We are now six weeks into the lock-down in the UK due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the situation is similar in many other countries. In my native Poland, the government is slowly loosening some of the restrictions. Initially, it banned all religious gatherings of more than 5 people. Now in the worship service one person can participate per every 15 square meters of the church space. Still, it is much less than the president of the Episcopal Conference of Poland asked for. This regulation will be particularly difficult for smaller communities which do not have a large worship space such as the majority of evangelical churches in Poland. For many of us, online services will still be their main option for a while. It is certainly a great blessing that we can use technologies such as live-streaming and video-conferences to accommodate various forms of worship. There are, however, several dangers that should be kept in mind.
Online Worship Can Enhance „Church-Shopping”
I remember listening to an interview with Nicky Gumbel closer to the beginning of lock-down. He was enthusiastic about the opportunities for evangelism created by live-streaming of services and a large increase in attendance of the Holy Trinity Brompton compared to traditional services. If this increase was caused by unchurched members of the community taking interest in the church in the difficult circumstances, we should praise the Lord (and, as far as I remember, Gumbel said that many non-Christian members of the local community reached out to them). But I am afraid that this situation also leads people to choose live-streams of larger congregations with better music and more enjoyable preaching over their own churches.
Some of us, also, have to make strange choices. As for myself, I had to decide whether I am going to ‘attend’ primarily my home-church in Poland or the church that I normally attend here in Cambridge. I think this very dilemma shows that in neither case I am fully ‘present’ by attending online. I am neither really here nor there.
Online Worship May Stay with us for Good
While I am not principally against churches live-streaming on a regular basis (it is certainly a blessing for those who are sick, live in care-homes, travel or are unable to attend for other objective reasons), I think there is a real danger that more people will choose to watch services online even after the pandemic ends. It is in some ways easier. One can sleep in a bit longer. There is no need to dress up for an online service. It is convenient to watch the live-stream while still finishing your morning coffee. And perhaps some will be happy to avoid uncomfortable social interactions. I think church leaders should be mindful of this possibility. Perhaps, even if they are going to keep live-streaming services after things return to ‘normal’, it may be a wise solution to stop live-streaming for several weeks?
Online Worship May Diminish our View of Worship
It may seem that what we do online is a close substitute for the regular service. We still hear the Word read and preached. We still can say prayers. In some cases, we still can have music (though without real congregational singing). We still can have fellowship with one another via Zoom or Skype. Do not get me wrong. I am thankful for all of this! It is a major encouragement for me that I can pray with my brothers and sisters in Poland (and sometimes even preach ‘there’ without really being ‘there’).
But I cannot help thinking that this is a deceptive feeling. God created us as embodied beings. We do not fully participate unless we are actually there. No technology can replace the full-bodied presence in worship. And ‘gathering’ is an indispensable part of being the church in the New Testament. While we do have fellowship with the church catholic, we are part of it via local church. Meeting together, praying together, sitting under God’s Word together, all of that should happen in person. Not to mention that I do not believe that we can celebrate the sacraments online. There is no Lord’s Supper without the congregational presence and actual administration of the elements.
We should be thankful for the opportunities that technology creates. They are a blessing during the lock-down and they can be utilised in beneficial ways also later. But we should make all efforts to emphasise that online worship can be viewed only as a temporary and deficient substitute for real, bodily presence and real in-person fellowship. It should be our priority to start having worship services in the ‘real world’ as soon as it will be possible and reasonable safe to do so.