Let me tell you the story of a church.
Not a megachurch, but not small either. Across two services on a given Sunday, 400-600 folks in the pews. Nothing fancy about the church. You’ve never heard of it. But a faithful congregation in a Bible Belt town that, each week, proclaims the gospel and shares in holy communion.
Like every other church in the area, in March 2020 this one too closed its doors. It moved quickly to “stream” worship on Sunday mornings for hundreds of people who were now self-isolating at home. This was new for the congregation, as it had not streamed its services in the past. At most, it would record the sermon for members unable to attend.
But the church didn’t leave the matter there. The leadership knew that finding ways to meet in person was essential for God’s people. This new normal was anything but. It was an emergency measure, and such measures are permissible only so long as they are an exception to the rule. When they become the rule, something has gone wrong.
So the leadership began scheming in two ways. First, they secured the right to meet outdoors in a large parking lot near the church. They met in May, just two months after canceling services. They had missed eight or so Sundays in person. The gathering was a success: hundreds showed up, wearing masks in Southern summer heat, keeping their distance but gladly seeing one another in the flesh. They worshiped together from the backs of trucks and folding chairs. They shared communion. The experiment went off without a hitch.
But the leadership knew this couldn’t become the norm either. It was a way to kickstart normality, not normality itself. So, second, they continued scheming how to gather again in the church building in a way that was both safe and legal but not defined by fear or anxiety. They rearranged the seating and limited the capacity of the sanctuary. They created an area in the back for the elderly, who might want to arrive late or leave early. They simplified parts of the service, especially congregational singing. They adjusted how communion was distributed and received. And they required masks.
By late June they reopened the doors of the church. And what’s more, they’ve been open ever since. Not a Single Sunday missed, from June 2020 to the present.
Not that they avoided drama. Some disliked the mask requirement. Some stayed home until the vaccine came … and then until Omicron passed … and then until boosters arrived … Apparently some are still home. But as the months passed, Sunday morning attendance went from one hundred to two, from two to three, from three to four. Now, nearly three years since the church’s doors were shut, attendance is at or near where it was before. It’s that rare thing: a Covid-and-the-church success story, if such a thing there be.
I share this story for two reasons. On one hand, because it is a model of wisdom, patience, and calm in a season when it felt as if everyone had lost their minds, Christians included. The leaders of this church denied neither the gravity of viral transmission nor the necessity of gathering with and as the body of Christ. God’s people must assemble to worship him in the Spirit; God’s people must be prudent about how to do so during a global pandemic. These are complementary propositions: they are not mutually exclusive. Too many churches chose one instead of the other (and, yes, not a few were forced to do so). But more often than not, the choice was a false one. And it’s important to keep in our memories the many unflashy tales of sanity when insanity reigned—outside the churches but also, regrettably, within them too.
The story is worth telling, on the other hand, because what I have just narrated is not the end of it. There is more to tell.
Because even for churches that found a way to begin meeting in person again—whether they took only three months, as this one did, or six or twelve or more—the true legacy of Covid for Christian worship has proved to be technological. Namely: What to do about streaming? In particular, should the liturgy be recorded and/or live-streamed in its entirety over the internet each and every Sunday morning? And if it is, as in one form or another it has been by at least some churches for decades, what are the implications for ordinary local congregations as well as for ordinary believers?
These are the pressing questions facing the church today, the church “after Covid.” And disappointingly, if predictably, the digital tail is wagging the ecclesial dog. That is to say, the fact of what churches are equipped to do has decided, de facto, what the churches will do and are doing.
But this is the wrong way around. The church’s leaders should have had answers to these questions prior to the pandemic. Be that as it may, by now they should have better answers than they do. For the technological “future” so long predicted, cheered, or feared is already here. And most churches have either actively welcomed or passively accepted it.
Here is the decision our exemplary congregation made.
In the time between beginning to re-gather and something like full restoration, the church continued to live-stream the whole of worship. But sometime in 2021, about 12 to 18 months after the church’s doors closed, they turned it off. No more “worshiping from home.” No more “thanks for joining us today—whether in person or from home.” Instead, they began recording the sermon and, later on Sunday, emailing a password-protected link to members unable to attend. Otherwise, if you were not there in person, then by definition you were not present for worship. Absent in the body, you were not part of the body that day. The body of Christ requires bodies, after all. No bodies (of believers), no body (of Christ). No real presence without your presence.
This was the right decision. It’s the decision every church should make. Churches should turn off the digital spigot. It’s the last emergency measure that continues in the absence of an emergency to justify it. The exception has become the rule. The abnormal has become the norm. It needs to stop.
Why? For reasons both consequentialist and principled.
If, before the pandemic, the transformation of Christian worship by digital technology was not yet complete, church closures finished the job. Churches now announce, with a straight face, that members and guests alike may “join us online” or “worship with us from home.” What was once referred, with some embarrassment or tongue in cheek, to “church shopping” or “the worship marketplace” is now an unquestioned commonplace. “Streaming worship from home”—the perpetual scare quotes are clunky but necessary—has become a permanent option, even as it is a contradiction in terms.
I teach college students, and they regularly ask me why it is important (they would never say necessary) to attend worship in person. The question should shock, but its intelligibility is made possible by church practice. It is the logical result of every parish or congregation with an internet connection sidling up to YouTube or Facebook and making its worship “available” online. Why attend indeed?
All traditions are on the hook for this question, but low-church and evangelical traditions feel it the most. Lacking any sense of the sacraments as at once essential, communal, and bodily, their members see no fundamental difference between being spectators of a concert in person versus doing so from home. Everything they can have at the building they can have from the living room: songs, prayers, and a sermon. A TED talk prefaced by a rock band’s performance. Plus, you won’t miss kickoff at noon. You just change apps.
This is not the result of poor formation. Such persons are well catechized. The problem is the catechesis, not the catechumens.
Christian worship, as I say, is bodily, communal, and sacramental. Each of the three is nonnegotiable. Absent physical presence, there is no assembly (the literal meaning of ekklesia) to speak of. Absent communal gathering, there is no people of God, only individuals dispersed in their homes. Absent the sacraments, there is no celebration, memorial, or reception of the body and blood of Christ: the very meal our Lord instituted on the night he was handed over for our sins, which we are to do whenever we gather in his name. Nor can the blessed sacrament be celebrated digitally. Digital bread is no bread at all. Neither can I feed myself: I must be fed by Christ in his body if I would receive Christ as his body. I can no more self-administer the Eucharist than I can baptize myself. The sacraments require others, in the flesh. So does worship.
True, some believers are kept from physical attendance: by illness, frailty, disability, lack of transportation. But before we consider accommodations for such persons, we must resist the temptation to paper over privation. We dislike the pain of absence, so we rename it another form of presence, in the hope that this will salve the pain—or at least let us forget it. But the inability of fellow members of Christ’s body to join us for worship is a loss, and we ought to name it as such. A loss we may ameliorate, at least in part, but a loss nonetheless. A reminder that we remain pilgrims in this world, that we are not yet home.
By all means pastors should make the gifts of the body available to shut-ins and others who can’t attend in person: password-protected recordings of preaching or the liturgy; same-day pastoral visitation with the consecrated elements. This is a far cry, though, from live-streaming one’s worship in the active hope that church-shoppers the world over, perhaps hundreds or thousands of miles away, will “join.”
It is a far cry, too, from taking the further step of counting as “members” of one’s church those who are regular “viewers” of one’s streaming worship. If streaming once was defended as a way to get curious locals in the door—an instance of technological evangelism—now it is deployed as a way to expand the rolls, which have become digital. Once again young people, and not only them, are receiving the message. The wealthiest churches in major urban centers are now creating high-production liturgical “experiences” for stay-home worshipers. You may live in a town of 50,000 or 150,000, but your options for Sunday morning have grown exponentially. You can get the musical quality, rhetorical skill, racial diversity, and ideological bent of your choosing from wherever you prefer: Manhattan, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas—or overseas. Just turn on your Roku and start scrolling.
It’s true that the streaming-worship revolution did not begin with Covid, nor did American Christian (especially evangelical) use of, not to say obsession with, technology as a means of “outreach.” But just as Covid exacerbated existing trends in church attendance, it did the same with the role and use of digital mediation of worship. Most churches, pre-pandemic, were not adept at live-streaming. Most lacked the necessary equipment and expertise. Once they made the investment of time and money, however, the question of whether to continue seemed to answer itself. Who would make the argument not to try to reach people by whatever means available?
This has always been the evangelical trump card, a modern mutation of the Protestant impulse. But the question does not answer itself. It is not rhetorical, though it is usually meant to be. For there are many good arguments why many technologies ought not to be used in the liturgy, no matter the goal in view, no matter the perceived benefits to Christian mission. Here is where the example of my model congregation shines most brightly. Not, finally, because of the decisions it reached. No, its witness lies in refusing to acquiesce in the face of technological pressure. The church’s leadership saw the question of streaming worship as a question that called for living agents—shepherds, pastors—who would make it, prayerfully, on behalf of the flock and for their good. They assumed this responsibility, rather than shirking it or pretending that the mere existence of a given technology could make it redundant.
In doing so, they were rejecting evangelical naivete about technology. Instances of this naivete (in brief, the view that technology is a neutral means, and if put to a good end, then unworthy of further examination) are not hard to find. In the words of one consultant—a lawyer turned podcaster, writer, and leadership trainer—“growing churches are now digital organizations with physical locations.” He’s describing the church of 2032, but the analysis is meant to apply today.
Whether as prophecy, advice, or dire warning, such a description is entirely apt. It is what our churches are becoming and have, in many cases, already become. Streaming worship is the heart of this process. It is the vanguard that brings with it a whole fleet of digital practices: a technological pedagogy that utterly transfigures, by corrupting, the life and calling, mission and worship of God’s people. So long as the churches, en masse, continue to stream their worship, the corruption will continue to spread. It may be a hard sell, to elders, to parishioners, to seekers, but pastors should make the hard decision nonetheless, and the sooner the better.
That decision is this: Stream off.
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- So far I’ve been describing a single specific congregation, with many similar ones in mind. I now offer a composite portrait of a number of churches I know, all of which have found themselves in the same situation, facing the same question. They have followed parallel routes, without always reaching precisely the same destination. ↑