Today we had the first get together in person, face to face prayer meeting at our church in almost two months. While in lockdown in May and June, some of us would meet on Zoom to pray together. Having such technology available has certainly been a blessing over the last year and a half. Without Zoom and the ability to livestream, we would have had to have gone weeks at a time not being able to connect, hear each other’s voices, and see one another’s faces. Granted, the online option doesn’t work for everyone. Being the pastor of a church where some members don’t even have a computer at home means there are some who get left out of this online participation. But at least there was something. Though, honestly, I am much less enamored of such technological possibilities now than I was a year or more ago when the whole lockdown thing began. I am grateful for them but not satisfied by them.
I heard somewhere that there were statistics showing that in some places only 60% of people would return to church in person after COVID. The remaining 40% are those who have found the online option preferable because it is more convenient. After all, who wouldn’t rather watch church on their TV or laptop screen in their PJs with a hot cup of coffee? Any parent, knowing what it’s like having to wrangle kids into clean clothes and into the minivan to make the trek to church, might be tempted by staying with this option. So such a statistic, if its bears any resemblance to reality, is certainly worth unpacking.
However, as convenient or helpful as being able to go online has been, I can’t imagine it ever being a substitute for actually gathering together in person. I will show my bias by stating it simply: online church isn’t really church.
Why? My reason is simple. We have bodies. And our bodies are not simply transportation devices for our heads. Our bodies matter. Who we are as physical creatures, as flesh and blood human beings, matters. We are embodied souls created by God to live in relationship with other embodied souls. That we can gather in one place with other people, smile at one another, shake hands, hug, and even just hear one another’s voices and see one another’s faces, matters. Profoundly.
Whatever else we say about church, it has to be embodied to fully be church. People attend worship services not only–and probably not even primarily–to hear sermons and sing songs. Sermons are available by the millions online. No pastor should be under the illusion that their preaching is indispensable. You can stream music at home or in your car, lifting your voice along with your preferred worship songs and hymns. You don’t need to go to a designated building to hear good teaching or music.
But church–that is, genuine Christian community–is much, much more than sermons and songs.
You see, you can’t embrace or be embraced at a distance. You can’t mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice only by texting. You can’t shake hands or offer someone a shoulder to cry on while on Zoom. A kind, loving tone of voice doesn’t translate well in an email. Genuine, long-term Christian community requires physical presence. It means being with others. It’s virtually impossible to obey any of the New Testament’s “one anothering” passages unless people are actually together.
Staying online for worship and other forms of spiritual nourishment also has the potential effect of feeding our already bloated consumerist approach to church life and Christianity. I find what I like. I stream what I prefer. My favourite preacher. My favourite music. My favourite liturgy. And if we’re watching an online service and the speaker or preacher says something that doesn’t conform to our preconceived ideas, we can turn it off. We move onto something else. Our own preferences and comfort zones become the arbiter of truth and value. We can safely become theological islands. Our Christian faith becomes a buffet of biblical interpretation and practical application–all based on our own appetites.
And when “going” to church from the comfort of our living rooms, we can sidestep the awkwardness of actual relationships, of people who don’t like us (hard to imagine) or who rub us the wrong way (perhaps easier to imagine), the person who smells funny or doesn’t quite understand common social cues, not to mention the potential disagreements and conflicts that cause many to leave congregations in the first place.
No wonder some people avoid church and opt for watching their favourite mega-church pastor on YouTube or Facebook instead.
But doesn’t all of this messiness provide the very conditions within which God seeks to conform us spiritually into the image of his Son–our Lord–Jesus? Doesn’t growing into spiritual maturity involve much more than increasing the amount of biblical information in our brains? Indeed, isn’t wisdom not only the accumulation of scriptural knowledge but living that knowledge out around other people, in actual relationships, in specific circumstances?
Learning to live patiently with people who annoy us, even if they are brothers and sisters in Christ, is most definitely not the same as intellectually understanding the concept of patience. Bearing one another’s burdens is not the same as recognizing the importance of compassion and sending an etransfer to a worthwhile charitable organization. No, to become patient people, thankful people, humble people, faithful people, merciful, forgiving, and loving Jesus-like people, we need to be smack dab in the middle of Christian community, of a family of faith through which God by His Spirit cultivates these qualities in us by placing us with people who test them.
Besides, isn’t our faith an incarnational one? After all, God did not remain afar off, but came near–indeed, became one of us. The entire arc of the core biblical narrative is God dwelling with humanity in a reconciled, whole, flourishing relationship. That’s the whole point of creation and redemption. That’s why the second Person of the Trinity became a human being, entered our world, went to the cross, and was raised again. It’s why we need forgiveness and repentance. It’s what our sin wrecks. It’s why, ultimately, Christ is coming again to judge the living and the dead. In the end, it’s all to bring together heaven and earth, to reconcile all things.
Being the church means learning to live into this reality even now, becoming over time a living display of what God intends and will bring about for all of creation in the new heavens and new earth. As hard, as messy, and as inconvenient as church seen in this light might therefore be, it can only happen in the way God fully intends when it’s embodied, with people actually gathering together, learning to forgive and love one another as Christ in the flesh has done with us.