If an alien life form visited Earth to learn about the American church and only read so-called Christian Twitter, I’m not sure they would have any idea that we believe in something called the Incarnation, or the Resurrection, or the Ascension. They would, however, know a lot about evangelical voting tendencies, the women’s ordination debate, abortion politics, and whatever controversy is currently trending.
Our habitual online discourse often trains us to undervalue the vast mystery of God—with all the wonder and worship it inspires—by immersing ourselves in sociological and theological commentary and debate. These conversations matter, of course. But we are in peril of replacing transcendence with immanence. We miss the deeper things of God for the Christian controversy du jour.
There’s a term for this temptation that I’ve only heard among priests: “altar burn.” It refers to a particular hazard of our trade. Pastors regularly handle sacred things—chalices and consecrated bread, but also the Scriptures and the tender moments of people’s lives.
There is an inherent danger in this frequent exposure. We come to treat sacred things profanely. We regard holy things too cavalierly. Amid the noise of a mundane workweek, we forget the complete miracle we are proclaiming.
Resisting altar burn used to be the special struggle of people who regularly preach, teach, and lead congregations. But now, anyone with a keyboard can speak, teach, or argue about God every day, sunup to sundown.
With this newfound ability, we’re all at risk of collective altar burn. The transcendent and utterly overwhelming triune God becomes flattened to a sociological or theological abstraction. Many of us spend far more time on social media than in gathered worship, and that digital space often hinders true repentance, contemplation, or prayer.
It is harder to approach God as the mysterious creator of the Crab Nebula, sustainer of every minute, and redeemer of the cosmos when we’ve spent hours reading the words of strangers arguing with other strangers about spiritual things.
Taken up daily, these activities yield a type of God-talk burnout where we lose sight of what is most unspeakable and most powerful about our Creator. Robust notions of truth, beauty, and goodness thin in our imaginations.
So what is the solution to altar burn? It requires us to re-engage the sacredness, the weirdness, the astonishing wonder of God. It requires silence, stillness, worship, and repentance. It requires speaking of God less and seeking God more.
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