The Automated Pastor

By Paul Koch

There is a change coming, a brutal and heartless change that will reshape the human experience.

It comes in small increments, often imperceptible until it’s already become an accepted reality and there is little that we can do other than longingly speak of the “good old days.” But with a slow and relentless march, it will redefine our interactions and how we understand the world in which we live. I’m speaking of course about our use and reliance on technology and its role in human connections.

Now, I know this sounds a bit too much like a dreary and unoriginal piece, a bit too Neil Postman quasi-apocalyptic fear mongering, or some other foreboding lament about technology, but it still needs to be said. It needs to be said just one more time because it has reached an unacceptable level. It needs to be said because I can no longer play the part of the reluctant Luddite who shamefully wags his finger at someone else, for I can no longer escape it myself. We’ve all heard the stories or witnessed the event of a group of people sitting around a table at a restaurant texting one another rather than lift their heads up from their personal screen and talk to the person across from them. This willingness to interact through our technology over a face to face interaction will have consequences, and I don’t think we even ask what those consequences might be.

Let me tell you about a consequence of this new form of interaction, one I suffered through recently at an airport. Now, of course we love and appreciate technology, especially when it is keeping us safe as we fly the friendly skies. But this interaction didn’t come at the TSA security check, the with Air Traffic Control, or even piloting the plane. The interaction came at the bar—the freaking airport bar.

The terminal was full of inviting and wonderful places to have a drink and chat with a fellow traveler while sipping a cocktail. Upon approach, the bar looked delightful; a long bar with barstools each placed evenly in a line, lovely rows of fine spirits displayed behind the bar, a bartender mixing drinks—it all looked to be in order. And then I noticed something, mounted to the bar was an electronic tablet. As I approached, curious about the little screen carefully placed at each spot along the bar, I should have realized this would not be my usual bar experience. The first clue, of course, wasn’t the screen so much as the fact that when I reached for the barstool to pull it out, it didn’t move. Upon quick inspection I found that all the barstools were permanently bolted to the floor, the symmetry and beauty of the bar was permanently fixed in that place. It immediately lost life and became cold as this finding sank in.

The screen functioned as sort of an automated bartender. You didn’t speak to the person making the drinks. Instead, you interacted with the screen. You could search by cocktail name or by type of booze and then add any desired mixers and then swipe your card, and then out of nowhere the bartender would deliver your selected drink. So, I asked my “bartender,” “Could I just order from you if I wanted?” And I was informed that I could not. I had to order through the tablet. She assured me that I would get used to it, and even gave me a quick tutorial and left me to my screen.

It is difficult to put into words my disappointment, realizing the death of the bar (even and airport bar) was surreal. I was out of place, old and confused. I felt like I just needed to go to bed or take a nap and it would all be better, but it won’t.

The simple exchange between one person and another was now filtered through the tablet. This development was embraced and encouraged by those around me. There was an abrupt functionality to the whole thing—simply getting a drink at a bar—that reduced the well-versed exchanges of a bar to basic economics. No reading of the customer, no witty banter, no noticing of the subtle changes in the faces of another person, just a cold, lifeless expedient exchange through a screen.

This change impacts our expectations of other human interactions, and I fear how far this will go. I fear that even the preaching of the Word will be swallowed by such efficiency. Make no mistake—there is a belief that the role a pastor is simply functional. That is, a pastor is one who is to rightly divide Law and Gospel of a given text and apply it to the contemporary setting of the congregation. It seems like a simple algorithm could probably get pretty good at this. Punch in the given text and out would spew a given doctrinally pure sermon just for you. You could mass produce such wonders of technological advancement and even sell custom models for different theological proclivities.

Now, that may seem ridiculous, but I once thought sitting at a bar was one of the great escapes of technological automation. If our interactions with our neighbor slowly become simple economic transactions, why couldn’t we do it at church? Why wouldn’t we prefer it? Why would we try and stop it?

The proclamation of the Word is anything but a cold, lifeless, and efficient exchange of goods. There is the context of people’s life that the Word impacts. There is a reading of the joys and sufferings, victories and defeats of those who gather to receive the Word. It is an organic and constantly shifting reality where the Word kills and brings forth new life not by hovering above their situation but by getting right down into it. In the end, there can be no internet pastors, no Twitter preachers or podcast evangelists. The good old days may not be very efficient. They may pull us away from our filtered interactions, but they keep us in the life of our neighbor.