I got distracted last week and neglected to finish my thoughts on where we are and what we’ve learned as churches during COVID.
First, we’ve learned that temporary emergency measures can become standard operating procedure in a church if we’re not intentional in our communication, reflection, and practice. We didn’t as much learn this as it’s just been reinforced. During the early days of the pandemic, most churches complied with government recommendations and shut their doors to the Lord’s Day assembly. For the first time in history, healthy people in the United States were not allowed to worship God in their church building on Sunday. Most of us scrambled and began livestreaming our assemblies online so, at least, we could sing and pray, listen to a sermon and eat a communion meal in a virtual gathering. We understood that we were spiritually connected. And it was appropriate and good in this unprecedented emergency situation.
But now, nearly two years later, church online has become an acceptable and even sanctioned option for Christians and their churches. For a lot of disciples, the livestream service is normal now. It’s like the communion meal. I suppose there was a time when those “rip n sip” individually packaged communion kits were appropriate. But now, way past the emergency, many Christians and churches are still using them. (For my thoughts on communion during COVID, what we’ve lost with the “rip n sips,” and why we need to return to passing trays and “breaking bread,” please click here.)
The problem is that our language around the livestream was normalizing. We spoke in the very beginning about church online like it was already permanent. Instead of emphasizing that the livestream was a temporary, emergency procedure, we went out of our way to reassure the Christians who were staying home. Instead of saying that folks who are going to work, the grocery store, the gym, and restaurants should also return to the Sunday Christian assembly, we welcomed the online church and assured everyone watching that they were doing what was best by not coming to the building, even as a lot of those watching were attending football games and going out to eat.
The issue is that church online is not church. It’s something, certainly; it’s not terrible, of course. But it’s not church; it’s something else. By definition, church is a physical assembly. Flesh and blood people coming together in one place for a common purpose. Real, physical people gathering to worship God and serve one another together. Men and women and children, in the same place at the same time, being transformed together as they accept and forgive, bear with and love, compromise and laugh and cry with one another in the name and manner of Jesus.
Our faith is an incarnational faith in our incarnational Lord. God did not come to us virtually, he came to us in our flesh and blood. He didn’t send a text or a video, he sent us his Son. Our spiritual connections are important, but they are incomplete without our physical connections. Our Sunday gathering is not just any meeting that can be attended or substituted on a whim or out of convenience – it is the very Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is something that can be seen and heard and touched. Church online is a disembodied virtual experience. It’s not church.
Can you imagine being married and never going home to your spouse? I’ll just call her every night, it’s the same thing! Can you imagine telling your kids and grandkids at Christmas, “Don’t bother coming over for Christmas lunch and presents, let’s just Zoom it. It’s the same thing!
Of course, we all know it is decidedly not the same thing. What’s vital for some – the shut-in, the sick, those who work on Sundays – should not be normal for most.
But it’s normal now. It’s not surprising that something as convenient as online church would quickly become normal. If you’re out of town or on vacation, it’s much easier to hop online from your hotel room or your lake house and “do church” with your own congregation virtually than it is to hunt down a real live congregation of flesh and blood Christians and worship with them. To be shaped by the experience. To encourage other Christians and to be encouraged by meeting other disciples in a different place. To physically participate with the physical Body of Christ in all of its transforming power. We used to do that.
Maybe the compulsion to never miss church was misguided when, a few decades ago, we never dared skip the assembly. Certainly it was – a lot of us grew up believing that church attendance was the truest sign of faithfulness. The uncritical embrace of online church has exposed our shallow theology about church. As I’ve said before, the reasons online church is normal now and so many Christians opt to spectate from home instead of participate in person are three-fold: One, the pull of the culture toward individual consumerism is stronger than the pull of the Body of Christ; two, we’ve done a terrible job of teaching and communicating what’s really happening when God’s people come together in his presence, in the name of Jesus, and by the power of the Holy Spirit; and, three, our people have never really had a transforming experience in church. It’s all three.
The livestream should be done well for those who need it. And we would do better to address this from the pulpit on Sundays by saying things like:
“We’re so glad to make this livestream available to our sick and shut-ins; we pray it blesses you. For the healthy and mobile, please don’t let church online be the extent of your connection to God and to his people. Please come join us in person on Sundays and participate in all that God has planned for you through the Body of Christ.”
“We hope you are blessed by watching our worship service online. We also hope that you can join us here in person next Sunday.”
“If you are unable to be with us physically this morning, we’re grateful to be with you virtually. We understand that church online does not provide you the connection and the transformation that happens with the Body of Christ in here – but we hope this is beneficial. If you are able to be here but you’re watching online, we would encourage you to come join us in person next Sunday. Don’t let watching online be the extent of your engagement with God and his people. We would love to welcome you here to participate in what God is doing in us and through us together on Sundays.”
To be clear, I do believe there are benefits to livestreaming a worship service. Other than the aforementioned blessing for the congregation’s sick, shut-ins, and those forced to work on Sundays, I believe a livestream can be a wide on-ramp for people in your city. Folks in your community can be introduced to God and his people in your congregation through your livestream. But it must go beyond that. Strategies must be devised and resources must be deployed to engage those viewers and invite them into the physical assembly. We can’t be content with “hits” and “viewers;” we cannot mistake “time spent viewing” with engagement with Jesus and his Church; we must work hard to connect those online to the physical flesh and blood Body of Christ.
Finally, it’s on church leaders – shepherds, preachers, pastors, worship ministers – to teach and communicate better what God is doing during our worship assemblies, and to plan and practice so the holy community and transforming encounter of church is experienced on Sundays.
You hit on a lot of points here and given the length of the post, you have clearly thought about this at length. That make sense since it is your job. Not all of it is a “Get off my lawn” yet there is a definite vibe when you write that online church is not church.
There are absolutely benefits of being together just as there are benefits of drinking actual wine for communion of out a chalice instead of grape juice from a tiny plastic cup.
Maybe the online church feels more welcoming to those that don’t fit as neatly within the acceptable boxes of many congregations, regardless of the denomination.
Church doesn’t have to happen on a Sunday or in the same building to be church.
If the definition of the word “church” is a group of people assembled for a common purpose, if the purpose of “church” is to be together in the same room as a flesh-and-blood reflection of the incarnation of our flesh-and-blood Lord, if the Holy Spirit dwelling inside Christians makes “church” the Body of Christ, then, yes, online church is not “church.”
To your point, we have lost something significant in substituting a crumb of cracker and a sip of grape juice for the full meal intent and experience of the communion supper. We have given up something important by substituting sprinkling for the full symbolism and experience of immersion in water in baptism. And we are losing the intent and point of church when we do it online.
All three of those distortions began as convenient exceptions during emergency situations, but quickly became normal operating procedure.
Utilizing online church as an introduction or a gateway to a local community of faith is a wonderful way to use the technology. Using it as a substitute for the community, the transformation, and the witness of God’s gathered people is a problem.