Several weeks ago, the writer of a New York Times op-ed piece argued that, as Covid numbers drop, churches should also drop online worship. The writer stated that, while meeting online was important when we were shut down, worship is an “embodied” act, and allowing people the option to stay home to view worship on a screen leads to disintegration of the body. It makes the location of worship a consumer choice one based on preference. “Online church, while it was necessary for a season, diminishes worship and us as people.”
As you might imagine, there were all sorts of opinions voiced in response. Some agreed that even committed church folk have gotten a little lazy, and in a time when many were already reducing the number of times a month they were present in worship, this season has just opened the floodgates and given people even more permission to miss. Others noted that the growth of online worship options has particularly served people whose own bodies need to be nurtured or protected at home, for safety or health reasons, strengthening relationships the church wasn’t always committed to maintaining before. There are also churches that have experienced the extension of Christ’s body across space and time online, in a lasting way, as more than just a passing fad. I know from talking to many different churches that online connections—through worship, Bible study or prayer, and other small groups—have literally kept some people alive during this time.
There’s no one right answer to this question in this moment. But the faithful way to approach it, I think, is by keeping our perspective broad, beyond ourselves, with eyes to see the new thing God might be doing in our lives and the lives of our churches. Those things can be hard to see, because we’re not used to looking for them. But if we’re willing to ask “why?” and “with whom?” and “what next?” in community with each other, I trust God to speak.
I heard a devotional by Rev. Dr. Marcus Freeman III last week, on Isaiah 43. Verse 19 reads, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Marcus noted that the Hebrew word, translated here as “perceive,” appears 900 times in different forms in the Old Testament, and it refers to the act of gathering and assessing evidence and then coming to a conclusion. One example of that usage is in the story of Noah after the flood, when the dove returned to the ark with an olive leaf in its beak. Marcus noted that in the most liminal of moments, floating on the ocean with no bearings, Noah “knew,” or perceived, that the waters had subsided from the earth. This tiny, green sign was enough evidence for Noah to take in and believe.
I know God is placing tiny, green signs around and in you, and some bigger ones as well, as we navigate an ocean of unknowing. I trust that the eyes of our hearts, the eyes of faith, will help us perceive what God is doing. There will be no one right answer to any challenge. So look for what is springing forth around you; take in the evidence, assess it together, and move toward the next step. Even now, the Holy One is doing a new thing.
Grace and peace,
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Further conversations regarding online worship at this moment in our journey with Covid:
- “Zoom Fatigue and Falling Livestream Numbers? Expanding our Imagination about Online Church” – Blair Thompson, TMF
- “Life After COVID 19” – John Thornburg, TMF
- “7 Thoughtful Reader Responses on Ending Online Church,” – Responses to the original New York Times op-ed piece