Jay Kim: Discipleship Doesn’t Happen Overnight—Part 2

Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where Jay Kim talks about finding faith, then losing it, only to find it again, and why we are in need of a more “human” way of doing church.

What’s the relationship between efficiency and your vision for Analog Church?

Of course, there is a time for efficiency. I’m not asking people to become Luddites. Digital tech is helpful in many ways. It should be our default when it comes to exchanging information. We can and should inform one another digitally because it’s incredibly efficient, freeing time for other things. Who wants to balance their checkbook on paper slips these days?

However, if I were on a long trip and wanted to write a love letter to my wife, there is something to be said for me taking a pen and paper and writing with my own hands, folding my message, putting it in an envelope, putting on a stamp, writing the address, and bearing with the inefficient wait of four or five days for the letter to reach her. Sure, it’s much more efficient for me to send an email, but that action isn’t about efficiency. A love email just falls short of a love letter, and we all know it. For information, digital is great. Use it. But transformation? That is the business of the church, and trading it for scaled-up efficiency is a poor bargain.

How then do we see digital at play in church life today?

As a principle, digital technologies have three crucial values upon which they stand: speed, choice and individualism. All digital technologies are trying to get faster. All digital technologies are trying to broaden the scale of choice available. And everything digital is becoming more customizable. In fact, not only are we customizing, we also don’t have to do the work anymore. Machine algorithms will often customize things for us, ensuring that we stay in a comfortable (and profitable) little digital bubble, consuming and spending without thought or challenge.

When those values are taken to their extreme, they become destructive. Speed makes us impatient. Unfettered choice makes us shallow. And when individualism runs amok it leads to isolation.

This is about values. I’m trying to speak to a much broader digital epidemic. I’m not just saying, “Hey, let’s not have video venues,” even though that might be a response that’s right for a congregation. I’m trying to tackle how these values have led us to impatience, shallowness and isolation, and how those three things are diametrically opposed to the life of following Jesus. Real Christianity is a slow, deep, communal work.

We must confront how the digital age is affecting the way we think about what it means to be the church. Because the digital age in many ways stands in direct opposition to the values of discipleship.

If we’re shifting away from the primacy of speed, individualism and choice, what are the discipleship values that come to the forefront when we find a more human way of doing church?

They’re inefficient values. Following Jesus is an inefficient experience. It’s disruptive. It requires patience. It’s a slow and steady work. Jesus constantly used agricultural metaphors about small seeds and fruit growing—stuff that takes a long time. Stuff you don’t see happen overnight. That’s what it looks like to follow him.

When we’re relentlessly running toward relevance, we fall into the lie that growth is fast and that bigger is better. That belief is counterintuitive to the life of Christian discipleship.

The alternative is deep work, which is far more difficult. We must learn to embrace thinking deeply in our ministry journey and choose to be in it for the long haul—no matter what.

Was there a point in your own story where this dichotomy became apparent and you realized you had a choice to make about your leadership values?

I don’t know that there was one exact moment, but four or five years ago I gradually realized something needed to change. My headspace and my heart was all pushing for fast church growth and multiplication—getting the church bigger and bigger, expanding our reach and that sort of thing. Finally, it felt so wrong that I had ask, Where did this impulse come from?

I saw that what I had told myself is what most of us in leadership tell ourselves. I cared about a lot of people coming to know, love and follow Jesus. That sounds great on the surface. But when I was looking back at the people my work and my ministry were impacting, I had to be honest with myself. Am I actually helping them come to know, love and follow Jesus in a deep, meaningful way? I realized I was moving fast for the sake of growth, but once I had helped a person cross some sort of threshold—usually defined as attendance—then I was just moving on to the next one. I just wanted more people to cross that threshold. And more. And more.

I had to confront that in my ministry I was not actually helping people engage the long, slow, steady, deep, patient, communal journey of following Jesus. I was trying to bump up numbers. To get as many people through the door as possible. I had spiritual reasons for it all, of course, but my values weren’t really what I was telling myself they were. I had to reckon with that.

How did your pastoral practice change after that realization? What did you do differently?

I slowed down. (Long pause)

And … ?

And you know, the fascinating thing is, as I relinquished the pressure I’d put on myself to grow things bigger, I didn’t lose any of the passion or drive to see church growth happen. Going more analog had nothing to do with a shrinking desire to see more people come to know, love and follow Jesus. I still want that with every fiber of my being. I have mission in my bones. But what I realized is that is work I participate in; it isn’t work that I produce. I had been putting impossible pressure on myself to produce results, to somehow make more and more people follow Jesus. This is the digital lie, in pastoral terms. But all I can do is participate in what the Spirit of God is doing, simply offering whatever gifts I must give to create spaces and opportunities for growth to happen.

Once that pressure was lifted and I was able to slow down, an interesting thing happened. I don’t know if it was because my eyes were opened to a greater awareness of what God is actually doing among people, or if it was because more people were actually now coming into a deeper relationship with Jesus, but when I slowed down, it felt like the fruit grew. When I was pushing so hard and running so fast, I always felt like I was behind. I was able to be present in a new way.

I don’t have any sort of brilliant recipe for this. I just slowed down.

It’s hard to miss that you’re bringing this “analog” message from Silicon Valley, the heartland of tech. What has been the significance of that place for this shift in you?

Silicon Valley is home for me. I’ve been surrounded by cutting-edge tech my entire life. I think that has taken away the gloss and shine from digital technologies for me.

Tech isn’t more available here than in Omaha, but I’m surrounded by the people who make this stuff. Both of my brothers-in-law work in big tech. Many people in our church work in tech. Many of my close friends work in tech, creating the stuff that we carry around and wear on our wrists. But it’s just stuff. I just see it as stuff.

And maybe that’s a key first step—seeing what’s really there. I think only when we can see tech as just stuff can we truly assess what it’s doing to us on a human level. It’s rare that you look at your phone, for example, and consider the material makeup of this contraption in your hand. But that’s important in helping us snap out of this strange malaise we find ourselves in. I grab my phone and open Instagram, and I lose myself in these narratives and imagery, these stories of what all my friends are doing all over the world. I feel like I’m seeing it. But it’s so important to consider that actually what’s happening is I’m sitting in an office, surrounded by real human beings, ignoring those real human beings while staring at a metal and plastic rectangle. It’s a weird thing when you think about the material reality of it.

It breaks the spell.

Exactly. What a strange thing, this little box. I’m grateful for it, insofar as it lets me transfer information, but it is a box nonetheless. I would much prefer to hear the stories of my friends’ adventures and see their pictures much more inefficiently, over a good cup of coffee.

Let’s get back to the word “transcendent.” What is the first place for us to start realigning our values toward that?

I hesitate to say. I think people’s stories are their stories. Our contexts are incredibly unique, so I don’t want to make blanket statements. But in a general sense, I believe it’s important to make sure we have consistent, trusted, “analog” community in some form or fashion in our lives that we regularly meet in to be reminded of the fact that we’re human, that we live in flesh and blood and not in digital spaces. We must experience and remember that the most real way to experience full life and joy and the peace God has to offer is to do so in flesh-and-bone ways. “With one another” is a powerful biblical theme.

I have four friends who are all local church leaders in the Silicon Valley area. We get together about once a month for lunch. We go to the same Thai restaurant pretty much every time. We all order our food, but we usually share an order of these crab Rangoons. It started out as a joke because one of the guys always loved ordering them, but it’s almost a ritual now.

We sit for a couple of hours and eat and share conversation and life and pray for one another. We all serve in different communities but are in similar stages of life with young kids. It’s beautiful. I’m not looking for them to hit “like” on my Facebook post. I’m looking for them primarily to show up to lunch every fourth Thursday of the month to have a crab Rangoon.

And that sort of connection, so simple, is probably the first thing I would recommend. Make it happen. Be intentional about it. Find what works for you, but we all need spaces and communities and people to remind us of what it means to be truly human.

Tell me a story of how this shift has played out in your congregation.

One of the most obvious shifts has been in my preaching and teaching. The digital age has done real damage to the way we think about the Bible and about Scripture—we’ve lost our aptitude for long-form reading, and that’s incredibly dangerous. The Bible is intended to be read as a long-form book, beginning to end. It’s not meant to be digested in the little chunks our shrinking attention spans demand.

Consider the letters of Paul. People would have traveled to gather in a space to hear them read in their entirety. I imagine there would have been an urgency to hear the letter read a second, third and maybe a fourth time when they gathered—because it’s not like they had these in print form to take home in their back pocket or on their phone where they could just pop it up and read a verse or two.

We are trying to lean in to that when it comes to engaging the Scriptures here at Vintage. We recently concluded a five-month-long series in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. And the way we wrapped it up is that we just the read the entire letter out loud. That was it. That was the teaching. I set up what it might have looked like—Paul likely in some rented house in Rome with a scribe, chained up and speaking these words, as the scribe takes a long reed pen, dips it in ink and writes on a 12-foot roll of papyrus, which they had to roll up and tie, and carry for miles. People would have gathered in some larger home in Ephesus. The reader would have read it out loud. You can imagine the people interacting: “Read it again” or “What was that line? What’s he talking about?”

And it was beautiful. I’ve never read a church growth book where they said, “If you want to grow your church, just read an entire book of the Bible in your gathering.” That’s not a pop-wisdom method to church growth. But I would actually argue, particularly in the digital age, that it might be. It’s attractive. It’s so counterintuitive to the fast-paced, 240-character tweetable verse thing we do now, that people are given a sense of transcendence. There’s transcendence in doing a simple thing like that, a beautiful simplicity to just being human, slowing down, killing the branding. Just reading Scripture together.

Another thing we try to do is simple but profound—we try to break bread together as much as possible. We work to create spaces for people to eat together and slowly drink coffee together as much as possible. We have a coffee shop here at the church called the Abbey that’s open seven days a week, open to the public. It’s like a normal coffee shop. It’s open during our Sunday gathering. There’s this small walkway that separates the coffee shop from the sanctuary, so almost every Sunday, we have people who are just hanging out in the coffee shop peek into our sanctuary through the side door. Often they’ll ask, “What is this, like Christian karaoke happening in here or something?” because they’ll hear the music and see the words up on the screen.

So, I think spatially, there’s a lot we do not just with the coffee shop but with other ways we do ministry where we’re trying to invite people to linger and be with one another, even if that’s a disruption to their lives and schedules. We intentionally are trying to lean into that disruption because we think it’s a very necessary one in the digital age. We don’t need more programming. We need a relief from it, a respite.

As you consider continuing this journey toward a more analog way of ministry, what would you say to other pastors and church leaders?

That my suspicion—and my humble prayer—is that this way of life helps us maintain the course for the long haul. While I was writing this book, I was witnessing, as we all were, a series of heartbreaking falls from grace by well-known pastors. The big names, national figures, all these well-known evangelical Christian leaders just burning out and blowing up. I kept asking myself, Man, what happened? Not in an arrogant way, but from a genuine curiosity, and that sense of knowledge that that could be me—that could be any one of us.

The thing that struck me was evangelical Christian leadership in the digital age feels like it’s become a constant run on the treadmill of comparison. It’s the sort of aspirational pursuit to try to become the next Big Whoever. I’m prone to that, too, but I think one of the things about slowing down and going analog as much as possible is that it reminds us that most of this stuff isn’t real. The stuff God did in and through those people in those moments is real, but the actual experience of watching the highlight and liking the post is not. That’s a thing in a box, meant to lure us in and steal our time, energy and focus. And when you really begin to look at this all though that lens, it takes so much of the power out of comparison.

God has put each of us in our place. He has given us our group of people to serve. He’s wired and shaped and gifted us in ways that we might not even be aware of. And the more time we spend in digital spaces that are designed to lure us in under the guise of connection and awareness, the more time we waste that we could be spending doing the deep work of excavating the particular stuff that God has given us to offer the world, to discover the particular people that God has given us to serve and to love and to lead.

And all told, that’s the most important thing for me. My prayer is that we can see the world clearly enough to say to ourselves, The best way I can spend my life is to give what God has given me away—to these particular people he has called me to, in this moment and this place.

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