Will church go the way of the bookstore?

…in the Meantime author, David Lose, asks if churches and bookstores are on the same path:

When I read an article by Seth Godin on the woes of book publishers recently, I couldn’t help but think about the similarities between the situation he describes and the challenges facing our congregations.

His summary statement of the problem is striking:

…the challenge the big book publishers are facing is that a perfect industry is being replaced by one filled with chaos and opportunity.

What does he mean by “perfect”? Simply that book publishers – and the stores that depended on them – enjoyed a monopoly on the means of producing and selling books. As he writes,

Limited shelf space plus limited competitors plus well-understood cost of creation and production meant that stability reigned. The industry was polished and understood.

For three hundred years or so, book publishing had nothing in common with technology businesses where the underlying economics of the business were questioned regularly.

Substitute “church” for “book publishers,” make just a few contextual adjustments, and you’re almost there. We, too, operated within a near “perfect” industry in that as long as a significant percentage of people went to church we enjoyed something of a monopoly. While we might have competed with ourselves (Methodist vs. Lutheran vs. Presbyterian, etc.), our culture placed a high value on church attendance – think of the “blue laws” that governed most states. This ensured that we had very little competition on Sunday mornings. For that reason, for about three hundred years or so (at least in this country), we in church leadership also had little reason to question our practices.

Read more here.

Posted by
Category : The Lead

Comment Policy
Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted. We also ask that you limit your comments to no more than four comments per story per day.

  1. Richard E. Helmer

    Not many brick-and-mortar bookstores anymore, but people still read.

    Fewer brick-and-mortar churches, but people will still pray and gather in community.

  2. Caoilin Galthie

    New technologies are not limited to simply adding a few bells and whistles to the brick and mortar experience. Some of us are reaching into new frontiers and being church in virtual worlds, and leaving the brick and mortar behind all together.


  3. Richard E. Helmer

    But does it substitute for in-the-flesh human contact and community?

    From the St. Matthew’s website:

    What We Are Not

    We are very intentional in maintaining a presence in Second Life which is true to our individual calling to ministry in Real Life.  We do not “play church” or pretend to receive or administer sacraments.  The roles we undertake and the forms of prayer we use are those which are appropriate for laity who wish to pray together.  Since all of our worship leaders are lay people in Real Life, we do not assume clergy titles or vestments, nor participate in Second Life “weddings” or other forms of role play.

    Our building is a “chapel” vs. a “church” for the same reason.  We do not presume to represent in an official way any Real Life religious denomination or province in Second Life other than as individual members of our respective faith traditions.

    I would argue that brick and mortar may not be essential for church, but in-the-flesh human contact ultimately is. No matter how good the technology gets, virtual worlds are, by definition, just that.

  4. Caoilin Galthie

    Good question Richard, and thank you for actually visiting our blog to see what we are up to rather than dismissing out of hand. The reason we state what you quoted on our blog is that there are those in Second Life who role play clergy, and if someone is taken in by that and believes the person really is a clergy person, then great harm can be done. Additionally, many people in Second Life form partnerships and some consider them to be marriages and like to have them in virtual church settings. The statement on the blog is simply to indicate what we are about and that we do not role play church or role play being clergy. It is also a response to another Anglican group that has presumed to represent in Second Life the real life Anglican Communion.

    Having said that, I will agree with you that what we do in Second Life cannot be a replacement for church in “real life”, but it can definitely be a supplement to or perhaps a door to the church. For some it is the only healthy way for them to engage with and connect with a Christian community.

    Most of us are very involved in real life communities and what we do in Second Life is a part of our life as Christians. One member, who is very active in her real life congregation, is unable to leave the house during the week due to family obligations, and yet is able to engage in prayer and Bible study with fellow Christians using the technology.

    Just as important, I have found in my 4 years of experience in Second Life, there are many people who use Second Life who find the idea of darkening the door of a brick and mortar church to be terrifying or downright difficult for a variety of reasons. Some deal with physical or emotional health issues (virtual worlds draw many people on the Autism spectrum) and find the accessibility of virtual worlds to be invaluable ways to connect to a larger world. There are huge LGB and Transgender communities in Second Life that are valuable for people who cannot be out in real life for a variety of reasons or who are testing the waters in a safe environment. One of the focuses of our St Matthew’s group and several other Christian groups is to provide an avenue to connect to the church for people who have been alienated from the church or who see the church as hostile to them. This is very big in the transgender community. When we connect with people who don’t have a real life church home, we do try to help them find one, using tools such as the Believe Out Loud website.

    For those of us in the Anglican tradition, the inability to celebrate the sacraments is certainly a part of what it means to be church that is missing in the virtual world setting. Even if one of us were a priest, we still could not celebrate the sacraments. But that does not mean that we can or should give up on an emerging technology to form Christian community in the ways that we can, nor should we abandon a tool for evangelism and mission to the forces of consumerism and self-gratification that are so rampant in both real and virtual worlds.

    Second Life will have it’s day, but the door has been opened to forming and maintaining relationships through non-physical connections. Would any of us consider a friend who moves away but who we keep in touch with through phone calls, emails or online chats to be any less of a friend? And how would we respond if that friend asked us to pray with them while on the phone? How many of us consider those we only know through the blogosphere but with whom we have lively discussions in comments to be friends or fellow Christians who we care about?

  5. Bill Dilworth

    The problem with “virtual community” like Second Life, it seems to me, is that it deals only with the exchange of information, and filtered through artificial personas, at that. People are not just the information that can be communicated through the pretty clumsy avatars available on the web. We are not disembodied information, or intellect, or even spirit. Virtual reality seems as much of a community as the books in a library are, or the letters in the post office – potentially useful for evangelization or keeping in touch with someone, as you say, but equating it in any way with the Church is a stretch.

  6. Richard E. Helmer


    Many thanks for the fuller explanation of how Second Life supplements the real community. I am reminded in your words of the relationships nurtured by something no more technologically advanced than the parchment that carried the letters of the New Testament!

    It is true indeed that brick-and-mortar has always been secondary. Our faith and cultivation of relationship in whatever way we can is our primary offering to God.

  7. Ann Fontaine

    Bill – if it does not work for you – don’t do it. Many people “hide” behind personas in real time too —

    – for those who find it meaningful – great news to find new venues for worship and connection. I find people are often more honest and revealing in virtual settings. We do EfM via online resources — the depth of sharing goes beyond what I often see face to face. When we do meet up – we are connected more than we could have imagined.

  8. Caoilin Galthie

    I very much agree with Ann’s experience that people are oftentimes more honest and revealing in virtual worlds than in real life settings. I have gotten to know friends in Second Life in ways that are hard to do in real life, some of whom I know their real life identities and some I don’t. We also act through our avatars or persona’s in real life. I have the work me, the home me, the church me the highway driving me that I present, each of which is subtly different, but none the less expresses a part of myself that is appropriate to the venue.

    Touching on the authenticity of what we do in virtual worlds, I will share the experience of having a memorial service in Second Life for a member of our group who passed away in real life. He was also very active in his real life church community, and I patterned the service on the funeral service in the BCP. I very clearly stated that it was for “so and so (real life name), who was known to us as so and so in Second Life”, and that it was a memorial for and celebration of the real life person and not the avatar. It was a wonderful opportunity for people whose lives were touched by this gentleman in Second Life to both grieve his passing and celebrate his life and to bring closure since most of his online friends were not able to participate in his funeral in real life.

    Good point Richard about Paul’s epistles. I am not a NT scholar, but my understanding is that there was a sense that Paul was present with the community when his letters were read in community. I think of the congratulations many of us expressed to Nicholas Knisely on his election as Bishop of Rhode Island. Most of us will probably never have a chance to meet him, but the wishes are still real.

    Ann, I live in the western US, with concentrations of parishes in the urban areas and then lots of small congregations spread far and wide. After reading a recent Daily Episcopalian posting about online EFM groups I have been thinking about how technologies like Second Life and other video conferencing tools might be used to bring EFM to such locations. I would be interested in having that conversation with you.

  9. I think people who label church in digital environments as “virtual” and therefore somehow lesser than “real” community tend to overestimate the difference between real and virtual.

    All of life is mediated, it’s just a matter of what technology mediates it. In the case of church in digital environments, church is mediated through the immersive context of Second Life or other digital platforms.

    Real body church is also mediated, through language, gestures, etc. And people “put on” an avatar at “real” church as often as they do in “virtual” church.

    Another way of saying this is to say that everything is virtual.

  10. Warren Woodfin

    The problem with analogies is that they’re only helpful if the analogy is a good one. The recent article in the Atlantic about the comparative brevity of the “golden age” of bookstores might call that into question. We’d do well to think twice before we collectively decide that physically gathering around an altar and sharing physical signs and sacraments is outmoded.



  11. Randal Oulton

    Ann and Caolin have been presenting “virtual” churching as a side add-on to physical church. I’m gonna be a bit more bullish than that, and question why we have to regard it as an add-on.

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to decide — for me personally — there is nothing magic about Sunday mornings, or “church” buildings. In fact, I hate Sunday morning church — there, I’ve said it, lol. Come, sit, do nothing, and listen to yet another person’s dreary personal spin on a Bible passage. I went to church school with some of these people, and listening to them pontificate now is no more inspiring to me than it was when they did the same back in the lunch hall. When Christ said “wherever two or three are gathered” he didn’t add “and sitting on their duffs” — I feel the gospel was far more a call to action. I think it could be argued that it’s us who made Sunday morning church sacred for very human reasons : you had a population who couldn’t read the Bible even if they could afford one so it needed to be read to them, for millenia what they learnt was often the only educational venue many had, church provided the only social and healthcare services available, church gatherings were the method by which community and crop news was passed around, church was often the only way to express community and culture (thus the beautiful buildings that people living in mud-floor huts were urged to give their money towards.) Church was also a good way to control what the population thought and did, and various political authorities that came and went over the centuries realized that. In the 1900s, we came to consider Sunday church attendance sacred for more mundane reasons perhaps — the more bums in the seat when the collection plate is passed, the better for the renewing the roof fund. I know that’s a horribly singular and cynical thought, but I’m hard presssed to think of a Sunday morning when money wasn’t collected.

    I’d argue that the vast majority of the population has voted against such a tradition now, with their feet, by staying away in droves, and they ain’t coming back unless we revive the Recusancy Laws of 1593. Maybe what they’ve voted against is 20th century church: the congregation existing for the sake of supporting a building; dreary (or worse, earnest) pontifications reflecting one person’s opinion on a Bible verse more geared to time gone by when people almost literally didn’t know how to start thinking for themselves; worship of a weekly time slot when worship was supposed to happen; and change that was designed simply to revive people’s interest in the above. (And I sympathize with those who disliked all the 1970s and 1980s tie-dye stuff that was tried: it was like being served Tang instead of orange juice in the name of “getting with it”, and it was always the wrong things that were changed — as the abysmal success rates demonstrated.)

    The days when everyone in a community in the First World went to one church or another on Sunday mornings are gone, and they ain’t coming back. I’d argue though that what some have rejected is the old model of “doing church” (see above), rather than church itself. I personally am far more of the “laborare est orare”, call to action, school of thought where Christianity is a verb rather than a noun. Along the lines of what Brian Kiely proposes over here: http://www.davidlose.net/2012/06/churches-and-bookstores/ : Perhaps we might wish to consider surrendering the traditional notion of the Sunday Service as the one central event of church. It might be time to think of other activities and programs as being as significant as the service…which means we may have to measure participation instead of attendance and find other ways to evaluate success…..I have been gathering a lot of anecdotal material about people who participate in the community in other ways – adult programs, participating in the social media side of church, turning out for social justice actions, attending community social events of all kinds and participating in alternative services of various kinds. Can we not consider this as doing church on an equal footing with coming to services?”

    None of this is to knock those who still enjoy Sunday morning church gatherings in a physical building; more power to them and long may some services continue for them. Some people attach a LOT of importance to physicality, there’s an age-old tension and discussion (often at sword point) in Christianity about that, and I get that. I personally just don’t think that Sunday morning church gatherings in a physical building are sacred, (now that we live in an era where you don’t get burnt at the stake for saying that) and promoting them as sacred because we like them and are used to them just doesn’t cut the mustard anymore. I think that different methods of working such as those being pioneered by Ann and Caolin are valid and hold more promise than … whatever the right expression is — trying to get people back into the carriage and buggy shop, or whatever.

    I do acknowledge that being able to access a sacred space has always been important to people, right back to the olive groves of the ancient Greeks and before that even. I’m not convinced anymore that it always has to be a physical building with a roof that we call church. I think we made church into something physical because of this age-old impulse, whereas I think essentially church was always meant to be something virtual, an idea, a concept, an action like the wind that is strong even if you can’t see it (to use a once-popular but now tired 20th church analogy.) Yes, there’s times when it’s great to gather in a “temple” for the High Holidays, and for life events, or even just to light a prayer candle as a symbol of hope. I get that. But as for the human construct of bums religiously forced into seats Sunday morning, forget it, no one’s buying that anymore. But again, I think we need to look at their rejection of that concept in and of itself, and realize that they might not be rejecting everything else, as we intrepet it to be.

    Okay apologies in advance: This is just opinion and just personal opinion at that, and I don’t give it any more weight than that and when you blast me, don’t put too much effort into it ’cause my thinking ain’t worth that much effort lol and I don’t pretend to speak for anyone else and have no quick figures and stats to back up any of my opinions.

  12. Jim Naughton

    Nothing against Second Life, but I have to ask that those who post here do so using their real names.

  13. I am in one of Ann’s online EfM groups, and I can vouch that, when someone chooses to, the online presence and the face to face (F2F) presence can certainly create a bond that lasts. I find social networking to be the thing that has increased my very deep and real connections in the larger sphere of the Episcopal Church. It’s simply a short view to only see the online presence as a separate and false presence, and I can’t really explain this to anyone until they also make the choice to let the two spheres intersect like a Venn diagram and live in the center of that intersection.

  14. Josh Magda

    For once, I find myself agreeing (mostly) with Bill. Just as watching a telecast of church is not the same as going to church, an online discussion forum is impoverished human interaction, avatar mediated worship is no substitute for corporate worship.

    And why? Because Place cannot be replaced.

    We are more than informabots exchanging information- our bodies are incarnations of Spirit- and they require place and presence- both holy gifts, along with the sacraments. The fact that LGBT people and those on the autism spectrum feel unwelcome in church speaks to the failure of churches to practice the radical welcome of the incarnate Christ, and we can and must do better (including new kinds worship spaces).

    That being said, online “communities” can and do supplement a life of faith, in the way that phone calls from church friends, bulletins, sacred music cds. The problem is calling it corporate worship, which it is not.

  15. Ann Fontaine

    Josh- my experience tells me you are incorrect in your assumptions. All your “cannot’s’ do not make our experience false. YMMV but please don’t assume universal truth.

  16. Josh Magda

    Ann, I am glad you are having good results on Second Life (seriously) 🙂

    My experience is that something happens in Spirit through physical presence that does not happen in virtual contexts. I could give some examples but you can probably think of many. I am unwilling to follow the many suggestions on this thread suggesting physicality is optional to corporate worship, which, along with the rest of our neurotic culture, denies our social primate identity as well as our larger identity as psycho-physio-spiritual beings. I am interested in wholeness, and I don’t think we can reach spiritual wholeness by pretending that we are computers who can choose to interact through a number of “mediums”-physical space being one of the “options.”

    As I said, the fact the church spaces are not welcoming is the fault of the Church, not the “medium” of space- and we must honor the wholeness of individuals by inviting their whole selves into sacred space with us.

Comments are closed.