My first congregation was in a fairly isolated, rural area with few social opportunities for a single 20-something. Desperately in need of human contact, I reached out via my unreliable dial-up internet connection and discovered the world of clergy blogging. Through our blogs, we shared the details of our lives and ministries, celebrated each other’s joys, offered support in the midst of grief and difficulty, and challenged and sharpened each other. On one of the blogs I read regularly, I found a link to a chat room. The first conversation I found there was one of depth, openness, intelligence, and sometimes hilarity – all things I was craving. I kept coming back, and so did many of the other people. Over time we became a real community. I know it sounds strange to those who haven’t experienced community online; to this day I still have no idea what some of these people look like. But we did all the things communities do. We knew about each other’s lives, sometimes sharing more than we shared with the people we knew “IRL” (in real life, in online parlance). We spent hours upon hours together in conversation. We were there for each other’s best and worst. Sometimes we annoyed each other and had arguments. Sometimes we dealt with difficult people we would have rather not. It may not have been community as most people think of it, but it was genuine community.
Having experienced this digital community long ago, I probably had more faith than some in our ability to shift to online connection when the pandemic began. To me, online life has always been real life. Existing in a chat room or Zoom meeting is certainly different from existing in the same physical room, but it’s not necessarily an inferior experience. There are benefits and limitations to both. And when gathering in person is impossible or dangerous, as it still is for many in this pandemic time, and as it has always been and will continue to be permanently for some people, online is by far a superior option!
I’m thinking about online community today because of an op ed in the NY Times instructing all churches to return to in-person worship and do away with our online services. “Whether or not one attends religious services, people need embodied community,” the author writes, and I agree, but we don’t agree about the definition of “embodied.” Bodies are involved in online worship; eyes, ears, voices, and minds are physical things, whether they’re in the same room as other people’s eyes, ears, voices, and minds or not. Embodiment doesn’t happen only among people in the same physical space, and if we believe that’s the only way embodiment can happen, we probably shouldn’t have told people during that pandemic that online worship is worship. For that matter, we should probably stop talking about the communion of saints, the cosmic connection between Christ-followers of all times and places.
Don’t get me wrong, I love worshipping in person. I vastly prefer it to being online, even as digitally oriented as my life is. But I don’t mistake my preference for an indication that this is how it must be. On the contrary, I think one of the few gifts of living through the pandemic is that we’ve been pushed to expand our accessibility beyond our walls.
In the past we’ve integrated elevators, hearing loops, large-print bulletins, and gender-neutral restrooms so more people could safely access our facilities and programs. Now we’re able to offer access to people who are immunocompromised or disabled, those who cannot safely attend in person because of the pandemic, and those who could not attend before and will never be able to attend in person even if the pandemic ends. They are important parts of the Church who have been excluded except perhaps for occasional visits from the pastor or a couple of lay leaders. In my own congregation, we have long had members who moved away and couldn’t find faith communities that were safe or welcoming for them; they were left to choose between not worshiping or hiding in congregations that denied their full humanity.
Now all these groups can worship with the body – they can worship embodied – through livestream. They can participate in the songs and prayers, hear the readings and sermon along with the other members, greet other worshipers and pass the peace of Christ in a chat function. Instead of receiving the “right” communion elements with one or two people at some separate time during the week, they might be eating and drinking whatever is at hand, but they can do it at the same time as the rest of their community.
Of course, leaders of faith communities need to discern the effects of online worship services upon their congregations, and determine whether and how to use virtual worship as a ministry tool. The NYT op ed wasn’t the first article to mention how online worship makes it easier for people to shift from members of a congregation to members of an audience. None of us want to encourage our people to consume worship as they would a movie. But I can tell you from a couple of decades of non-digital ministry that the customer mindset was a problem long before COVID forced us online. Is reducing worship accessibility the solution? I don’t think so.
In my congregation we’re working to become more embodied across the entire body: those who can gather in person, and those who connect from home. We’re working to include those who have been most excluded, and who would be excluded again if we withdrew virtual opportunities to worship, learn, gather socially, and serve in and beyond the church. We’re not going backward and asking, “Can’t we just do it the way we did it for centuries before?” We can’t. We are different. The world is different. We have so many challenges before us. But we also have gifts for that journey, and one of them is the gift of learning that we really can be connected as the the communion of saints, the body of Christ, mysteriously embodied even when we are physically apart.