It’s Time to Ditch Online Worship - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
It’s Time to Ditch Online Worship
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The Church of the Mountains and the Church of the Beach, not to mention the Church of the 18 Holes, have competition for the Sunday morning worship crowd: it’s called the Church of the Three-Piece Sectional.

Pastors have been shaking their heads in dismay at the excuse for years, probably for centuries, from parishioners who skip out on the Sunday morning activities: “I don’t have to be in the big room with the unusual furniture to worship God. I can worship God anywhere.”

But the difference with this new venue is, pastors are encouraging it.

Which leads to the question: At a time when sports stadiums and indoor arenas and concert venues are filled with the unmasked, and even Shuffling Joe and his retinue of janissaries have shed the face diapers, why are we still having online church?

While all but 5 percent of churches have returned to in-person worship, according to a study published last November by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 80 percent of the 2,700-plus churches surveyed indicated they offered hybrid services with both online and in-person worship options. A Pew Research Center study published in March 2022 stated this: “One-in-five [persons] (21%) may still be substituting virtual attendance for in-person attendance, saying they recently have watched religious services online or on TV but have not attended in person.”

The boost in streaming worship came with the best of intentions. While some churches — mostly large, sophisticated congregations — have streamed services for years, when the pandemic hit in spring 2020, virtually every church in America went virtual. It was a welcome innovation during a time when church doors were chained shut, reliable knowledge about the novel virus was scarce, and fear was rampant. It was a godsend for the faithful, desperate for spiritual leadership in a time of lockdown.

Even now, in a near-post-pandemic America — but beware the midterm-elections variant — online church offers curfewed members some semblance of worship — a chance to hear sermons and special music — via the computer. It allows vacationing members the same, even former members wanting to check in to see if the sermons are still as long as they remember them to be.

And, in a technocratic sense, their continued presence is an inevitability. The worship service has become to the marketing-the-church crowd a “product” on the Web, to be massaged on a soundboard for widest possible appeal. It has become a creative enterprise, with sets and lighting and hair and makeup and … production values. A powerful tool in the marketplace of religion, clickbait for church-shopping (and church-hopping) that may grow the membership rolls down the road. A great web service expands the “brand.”

Recent surveys indicate that during the pandemic it did grow church “attendance,” affording that latter word the widest possible definition. The Hartford Institute study saw worship attendance decreasing by 15.7 percent in churches meeting exclusively in-person, while declining 7.3 percent in online-only congregations. But churches that offered both in-person worship and streaming services grew by 4.5 percent.

And it looks like a lot of churches are going to keep on keeping on with the streaming services, pandemic or no.

But at what theological price? The Greek word ekklesia, commonly translated “church,” means “assembly,” a group of people called out to meet. Worship is a corporate affair — people together praising God. It is done by a group, a group of physical persons that comes together in one venue. It is not you in your living room watching a livestream, not even people arranged Brady Bunch–style in Zoom church.

The activities of worship, while available individually, are enhanced when performed in a group — the proclamation and response, the corporate confession of sins, prayer, even the standing up and sitting down. But no more edifying activity occurs during worship than congregational singing. As Carl Trueman puts it:

In this action, the believer acts freely, singing the words and following the tune as an individual, intentional act. And yet in so doing, individuals do not so much express themselves in some autonomous way; rather, they become part of the whole and, in a sense, lose their individual identity. Our individual freedom and our corporate belonging are beautifully tied together without tension or difficulty. And that is in a sense a microcosm of the whole service: Individual believers find their true identity through participation in the corporate action of worship, addressed by God as part of his people and responding to him in like manner.

All these are physical, bodily activities that underscore eternal truths fundamental to the Christian faith: that God made us physical creatures, that God’s Son became incarnate — a physical man — who died physically for our salvation, whose body and blood are given for us in a physical eating and drinking, and whose physical resurrection guarantees our own resurrection, as physical bodies.

Online worship forfeits that physical connection, and it eliminates the benefits of community, the body of Christ, the gathering of believers, which is fragmented already in this age of atomization, thanks in no small part to our obsession with screens. Streaming also renders one critical element of worship, Holy Communion, impossible.

Writes Tish Harrison Warren in the New York Times: “Online church, while it was necessary for a season, diminishes worship and us as people. We seek to worship wholly — with heart, soul, mind and strength — and embodiment is an irreducible part of that wholeness.”

But even from a strictly quality-of-experience standpoint, online worship is but a simulacrum of in-person church. It is the difference between seeing a doctor in an examination room and visiting with him on the laptop via Microsoft Teams; it’s the difference between walking in the mountains and watching a video of somebody walking in the mountains. (READ MORE from Tom Raabe: The Religious Liberty Winning Streak)

So, why not both online and in-person worship? Not to come down too hard on the streaming variety, for surely it is better than no worship, but Christians could see online worship as a suitable replacement for the physical assembly. As just another choice on Sunday morning, like choosing between pancakes and oatmeal.

Warren continues: “Offering church online implicitly makes embodiment elective. It presents in-person gatherings as something we can opt in or out of with little consequence. It assumes that embodiment is more of a consumer preference, like whether or not you buy hardwood floors, than a necessity, like whether or not you have shelter.”

Accommodation can surely be made for shut-ins and others unable for medical reasons to get to church — possibly a link to a website shared individually by the pastor — but now, with the pandemic largely in the rearview mirror, the body as a whole should be meeting together weekly in a big room with unusual furniture.

In a building called a church.

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