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Sacraments, Technology, and Streaming Worship in a Pandemic

April 2nd, 2020 | 15 min read

By Brad East

To stream or not to stream? That is the question facing empty churches across the country. At least, that is, how to stream and what to stream—few appear to have considered the possibility of not streaming at all. But why stream in the first place? And what occurs in the process?

The Coronavirus quarantine provides a worthy occasion for theological reflection on the use of technology to facilitate worship, but it is not the first. The question of technology’s role in worship has been with us from the beginning. For technology simply names artifacts, objects of human making, and their usage in liturgy has always been a live question for Christians. The codex, instruments, icons, musical notation, vestments, altars and chalices and monstrances: what is necessary or edifying, permissible or prohibited in the assembly of God’s people is never answered in advance. It is a matter of perennial missionary and cultural discernment.

So with technologies of mediated presence. The theological and sociological questions began in earnest with the development of mass communication media in the mid-20th century and the subsequent recording and transmission of worship services. Should churches “broadcast” their worship? What of those who “participate” in absentia? What does such participation amount to? Is worship, anyway, broadcastable? Is there anything unique to the gathering of believers in one another’s bodily presence and/or the liturgical actions performed by and among them that renders either the gathering or the liturgy, or both, “localized” and therefore non-communicable to those unable or unwilling to be present?

It is unclear whether advances in technology in recent decades substantially alter these questions, now that the internet and not the television is the dominant medium in the U.S. Nor is it clear that the pandemic makes a material difference for how we should answer them. Indeed, other than the acute manner in which the current crisis brings these issues to the fore, and at such scale, there is no reason to suppose that the church’s judgments about the use of digital technology to mediate worship to and for those separated from the gathered body of believers should be any different today than they were three months ago.

But then, three months ago, these questions weren’t being asked. So it’s worth taking them up anew, when nearly nine out of 10 churches have canceled services and most have begun using the internet either to live-stream their worship, or to upload their pre-recorded worship, for the benefit of their members. And then to consider further how Christians might approach this season of liturgical separation: marked neither by paralyzing fear nor by casual cheer, but by courage and sorrow in equal measure.

Postman’s Critique

The great analyst and critic of the dominance of technology in our lives is Neil Postman. Postman rightly saw that technological change is itself a primary driver of cultural change. Moreover, it is far from neutral in its effects on society. Not only is ideology commonly a function of technology; technology itself exerts a kind of formative agency on the public and thereby generates adoration on a par with divinity. It is, in the language of the New Testament, a principality and a power. That is why, as Postman puts it, the technologies of mass media and show business are so ruthlessly effective at trivializing “significant cultural symbols,” not least those of religious traditions. For “the adoration of technology pre-empts the adoration of anything else.” The logic of monotheism works both ways: “The elevation of one god requires the demotion of another. ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’ applies as well to a technological divinity as any other.”

The principal means by which this occurs was and is through television (understood, for our purposes, to include any and all TV-like content, however transmitted or viewed). For, as Postman argues, “on television, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence.” Where Christianity is properly itself, it “is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.”

In short, “not everything is televisible.” In the attempt to televise the untelevisible—in this case, Christian worship—it is not the medium that is changed in the process. It is that which is televised. Hence the transmutation (should we call it transubstantiation? After all, the accidents remain, but not the substance) of the liturgy: from enchantment into entertainment, from sacrament into showbiz, from declaration into diversion. As Robert Jenson observes: “What the existing media do to the gospel, when we try to proclaim it over them, is to transform it instantly into Protestant Christianity’s false teachings: moralism and sentimentality.”

If technology of this sort is indeed one of the powers, as Postman suggests, even a rival deity a la Mammon, bidding for our attention and devotion, then we should not be surprised that it corrupts the gospel at its heart. Though dreadfully subtle, technology, like all false gods, wants our hearts. And it will not scruple to use the liturgy to capture them.

Robert Jenson on Worship and Technology

Jenson wrote around the same time as Postman, in the mid-1980s. He asked similar questions as Postman, though as a theologian and pastor. In a short essay produced for a study commissioned by the National Council of Churches of Christ, he framed the issues in a twofold manner. First, considering electronic media as social institutions established not by technological fiat but by political choice, how do they shape society and, within it, the church’s life and mission? Second, considered “simply as a new—by the church’s timescale—technology of mediation,” how does such mediation fit, or not fit, within the wider suite of procedures, practices, and artifacts by which the church gathers, communicates, and worships?

The first thing Jenson observes is that mass media creates just that: a mass, not a community. Such media alone, therefore, could never facilitate the sort of common life to which the church is called. (No Second Life Church here, thank you very much.) For a mass, in Jenson’s words, is “a collection of individuals; and a collection of individuals cannot be auditors of the Christian gospel.” If a community is a corporate body, then a corporate body is constituted by bodies in the plural—and as we shall see, those bodies must have voices.

In Jenson’s terms, the mass effect of digital technology has only intensified in the age of the internet. Far from creating community or, in the language of C. S. Lewis, fostering true membership, social media’s unrivaled capability is the making of mobs: being a feature, not a bug. In this respect, Jenson’s negative judgment appears to stand.

Of interest, though, is the rationale Jenson offers for his view. He argues that “cross-talk”—the conversational give-and-take of intersubjectivity—is “vital” to the hearing and proclaiming of the gospel. He compares the absence of cross-talk in mass media to the telephone network, which facilitates nothing but. What then might he say of morning prayer via Zoom? But more on that below.

Jenson concludes his first reflection by suggesting that a broadcast of a local congregation’s worship to shut-ins or the sick “does not itself carry the burden of integrating its hearers into the congregation,” for they already belong to the congregation, not least by ongoing “pastoral and fraternal care.” In this way “the medium is internal to the congregation,” thus avoiding the problems that follow when it is used precisely to create a mass audience. Here we find an initial modest approval or permission for mediated worship from afar.

Here Jenson moves to the second aspect of his framing questions. In agreement with Postman, he argues that what mass media accomplishes in spanning space and time is “the reduction of communication to information.” But is there more to communication than information? Yes, Jenson answers, and that “more” is found in our presence to one another in the body. Such presence constitutes a personal availability to the other as both an object and a subject.

This bodily availability happens most vividly in the “cross-talk” of dialogue, as we have seen, but it occurs as a sheer fact by making ourselves vulnerable to the other’s touch. Touch—or in the language of Paul Griffiths, the caress—is the ever-present possibility of the intimacy of bodily presence: shaken hands, a punch in the gut, a slap on the back, a slap in the face, a hug, a kiss, a total embrace. Genuine communication occurs when human touch is possible.

Jenson, a catholic Lutheran, sees in the liturgical communication of the gospel both the means and the content of the good news. For the gospel announces the incarnate God, who made himself available to his creatures in a vulnerable human body; who spoke and was spoken to; who touched and was touched; and who now, in and by the assembled members of his body, makes himself available in the most intimate manner to his beloved: being handled, carried, broken, shared, tasted, chewed, consumed. The “what” and the “how” of the gospel’s proclamation in sacramental worship are thus identical. In this case, the medium really is the message.

The Eucharist, in other words, is untelevisible. It requires the public assembly of Christ’s body to partake of the holy sacrament of his body and blood. What it says is what it does, and vice versa; to hear—to receive—requires touch, which means ourselves in person, body and soul. Here, at this meal, Christ is not present to us if we are not present to him. No real presence without our presence, too.

Now: Could digital technology mediate the communication of the liturgy to those members of a congregation unable to be present in the body so long as the consecrated elements were brought to them promptly? And so long as such members were not absentee by habit or design but somehow or other active nodes in the web of such a community? Jenson thinks so. The technology in this case does not, because it is unable to, mediate what is communicated in the liturgy. Rather, it allows observation of those present and participating in the moment, in the service of deferred participation on the part of those not present, thus making for a sort of temporally extended communication. In this way the liturgy’s proper conclusion occurs, say, later that day, in the last reception of the elements by a shut-in across town.

Seven Theses on Streaming Public Worship

What should we conclude from these reflections by Postman and Jenson? And what, if any, special comments are called for either by new technologies or by Covid-19?

First, technology is not neutral. It calls for sober interrogation before the church adopts or employs it in its service. Jenson writes that “the existing institutionalization of electronic mediation is, for the church, the enemy. … As the church necessarily deals with and uses them nevertheless, it must above all, therefore, move warily.” This is a wise word, in this as in all times.

Second, Christian worship is sacramental or it is not Christian worship. And sacramental worship unavoidably mitigates the potential to transmit it without loss across space and time. The sacraments require matter, bodies, touch. None of these things is communicated via digital media. Their simulated presence is nothing less than their total absence.

Third, all attempts to use technology to mediate the liturgy across large distances are, or ought to be, a pastoral response to a specific problem. The ordinary problem is those who are kept from attending service due to ill health, inability, weather, or the like. It is a problem in that, if it were not for those or other obstacles, the persons in question would be present. Put differently, such mediated worship is not just second-best; it is severely attenuated. There is unrecoverable loss in such instances, even for those who receive the elements later in the day. To say otherwise is either to misunderstand or to contradict the essence of the church’s worship.

Fourth, having said that, such mediated worship is not nothing. Attenuated does not mean null and void. Churches are right to stream their worship to those members unable to join, whether in ordinary circumstances or, like ours at present, extraordinary ones. Each of us in self-quarantine now knows what it is to be a shut-in, kept by forces out of our control from joining God’s people in worship of him. It is a source of deep pain, and a cause for lament, on top of our growing lament for those suffering from this virus, from fear of it, or from the (in themselves good) restrictions on our common life.

Fifth, it follows that we ought to avoid speaking in a casual or cheerful tone about “merely” or “only” shifting our worship from one mode to another, as if the change from public assembly to digital streaming were a difference in degree rather than kind. We ought instead to give voice to our sorrow and name the lack—the literal absence—that now, of necessity, marks our lives as Christians, separated from one another. It is as if the limbs of Christ were temporarily amputated. Must we really act as if nothing has happened?

Sixth, granting that churches should stream their worship, what should it look like? This will naturally depend on one’s context, congregation, and tradition. Preferably the liturgical leadership on video will be plural in number, not a single individual alone, the better for the separated members of Christ’s body to observe from afar a small, but nonetheless representative, fraction of the selfsame body gathered in the name of Christ to worship him in the Spirit. Collects, petitions, hymns, confession, creed, benediction: these are fitting for such mediated worship.

Seventh, mention of fitting practices raises the question of technological advances, especially the use of the internet, in streaming worship. In keeping with Jenson’s strictures outlined above, the potential for the internet to facilitate “cross-talk” concerns the liturgy of the word, such as morning prayer, more than it does the full ensemble of sacramental worship. (What is digital unleavened bread, after all?) I have read of churches using Zoom, for example, to mediate just such reverent participation, whether that looks like the people responding to the pastor or lector in unison, or individual members communicating prayer requests one at a time before the digitally “gathered” congregation. This approach would presumably work for smaller churches, though perhaps there are other examples out there of larger communities being equally creative without being captured by the technological platform in question.

Is virtual communion allowable?

The last topic is the most hotly debated: namely, whether “virtual communion” is prudent, or even possible, right now. To be clear, the issue is not e-wafers or VR wine, much less augmented liturgy. Rather, the question is whether believers in their homes ought to partake of their own eucharistic elements in conjunction with their congregation’s live-stream, so that members are all praying and blessing and eating the elements simultaneously, led by the minister(s) online.

The form of one’s answer here will inevitably take an “if…then” shape. If one’s church is strictly memorialist; if the elements are only symbols; if it does not matter what they are (crackers, apple juice, whatever’s on hand); if they do not require consecration; if their administration does not call for an ordained person; if one’s household constitutes a kind of domestic church unto itself—if any or all of these apply, then one may plausibly make a consistent argument for “communicating” at home along with the rest of one’s church while led by one’s minister(s) streaming worship online.

If, however, few or none of those conditional statements apply—and you, dear reader, know from the foregoing where I fall here—then it follows as a matter of course that this sort of celebration of the Supper ought not to occur. We ought instead to heed the words of the apostle: “wait for one another” (1 Cor 11:33).[1]

What does that mean for Christian life under quarantine? Might not a pandemic call for emergency measures, even granting the sacramental character of the church’s worship? Isn’t abstention from the bread of life too much to ask, too painful to endure for weeks or even months?

It is indeed a great deal to ask. It is very painful. But that does not resolve the issue. If a thing is unwise or impossible, we do well to resist the temptation to recast it as unavoidable or necessary. Better by far to acknowledge the pain and lament it together, albeit apart. As Chris Krycho has written:

We are eager to return to gather with God’s people. We are eager to come to the Table again. This eagerness, this longing, is a pointer just in the same way that the weekly gathering and Communion are in ordinary time: to the consummation of all things when Christ comes again. The hunger we feel keenly now for the gifts of God in this age can remind us to hunger more deeply for the gifts of God in the age to come — the gathering of all the saints, the feast of the ages, and both unbroken and unending. Temporary loneliness can point us to final fellowship. Temporary fasting can point us to final feasting.

Or in Scott Swain’s words:

Our inability to celebrate the Lord’s Supper for a season can only be, should only be, cause for sorrow and tears. For now, we are not able to celebrate this remembrance of the Lord by “tasting” and “seeing” his goodness (Ps 34:8). But this does not mean we are consigned to a state of utter forgetfulness. No. There is a kind of remembrance that accompanies exile from the city of God (Ps 137:5-6), the remembrance that leads to faithful tears (Ps 137:1-2) and that cultivates hopeful longing for restoration (Pss 63:1; 143:6), the remembrance of those who have once tasted and who, by God’s grace, know they will once again taste and see the Lord’s goodness, whether it is at his table in the covenant assembly or at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:9). This is the kind of remembrance that we are called to cultivate in ourselves and in our flocks in this season.

American Christians desire instant gratification. We expect technological fixes to temporary glitches. But this pandemic is not a glitch. It is a trial, and one that has no quick solution. It can only be endured. Instead of living in denial, we should allow the terrible burden of our endurance to make its mark on our habits of worship during this time. The liturgy ought not to carry on just as before, hastening to distract us from the danger around us. Let it instead bear the imprint of our moment. Life is not as it was. Worship shouldn’t be either.

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  1. Jenson’s specific exception here, for “extended” eucharistic celebration, does not apply under lockdown. That is, it is impossible under current conditions precisely because congregational members cannot constitute a kind of collective “infirm,” with deacons distributing the elements to the quarantined, since the sort of vulnerability required even for that—touch—is the very thing we are called to avoid in this moment out of love for our neighbors. (This is why many Orthodox parishes, for example, have suspended the Divine Liturgy entirely. Indeed, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has ceased its worship for the first time since the Black Plague.) What this means, though, is that we ought to be urgently praying, planning, and discerning for the earliest possible time when churches may prudently gather in eucharistic celebration, in however small of groupings.I should also add that this argument has nothing to do with the size of ecclesial communities or with the legitimacy of house churches. The question at issue isn’t whether the Eucharist celebrated in a home may be valid. Even house churches (say, of a few dozen believers) are not—or should not!—be meeting at this time. The question, rather, is whether, unable to gather with fellow members of one’s congregation (wherever that ordinarily takes place and in whatever form it typically occurs), one ought as an alternative to gathered eucharistic celebration to “partake” from afar, that is, at home, while separated from one’s sisters and brothers in Christ, in conjunction with life-streamed worship.

Brad East

Brad East (PhD, Yale University) is assistant professor of theology in the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. He is the editor of Robert Jenson’s The Triune Story: Collected Essays on Scripture (Oxford University Press, 2019) and the author of The Doctrine of Scripture (Cascade, 2021) and The Church’s Book: Theology of Scripture in Ecclesial Context (Eerdmans, 2022). His articles have been published in Modern Theology, International Journal of Systematic Theology, Scottish Journal of Theology, Journal of Theological Interpretation, Anglican Theological Review, Pro Ecclesia, Political Theology, Restoration Quarterly, and The Other Journal; his essays and reviews have appeared in The Christian Century, Christianity Today, Comment, Commonweal, First Things, The Hedgehog Review, Living Church, Los Angeles Review of Books, Marginalia Review of Books, Mere Orthodoxy, The New Atlantis, Plough, and The Point. Further information, as well as his blog, can be found at