During the year of our Lord, 2020, the ELS endured a number of events that would have been considered catastrophic taken all on their own, but taken as a whole, they represented a large-scale shift in how we view ourselves. The suspension of in-person worship, forced distance from those to whom we were providing close care, and the sudden death of President John Moldstad have had significant impacts on our future in both the short and long term. However, with God’s grace, these can be events that allow us to better empathize with and minister to a world that has gone through similar struggles this past year.
Throughout history, God has positioned His Church near the center of every major communication advance. Writing in Egypt, phonics in the Promised Land, the codex in Rome, the printing press in Germany, radio in the United States, all were critical moments in communication history, and God’s people were there to be the first to take advantage of these new mediums. Each advance resulted in sacrifices made in order to gain some advantage. Writing, for example, for all its blessings robbed us of some memory. As we approach new communication media, we should be conscious both of what they give and what they take away, but do so with the knowledge that there is no returning to what humans were before the advance and that we have to minister to the people God has put in our path. Accordingly, it is beneficial to consider how we can expect people to be different in the future based on the anticipated communication environments.
The first change we can expect is an increased importance on the ability to be illocal, attending events and meetings remotely. Expectations are skyrocketing concerning what we should be able to do in these environments and the level of interaction we should expect. By planning operations around illocality, we can take advantage of some of the benefits it offers. For one, the infrastructure developed to remotely deliver divine services during the pandemic can now be used to reach individuals who have barriers to attending functions (elderly, parents of small kids, unchurched individuals, etc.). Meetings can often be more efficiently done when they are planned around illocality as everyone can have direct access to needed resources, no matter where those resources are. Interactivity allows for Christians to immediately live out lives of faith while giving them practice for engaging in these behaviors in non-mediated environments. The import of physical objects and places will likely decline, so considerations should be made concerning what we want from our physical church structures.
Another change to expect is an increased desire to be able to meaningfully interact with others in mediated environments. Relationships are critical to the operation of the church, and when we have an expectation that people will be attending remotely, there also arises a need to interact with these people remotely. This requires time, perhaps taken from people who are there in person, in order to meaningfully connect with illocal others. While the current tech environment does not do a great job covering this aspect of online relatedness, we can see that the next generations of future tech will be strongly geared toward improving the sense of social presence.
Potentially the most obvious change will be alterations in norms and expectations concerning a person’s attention. It is rare to see anyone wholly dedicated to a single activity anymore. We tend to split our attention between multiple information streams and devices. This has a negative impact on cognitive functioning but a positive impact on emotion. As much as we might not like this new reality of divided attention and the challenges it brings, we also cannot expect that people will retreat back to being how they were. Fortunately, people who are dividing their attention between multiple information streams can still be kept on task and interested by carefully considering what we present to them with an eye toward engaging multiple senses. We can expect that people will become bored more easily, but also that it will be easier to snap them out of that boredom.
In all of this, pastors will have more to do, swelling already bloated schedules. Delegation will be important, particularly of media-centric tasks, which our laypeople may be better suited to. Beyond that, automation may remove the demands of some mundane tasks, but this will necessitate a repurposing of some volunteers to other areas in which they may serve.
The ELS itself will face changes as well, as losing President Moldstad presents challenges to our earthly organization. A recent study showed John at the center of our relationship system, providing close connections throughout the entire pastorate. Losing him increases the distance between us and makes interpersonal strife more likely. Additionally, pastors are at the center of similar networks, and worldly concerns can also serve to push people away. An awareness of what positions we allow to be known while serving God through the sharing of His Word is critical to the success of our churches.
We face significant challenges, but we have a God who is far more powerful than any threat we face. In His love He gave us a year of hardship and an opportunity to take our difficulties and go confidently into a world that has shared those struggles, knowing the power of Christ rests on us.
Rev. Dr. Brian Klebig