During the middle of last year, I imagined that turning the page in our calendar into a new year would mean that we’d finally left our “unprecedented” season behind.  But, it seems clear that as we enter into 2021, challenging times are still ahead of us even though 2020 is (thankfully) in our rear view mirror.  One of the real challenges still facing us is what it means to be an “Online Church.” Even though so many among us have become quickly functional or even fluent in tools like Zoom, the fatigue that has set in is making us reconsider our approach to “Online Church” – it may need to be more like a marathon than a sprint.

Since our recent celebration of Advent, just a few weeks ago, I’ve found myself considering how the Candles of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love really matter for a world in darkness.  Advent is about adopting a posture of waiting & watching for the arrival of Jesus Christ.  Fleming Rutledge reminds us that, “every year, Advent begins in the dark” (Advent, 251). Advent is a season of waiting – waiting on God to act, waiting on God to come. There’s Israel waiting for 400 years in slavery for Exodus and Deliverance. There’s Israel waiting for 400 years after Exile for the coming Deliverer. “Every year, Advent begins in the dark.” 

And the truth is – being in the dark can be hard.  It’s scary.  And 2020 has been a year of darkness for a lot of us. We’ve lost loved ones, we’ve been socially distanced, and we’ve experienced loss of connections. We’ve grieved cancelled plans and loss of income or security. It sure seems like we’ve spent much of this year “in the dark” … “in the dark” about what’s really going on, how long it will last, and what things will look like on the other side of COVID. So, especially in dark, discouraging times what we need is some light to help us through the season of Advent-like waiting and beyond.  

In considering what it means to be an “Online Church” (an idea that has a lot of uncertainty and darkness surrounding it), I think we need the Advent Candlelight of Joy to help us find our way.  Advent Joy has some important competitors out on the market today – I’m just going to name two of them in this short space:

One cheap substitute for Advent Joy is a fake joy – a pollyanna, unrealistic joy, pretending that everything is great, minimizing our suffering.  A label for that kind of joy substitute could be the word “jolly.”  Jolly is a Christmas word – and it’s not necessarily a bad word, but people sometimes wear “jolly” like a mask in order to plaster on a smile, to cover up the pain and pretend it isn’t real. That doesn’t work.  The truth is we can’t breathe under that “jolly” mask – and instead of helping us look nice and neighborly, it actually ends up making other people nervous about what we may be hiding and often they decide to walk away.  Some of us may feel tempted to adopt a jolly mask related to the challenges of “Online Church,” but we can’t wear it for long before we’re worn out.  In contrast, the light of Advent Joy is so much deeper and richer than fake jolly.  Advent Joy doesn’t hide the pain and the problems, instead it’s a light that reveals joy right there in the midst of sorrow.

Another response, often in opposition to the fakeness of Jolly, is the rejection of Joy as a reality or a possibility altogether – let’s call that being “Jaded.” What does it mean to say someone is jaded?  They’re too cool for what other people care about, they’ve “seen too much,” they’re cynical, and tired, they’ve stopped being excited about something that probably used to matter to them.  The dictionaries tell us that this term may come to us from the term “jade” – a tired, worn out, exhausted horse.  This word jaded is on my mind because in spending time with college students, some of them take a jaded position of being “over faith” or “done with faith,” by which they usually mean rejecting a simplistic, childish faith. And I can appreciate where they’re coming from – “being jaded” can happen to adults, too.  Sometimes when people get “burned by Church” or “burned by other Christians,” they lose their joy, they get jaded and check out emotionally because they’ve “seen too much” in that it leads them to reject joy and become jaded.

So if some people wear fake jolly as a mask, others reject joy as unrealistic and may end up wearing their “being jaded” in a way they think makes them look sophisticated, wearing their status of “jaded” as jewelry.  Being jaded can feel interesting and exotic and cool, but real joy is so much more beautiful.  Advent Joy is “Past-Jolly” & “Post-Jaded” in that an Advent Joyful person says, “Yep, it’s true, there is suffering and darkness in the world, the Church is broken, but ‘I’ve seen too much’ of God’s faithfulness to walk away from faith.”  That kind of real, authentic joy comes from God!

As Dallas Willard says, God is the most joyous or joyful being in the universe (Divine Conspiracy, 62).  So, while the world offers us cheap joy substitutes – and it pokes fun at real joy and labels us as naive.  What we need is a “second naivete.”  We need faith like a child in a joyful God.  We need joy like a child.  Followers of Jesus practice the discipline of recapturing a child-like joy.  Maybe capture isn’t the right word here…  Joy that comes from God is wild & good – something that in its purest form can’t be tamed or captured, instead joy is something that captures & captivates us!  

What does this mean for being an “Online Church”?  It means that while there are best practices that we certainly should learn and adopt, those will not get us very far unless we are captivated by something (or someone) greater.  We need to be practicing joy and approaching the challenges of being the people of God in challenging times with a posture of joy, living in the light of Advent Joy, instead of wearing Jolly or Jaded.

I’ve heard that Landon Saunders has said, “Joy is not an end we pursue, but an energy we apply.” So, while joy is not a good “end goal,” it is a rather pretty terrific “process goal.”  Joy is more of a practice than a place – more of a “how” than a “where”… Joy is how we get where we want to go in our journey to and through the good life – even the good life mediated online!  The more we live in light of God as the most joyful being in the universe, the better we can apply and practice what the true, good life is all about.

So, my hope is that we can approach these challenging times of trying to be an “Online Church” in the light of real Advent Joy. That light can inspire us, increasing our endurance and resilience as it helps our eyes adjust to the darkness and see ways to glorify and honor God in a continued season of waiting.

Alan Howell