The Covid-19 pandemic has forced local congregations online. Some of you watched my humble attempt to provide a bit of encouragement to my own little church by providing prayers, scripture, preaching, and songs from the sanctuary to folks stuck at home via YouTube (see Sunday’s post). All well and good, as far as I’m concerned. Extraordinary times require some flexibility and doing what we can to maintain connections is important, even if not ideal.
However, let me make something clear. I don’t call what we did on Sunday “corporate worship.” Whether recorded (as ours was) or live-streamed, such virtual “gatherings” fall short of that definition. Rather, thinking of them as a legitimate substitute for meeting as a congregation to worship betrays some fundamental misunderstandings of what worship is, misunderstandings that are quite common in our culture and oft-critiqued on this blog.
Anne Ortlund once said that, in our world today, many church people come to worship as a room full of marbles — each individual self-contained, present but merely adjacent to the others around him or her. In contrast, she recommended that we understand ourselves as a grapes in a vat, crushed together to make wine. It is via the intermingling of our lives in Christ and with Christ together that we worship, and I simply do not believe that can happen in any real way online.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not criticizing virtual gatherings. As I said, at a certain level we can maintain a sense of identity and connection through them, and that’s good.
Just don’t call them or conceive of them as corporate worship. In nothing is this more clear than when it comes to “cyber-communion.”
One who disagrees with me is Chris Ridgeway, in his CT article “Online Communion Can Still Be Sacramental.”
Imagine a video conference call with 40 faces in small squares across the screen, each with a cup and a piece of bread in view. We worship and pray and the pastor or priest consecrates with language from the Book of Common Prayer, “send your Spirit upon these gifts”—the non-physical, all-present Spirit of God. Then as one body we partake together. In unity. Not privately. Present to one another.
Arguments from a previous generation about digital Communion were binary: offline and online. The internet was seen as anonymous and individualistic. A cold keyboard couldn’t compare to warm shoulders.
Yet the imagined video conference call—not so much imagined anymore—is an extension of known relationships of the local body. Why can’t the signs of God’s presence—the bread and wine—and the signs of our presence—our smiles and voices—signify both the goodness of the embodied world and the reality of the spiritual one? There is nothing inherently Gnostic—disembodied—here. Real bodies. Real bread. And the real presence of the Triune God, on Zoom this weekend and joyfully gathered back together in person once this too has passed.
Cultural shifts have often been tectonic plates on which the church builds as we apply the unchanging Word to the changing world. The physical gifts of God for the present people of God.
In my view, Ridgeway greatly exaggerates the personal connection accessible through technology. I don’t think I’m simply being a Philistine either. After all, I’ve led a conversation blog for ten years now, and spend a great deal of time interacting with others via a variety of virtual means. Even my work with my hospice colleagues has been transformed, so that we communicate by phone, text, and email throughout each day to keep in touch and on the same page as we travel.
But I truly believe, on some ontological level, it is not the same.
Let’s say during this pandemic, I set up a Zoom meeting with all my children and grandchildren on Sunday. We are all in our own homes, eating Sunday dinner, conversing with each other around a virtual table. It may be necessary, it may be helpful, it may be encouraging, and it may indeed enhance our relationships, but you cannot convince me that it is the same as actually sitting around the same table sharing a meal face to face.
Corporate worship is not a virtual gathering. It is a real family dinner together. Communion, the meal portion of our worship, is not merely an individual act whereby each one accesses Christ’s presence through the means of grace. Worship is a meal celebration at the Lord’s Table whereby we break bread together and are fed as a family by Christ’s body and blood.
In our congregation, we all come to the table (those who are able). We stand together before the table as a family and are fed. We do not feed ourselves — the elements are served to us along with God’s promises. I look each person in the eye, speak his or her name, and say, with feeling, “for you.”
No harm will come to us if we have to forgo such gathered worship for a season. Virtual gatherings, in whatever form they take, can help us keep connected and preserve our identity. But I will not mistake them for corporate worship through Word and Sacrament. And I won’t think they can ever substitute for the real thing.