Online worship is as old as I am. People have been finding ways to host worship services online since as far back as the 1980s. Although online worship has been around for some time, the majority of its lifetime has been spent in relative obscurity.
This all changed two years ago. Online worship became the new norm during the pandemic, and streaming worship services is now a ubiquitous part of the modern Christian landscape.
There’s no shortage of debate about this. In August, The Gospel Coalition’s Collin Hansen wrote for the New York Times about what we lose when we livestream church. A more recent Times op-ed by Tish Harrison Warren—on why churches should drop their online services—sparked furious backlash and showed that the contention surrounding online worship is not abating. On this site, pastors Jim Davis and Skylar Flowers have written about why their churches will unplug, while Matt Peeples has argued for the value of keeping his church’s livestream.
But something is missing from the conversation: common sense, in the original meaning of the term.
Our modern term “common sense” derives from the ancient notion of sensus communis. Since antiquity, philosophers and theologians have discussed the bodily senses and how they interact together. Discussions about the unity of bodily senses appear in works by Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, and Kant. Martin Luther talked about the bodily senses in his explanation of the first article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that he has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them.”
In Redeeming Technology, a new book I co-authored with physician Brian Smith, we explore how the unity of the senses (sensus communis) is affected by digital media.
The communion of the bodily senses—touch, sight, hearing, smell, so forth—is essential to our knowledge and perception. We cannot engage the world apart from our bodily senses. Yet, we argue, technology and media reorient these senses in massive ways.
Different kinds of media prioritize one bodily sense over the other. For example, a Zoom video call gives priority to sight and sound over other bodily senses such as smell or touch that are more heavily involved in face-to-face conversations. Using headphones to listen to an audio recording of a classical concerto gives priority to the ears whereas the actual symphony hall involves seeing the musicians, feeling the sounds, and imbibing the fullness of the atmosphere. Digital media distorts our common sense—the unity of all our senses—by giving priority to some of our bodily senses over and against our other senses. (121)
How does this apply to online worship? Like any digitally mediated content, online worship services come to us by way of sights and sounds through a screen. This means online worship ruptures our common sense: our eyes (sight) and ears (auditory) are in the sanctuary while our bodies (tactile) and our noses and mouths (chemical) are in our living rooms. You see and hear one place while touching and smelling another place. Some of your bodily senses are engaged by the place of worship while your other bodily senses are at home, petting the cat or eating pancakes. This creates discord among the senses.
Online worship ruptures our common sense: our eyes (sight) and ears (auditory) are in the sanctuary while our bodies (tactile) and our noses and mouths (chemical) are in our living rooms.
While online worship allows us to truly worship the living God, it ruptures our common sense in a way that doesn’t happen with in-person worship (unless we’re swiping and staring at our smartphone the entire time we sit in a church pew). This is not to deny the real value of online worship, especially for individuals with unique accessibility needs; however, it does offer us a way to understand how it differs from in-person worship.
Bringing Our Whole Selves to Worship
Long before digital media, Scripture described the differences between mediated communication and in-person communication. For example, 2 John ends with: “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 1:12; see also 3 John 1:13–14).
While recognizing that something real and meaningful has been conveyed through these epistles, John affirms that different, preferable possibilities exist when talking face-to-face. One important difference is common sense. When it’s possible to communicate face-to-face, in physical presence with others (and sometimes it’s not), it is preferable to other mediated forms simply because it involves our full selves. As with a letter, a livestreamed worship service by its nature only engages some, but not all, of our senses. The mediated distance necessitated by livestreamed worship reminds us of the ideal: being physically present with the people of God.
Common sense—the communion of touch, sight, hearing, smell, and our other senses—is essential to human knowledge and perception. It’s how God made us. When all of our bodily senses are gathered together in the same place at the same time with one another, we experience common sense worship—worship as holistic beings, with all our senses engaged and directed toward the Creator who designed us as he did for a reason.