in these synchronous sessions, very few have microphone privileges. This arrangement blocks the use of the God-given gifts in the congregation. As Paul puts it, “A spiritual gift is given to each of us as a means of helping the entire church” (I Cor. 12:7, NLT). Or as The Message paraphrases it, “Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits.”
The Loss in Asynchronous Mode
Losing the benefits of the synchronous mode takes its toll on what happens in asynchronous mode. Let’s say I ask a guest to facilitate a Zoom Room session on how our God-given spiritual and natural gifts relate to our daily work. A main purpose? To equip students when working by themselves in asynchronous mode. What they gain from the insights of our guest and his or her dialogue with the class should make them better able to handle their individual assignments. By turning off their microphones, I greatly reduce what they will take away.
What happens when we hush Christians in our church meetings? This leaves them unable to strengthen, build up, and encourage one another with their unique gifts. The loss will show up when they disperse into the roles God has placed them in during the other six days. In other words, the absence of mutual body-building when we gather will weaken our ability to carry out God’s mission in the world when we scatter.
Carrying Out Our Scattered-Mode Assignments
In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I say: “Scattered translates a Greek word rooted in diaspora. It means to sow, as in scattering seed throughout a field. In one of his parables, Jesus speaks of sowing the ‘sons of the kingdom’ throughout the world-field like seed (Matt. 13:37, 38). In the Old Testament diaspora (dispersion), Daniel was one of those seeds God scattered into a workplace, right into the idolatrous core of the government in Babylon. In that pagan context, Daniel took root, grew, and bore fruit for God. Today . . . Christians need to see themselves as seeds—life-carrying cells flung into the world to carry out God’s agenda where they live, work, and play.”
In that world-field, the challenges to faith and fruit-bearing can overwhelm us as individual seeds. Bosses harass. Neighbors annoy. Family members let us down. Promising sprouts from the seed can wither. Our love and service can easily chill. World, flesh, and devil all conspire to bring us down. For that reason, we need to structure our times together so that the body “builds itself in love as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). Yes, the Lord as our Good Shepherd restores our souls. But one of the main ways he does so is through the mutual ministry of the gathered church. We, together, serve as the Shepherd’s Body.
In a Washington Post article for children that explains how the human body works, Howard J. Bennett writes: “Your body works thanks to cells — trillions of them — doing their jobs. Some make chemicals to fight infection. Others make tears to protect your eyes. Still others make proteins to help you grow.”
All members of the body need the freedom to go about “doing their jobs,” to offer the body during synchronous sessions what God’s Spirit has gifted them with.