Interfacing with God
The original telephone was a large wooden box, often in a walnut finish, that hung on the wall. When it rang, you had to get up, go to it, and speak into a microphone mounted on the box.
In 1919, the “candlestick” tabletop model was introduced. In the 1920s, the black desktop device with a round, numbered dial became common. Colors were introduced with the Princess and Trimline versions, and push-button keypads debuted in 1963. Rotary phones gradually disappeared.
Car phones cut the cord in the 1980s, allowing users to make a call from a bulky, vehicle-mounted handset that transmitted their voice through a short, curly radio antenna mounted on the roof. Mobile versions that fit in your pocket soon followed.
The seismic change came in the early 2000s with the introduction of the smartphone. But is this tiny, pocket-sized device really a telephone in terms of its primary function or benefit?
Look at any teenager with a smartphone and you’ll see they rarely use their “phones” to speak with anyone. They prefer to text. They also do most of their web surfing with their smartphones instead of using a laptop or computer.
In fact, people in the tech industry don’t even call it a “phone.” Instead, it’s known as a “user interface” or UI. It’s a device that helps people connect and interact with computers, machines and other objects.
Think of all the different ways you can use a phone that have nothing to do with talking to people:
- You’re traveling and scan your boarding pass or ticket from the screen.
- You take pictures of your trip and share them with friends.
- You order restaurant food or groceries, then pay the bill with a quick finger swipe.
- You navigate through a strange city or find a faster route through rush-hour traffic.
- You scan QR codes while shopping at the local mall.
- You connect with your car for a reminder when it’s time to change the oil.
- You turn on the lights in your home, lock the doors, and set an alarm.
A good UI makes a function or process easy and enjoyable, i.e., it is intuitive and user-friendly.
The Church as a User Interface
Churches need to capture the importance of being “user-friendly.” The mega-church movement of the 80s and 90s, Bill Hybels, and Willow Creek taught us all that lesson. Lee Strobel contributed to this conversation with his book Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary: How to Reach Friends and Family Who Avoid God and the Church (Zondervan, 1993).
Like the old walnut phone on the kitchen wall, the church was in a fixed location for centuries. You had to go to it. You had to stop what you were doing and go visit the church.
But this began to shift about 50 years ago. During the 1960s when so much was changing in the culture, the church — or at least parts of the church — got out into the streets, and suddenly the church was relevant again. Young, long-haired followers of Jesus, sometimes called “Jesus freaks,” left the walls of the church, and, anticipating the concept of “user interface,” got out there among the people.
The church went into the public square. It marched on Selma. It was no longer a stone box in a fixed location on a street corner, but now something entirely more mobile and engaged. The concept of “church” grew. We once thought that the purpose of the church was to “save souls,” but now realize that the church is about more than that.
The church in its 21st-century form is much more than a place where souls are saved — although one might argue that souls can be saved in many ways, and are. The local church as a UI interacts with its neighborhood, its city and citizens in a variety of formats. It links to city councils to provide affordable housing. It sponsors food banks to feed the people. It opens its doors to embrace community activists and groups endeavoring to lift the human spirit and better the lot of humankind. It supports the arts and artists. It takes care of little children in daycare centers. It offers assistance to single moms. It provides counseling for the confused and discouraged.
The church of Jesus Christ is nothing if not a user interface. It is an institution that, like a smartphone UI, offers a myriad of meaningful, attractive, and even fun benefits to the user, not the least of which are interactions with other users, and opportunities for users to interface with the Maker.
Henry Brinton, regular contributor to Homiletics, deals effectively with this issue in his book, The Welcoming Congregation (Westminster John Knox, 2012). In the introduction, he writes, “Every time people sit down to eat and drink together, there is the possibility that community will grow and people will be reconciled to one another. This is good news for a fractured and polarized world, and a strong sign of the importance of being a welcoming congregation that embraces all people with God’s love and grace.” He cites examples of churches large and small that have developed an “interfacing” ministry with the neighborhood in which they are planted.
As your church board or leadership considers the future of your congregation, ask this question: Is our church a walnut box hanging on the kitchen wall, or a cool UI that helps people connect and “interface” with each other — and with God?
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