Jay Kim: Analog Church in a Digital Age—Part 1

How do we do Christian discipleship when we’re all distracted?

If you’re reading this piece, you’ve just lived through a historical watershed—the advent of digital technology. In less than a generation, we’ve gone from waiting eagerly for the arrival of the latest local phonebook to having more computing power in our smartphone than the Allied Powers had during WWII.

Of course, this technology has its blessings. We can connect with people on the other side of the world in real time. We can share and see more information faster, longer and more cheaply than any generation in history.

But this power comes at a human cost—its many impacts on community, psychology, health and social issues we are only beginning to appreciate. What do we trade for the seeming convenience of “always-on” living? And when it comes to faith and church connection, don’t we all sometimes long for things to be a bit simpler? These are vital questions, cutting to the core of Christian discipleship in a digital age.

Jay Y. Kim, pastor of teaching and leadership alongside Dan Kimball at Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, is asking these questions. But unlike many of us, he’s written a book about them. In Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age (IVP), Kim outlines what’s at stake when we digitize church, and offers a practical and refreshingly human path to a more analog expression of faith.

Outreach recently sat down with Kim to discuss how a more “real” analog faith might not just be the way of the past or some hipster trend, but a blueprint for a better Christian future—and a more missionally effective one at that.

Let’s start with your background. What influences have formed your perspective on ministry and spiritual life?

I was born in the town of Incheon, on the western seaboard of South Korea. When I was two, my mother had quite a significant Jesus moment. She went from being completely agnostic to (quite literally overnight) a passionate, fully devoted follower of Jesus.

Her new faith gave her a new lens with which to view her life, and the life she was creating for me. A lot of that had to do with my father. He had really dark addictions and some gnarly personal demons that he had wrestled for most of his life. These had bothered my mother a bit before her Jesus experience, but once she came to the Lord, she saw the situation in a new light. She decided she could not raise me in that environment in the long term.

She prayed for my father and talked to him constantly. She tried to draw him closer to the Lord for about two years. But my father, from what I’ve been told, pushed further and further away. So, my mother decided, I can’t do this. I think what I’ve got to do is start fresh with my son, try to raise him in an environment where he can flourish.

My mother and I moved to California. Her sister lived here, so her family hosted us for a while. I didn’t speak a word of English, and just like that, was thrown into school.

I still remember—first grade especially—as an incredibly isolating period of my life. You can imagine, I’m sure. But what happened is that I found my refuge in our church. It was one of those ethnic Korean American churches where they have like four services a week. We were there all the time it seemed—Wednesday night midweek service, Friday prayer nights, Sunday all day.

Church became a beautiful respite where I could be with other kids like me. It was wonderful. I grew up loving the church for that reason. I’m a child of the 1990s evangelical youth ministry subculture thing. Grew up on all the “Acquire the Fire” conferences and probably rededicated my life about 48 times. But it was real. I had a deep love for the church.

Early on, I thought that meant I had a deep love for the Lord, but I soon found out differently. My freshman year of college, I went through the very common deconstruction phase and began questioning everything. I read a couple of books and quickly thought I knew everything there was to know about religion and philosophy and just decided to throw everything out. Like, Oh man, all of that Christianity stuff was a joke.

Obviously that phase didn’t stick. What happened?

Well, I spent two-and-a-half years of my early college life thinking I was an agnostic. Long story short, there were some guys in the church where I grew up who just never gave up on me. They kept inviting me back into their lives and engaged me on an intellectual level I had never known in church before.

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How did that look?

It looked like about four or five of us getting together at the apartment of one of the guys. They lured me in with free dinner and sometimes Monday Night Football. They were good guys I liked hanging out with.

But our host told me right away, “We’re going to hang out and have a good time, but I also want us to have some meaningful conversations.” So over dinner we read and discussed Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel. Through it all, the Lord changed me—not just through the book, but also through the conversations, the way these ideas came to life, through a growing sense of grace in my life. Jesus became really compelling. That led me to sort of more intense, intellectual pursuit. They introduced me to N.T. Wright and Dallas Willard. Many of my more cognitive objections began wilting.

In my very early 20s, I encountered the risen Christ in a genuine way for the first time.

Connect the dots between that reconversion and vocational ministry.

Honestly, I sort of stumbled into it. It was relational. A couple of the guys from Monday nights were youth ministry interns, and I just loved hanging out with them. They were quickly becoming my closest friends, and their work with younger people looked like fun. So, one day, they invited me to jump in and help. I was like, “Dude, I don’t know. I just reengaged my faith.” But their response was perfect: “Man, you don’t have to have answers. You’ve just got to give yourself, whatever you’ve got.”

So, I did. I started interning and led a small group of eighth grade boys. I still remember these guys. They would ask me these deep questions about God and the Bible—and not only did I not have answers, I’d think, Man, I’ve never even thought to ask that. The experience transformed me.

I had been going to San Jose State University studying business, and I dropped out my senior year. I enrolled in Bible college and got my bachelor’s in biblical theology. After a couple of years interning at this church, I applied for a job as a youth pastor at another church in town and got it. I was off and running.

I did youth ministry for eight years or so. Amid that I launched a college and young adult ministry, which in turn led me to partner up with a friend who also ran a college and adult ministry, and we planted a church together. That led to a teaching pastor role at a large multisite church. And now, here I am at Vintage Faith in Santa Cruz.

Give me a snapshot of what ministry looks like for you at this juncture.

I do two main things: help lead our staff and preach. I essentially lead the church with my friend Dan Kimball. Our staff is split in half, with Dan supporting and overseeing one half, and I the other. The other half of my time is spent, again alongside Dan, prayerfully considering what we might talk about in our Sunday gatherings, then preparing and delivering sermons and classes. Truly a dream job—I love it.

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One doesn’t write a book like Analog Church without a sense of holy dissatisfaction with things as they are. (Or perhaps a better dream?) Sketch for me why we need a more “human” way of doing church.

That’s a big question. I mentioned this a bit in the book, but before I was on staff here at Vintage, I was on staff at one of the largest churches in the Silicon Valley. It’s the standard four campuses, thousands of people, video venues and the whole thing—big lights and all. I love that church and have nothing but the utmost respect for them—I mean, I’ve seen their leadership from the inside, right? They are driven by a deep love for Jesus and a commitment to the mission of God’s kingdom in the Silicon Valley. But I think what has happened there is what has happened in so many places: Our unrelenting pursuit of the mission has been couched in the idea that the most effective way to reach an unreached world is through our relevance. I think that’s a grave miscalculation.

Why?

I don’t think the church has ever been called to be relevant. We are called to be transcendent—to offer an unlikely, never-before-seen, counterintuitive vision for what it means to be human together as the people of God.

When we act as though we can only reach the world if we look, sound and feel like everything already in it, we lose not only our opportunity but also our ability to lean into transcendence. Transcendence is mysterious. Leaning into an empty relevance is cleaner, easier. That’s one of my big concerns, and one of the reasons why I wrote the book—I think we’re losing our grasp of the immense, modern need for transcendence.

And missionally speaking, when it comes to younger generations in particular—not just millennials but Gen Z and younger—they can sniff out anything that is not authentic to the people behind it. So, when the church imitates the ways of being what we see in culture, it rings hollow. To reach younger generations, what we must do is become comfortable with who we are—our places, our people—then live consistently from that.

So, you’re right about the dream—the book is not driven by frustration. It’s driven by the hope that whether you’re the pastor of an urban church of 10,000 people or leading a farm town church of 50 in rural America, that you’ll see the unique and necessary ways in which God has created you. That’s how we’ll all best reach people.

With that in mind, what is “Analog Church”? How do you use that phrase?

I’m referring to a more real and human way of being and doing ministry. Analog makes me think of vinyl records, handwritten notebooks, crinkled paperbacks. It’s more than information transfer, more than hyperefficiency. It’s whole. Sure, we have Spotify. Sure, we have Kindles and e-readers instead of books. We have Microsoft Word instead of Moleskine notebooks. But you can’t hold or touch them, not really. And that matters. I believe the church is most fully the church when are wholly present to the whole person. I think that’s what the church was always meant to be.

Order ‘Analog Church’ from Amazon.com »

In Part 2 of the interview, Jay Kim discusses why trading transformation for efficiency is a bad bargain, how to move from addiction to instant results to doing the slow work of deep growth in discipleship, and the irony of a pastor from Silicon Valley talking about cultivating an “analog” church.