Why Church Online Just Ain’t The Same
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Now Reading: Why Church Online Just Ain’t The Same
2 years ago
If there’s one thing COVID-19 has taught me, it’s how much I can do from the comfort of my couch. I can work, order groceries, video chat with family far away, write this blog post and even ‘attend’ church.
Church online is nothing new. Hillsong has an Online Campus with a specially designated Online Pastor (whose entire role, I can only assume, is to do ministry in one of those annoying little chat bubbles that pops up in the bottom right hand corner of your screen).
Back in 2018, celebrity pastor Judah Smith announced Churchome, essentially church via app, where you watch the service at home, have digital meetups with other church members and connect with church leaders via Pastor Chat.
Many of the big Christian churches have been doing church online for years. However, it took a pandemic to get us Catholics (and many of the smaller Christian churches) to finally stick a GoPro at the back of the church so that we can stream the service.
Most Christians had a fairly limited experience of church online prior to COVID-19, but for the past few weeks, this has been our reality. Every Sunday I have breakfast, shower, and then sit on my couch to watch the Sunday service (fervently praying that the video and audio will be in-sync this week).
It has been a radically different experience of church, and whenever I’ve asked friends how they are finding it, the answer I get every time is:
“It just isn’t the same.”
That’s the question I’ve been reflecting on for the past week. Why isn’t church online the same? What are we missing when we experience church through our TV or smartphone screen?
In the Bible, the word “church” is always used about a group of people. The original Greek term, ekklesia, was used in the Old Testament to refer to the Israelites — God’s chosen people — when they gathered at Mt Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God.
In the New Testament, the word describes the early Christians, who would sell all of their worldly possessions to live their day-to-day lives in community with one another (Acts 2:42). Our understanding of church has changed since then, but one thing hasn’t changed: we aren’t meant to do faith alone.
The early disciples understood this; time and time again in the New Testament you read their exhortations for believers to gather together. In the book of Hebrews, Paul writes “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near” (Heb 10:25).
We are meant to share life with our church community. This community should be the place we go to share our successes, to get support when we are struggling, and to help out where we are needed.
These parts of the Christian life can’t happen when you’re watching church from your living room. As a result, it has become essential during this time to find Christian community elsewhere, whether it’s through small groups or connecting one-on-one with other believers.
But my concern is that many Christians aren’t even aware of how important intentional community is. For them, church online is the next logical step on a path of “individualised Christianity” that their church has been on for years. Each person’s individual relationship with Jesus has taken centre stage. In the songs they sing and the sermons they hear, it’s about “me,” not “we.”
In his article, Why Can’t I Just Go To Church Online, Kenneth Reid observes that if church is all about people individually connecting with God, then why bother driving across town to gather together on Sunday? It’s much easier to individually connect with God from my living room.
We’ve forgotten that, while our personal relationship with Jesus is important, community is fundamental to our identity as Christians. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt 18:20). Without community, we lose an essential way that we experience relationship with God.
We, united, are the body of Christ. Individual believers trying to go it alone are just as absurd as a hand or foot trying to exist by itself, seperate to the rest of the body (1 Cor 12:12-27).
The church is a spiritual reality. Even when we can’t gather physically in a brick-and-mortar building, we are still the church. We are united by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:12-14) and that doesn’t change while we’re unable to gather in large numbers.
But as human beings we have been created body and soul. We aren’t spiritual beings temporarily driving around this meat machine we call a “body.” We are physical beings, and our physical experiences can have a lot of impact on us spiritually.
When I was in Europe a couple of years ago, there were many times while I was travelling when I would pause at a beautiful church and go inside for a few minute’s prayer. In this sacred atmosphere, I often had deep and moving experiences of prayer.
When I’m trying to pray at home, starting at a blank corner of my bedroom, it’s the opposite. It often feels impossible to focus. The physical environment influences my ability to enter into worship.
The same is true for church. Church online disconnects the spiritual from the physical. We can’t gather together, we can’t receive Holy Communion together, we can’t pray, sing or confess together. As a result, church becomes a passive and dislocated experience.
Reflecting on the question of attending church online, Kenneth Reid draws a distinction between two types of church services: performative and participative.
Many of us have probably been to churches that are the former. You go along, sit in your comfy theatre-style seat, and watch, while the worship band performs a set from their latest album and the preacher delivers an inspiring message.
These churches have had the easiest time taking their services online, because their services are a performance, and whether you experience that performance in an auditorium or on your smartphone screen doesn’t really change much.
Every time I’ve attended one of these services it has been impressive, but I’ve also felt like something is missing. Because church should demand our participation.
I’m Catholic and let me tell you, Catholics get this. During our Sunday service we stand, we kneel, we sing (alright, 5% of the congregation sings) we receive the Eucharist (Holy Communion), we participate.
The problem with Church online is that every service becomes a performance and every church member becomes an observer. Church becomes something we consume for an hour every week, not so different from tuning in for the latest episode of your favourite TV series.
Part of me has really been enjoying the convenience of that during these past few weeks. I don’t have wake up early to shower and get dressed. I don’t have to drive across town. I don’t have to interact with anyone else.
But that comfort is part of the problem. For our experience of church to be meaningful, it should demand something from us. This hour or two on a Sunday is meant for joining together to worship our God, it’s meant for building up our fellow believers, and for keeping us accountable to walking the Christian journey.
When church is something we consume, we lose all that. As Reid puts it, “Participation is transformational and it can’t be done on my couch.”
As COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease, some prominent Christians have expressed the fear that people won’t return to in-person church services. They will have gotten comfortable their new routine, enjoying the convenience of tuning in to church from their living room, so that’s where they’ll stay.
I hope not.
As restaurants and bars have begun to re-open in the city where I live, people have returned in droves. You’ve got to book several days in advance if you want a seat. People are so excited to enjoy these parts of live again.
I hope we experience an even more joy-filled return to our churches. I hope we emerge from this time of self-isolation with a deep awareness that church online just isn’t the same. I hope we recognise our need for community, our need for embodied worship, and our need to participate.
In the words of Adam Ch’ng, I hope we recognise that “Church is not the passive dislocated experience of a spectator, but the active embodied belonging of a disciple.”