Next week I’ll be out of town for a few days. This will be my first time away from my wife and kids since last March, when the pandemic shut things down. While I’m grateful for the modicum of normalcy a trip like this brings, the unfamiliarity of distance will be jarring. What I do know is that I’ll miss them terribly. This was true when I traveled before COVID-19, and I’m curious how much more true (it certainly won’t be less) this will be now.
As usual, we’ll schedule our daily FaceTime calls while I’m gone—and I’m grateful for that. To at least see their faces, hear their voices, and have them see and hear mine is a tremendous gift when we’re apart. But the most critical component of this gift is longing. As we interact on our digital devices, it will deepen our desire for an analog reunion—when I get back home and we’re together again, embodied and fully present with one another.
This weekend my church will gather in person for the first time in exactly a year. While I’ve been grateful for online services, the greatest gift of this difficult season has been a deep and visceral longing for embodied presence. We’re not alone. Churches all over the world are beginning to regather in some physical form, and while not all are ready to show up again, those who return seem to do so with renewed yearning.
What does this mean for the future of online services? As the analog church begins its steady comeback, what does it mean for the digital church?
The worshiping life of the church is and always has been a participatory endeavor. In the Bible, the Hebrew and Greek words for worship reflect whole-bodied engagement. They mean things like bowing down, falling prostrate, drawing near to kiss the hand, and so on. Biblical worship is an embodied expression of adoration and allegiance. While it can include singing, it doesn’t only mean singing. It certainly doesn’t mean “watching singers on stage while occasionally humming along,” as is the common modern practice of Christian worship.
As the analog church begins its steady comeback, what does it mean for the digital church?
Our strictly online ecclesiology this past year has accentuated the misunderstanding. As the communal worshiping life of the church has been relegated to the same devices that carry our entertainment, many “churchgoers” have slid too easily into a consumer identity. We were living the tension between participation and passivity long before March 2020, but at least we did so primarily together, in person, shoulder to shoulder. Now we’ve comfortably settled in as isolated audiences consuming worship content at the click of our individual buttons.
As we navigate the future of digital church and online services, we must carefully consider the downsides of the medium. The post-pandemic future may very well be a hybrid, at least for some time. For our church, this is primarily because many will not be ready to return in person in the near future.
As churches regather and engage again in efforts to inspire participation among our congregations, church leaders would be wise to approach online expressions with the same level of urgency. Rather than simply offering content, we should focus on provoking action, both in person and online. As an example, regular invitations to stand, kneel, lift hands, respond in prayer, take the bread and the cup of communion, can be simple yet profound disruptions to our default consumer posture—turning audiences into participants.
Rather than simply offering content, churches should focus on provoking action, both in person and online—turning audiences into participants.
Creatively and thoughtfully crafting our worship liturgies to minimize opportunities for inaction will be vitally important in the coming months and years. But ultimately, for those continuing with online services, we must make clear to our communities that digital is a necessary compromise for some and not a convenient option for all. Clarity of hierarchy is necessary—for all who are able, the embodied, in-person gathering must become the priority once again.
As a strong introvert, I thought I was mentally and emotionally prepared for an extended period of isolation. There was even a part of me that sort of looked forward to the imposed solitude. But I’ve been unpleasantly surprised by how taxing the loneliness has been. Most surprising of all has been the steady depletion of joy. I did not realize how much my joy had been, and continues to be, inextricably tied to Christian community.
David Brooks writes in The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life that “joy tends to involve some transcendence of self. It’s when the skin barrier between you and some other person or entity fades away and you feel fused together.” I’d suggest that it’s when the digital barrier fades away between us as well. Joy is different from shallow, fleeting feelings of happiness, which can be manufactured individually and artificially. Real joy arises when we unshackle ourselves from self-centric tendencies (which digital technologies amplify) and immerse ourselves in a larger story.
People emblazon Nehemiah 8:10 on coffee mugs and stickers: “The joy of the LORD is your strength.” But we often miss that these words were spoken by Nehemiah as all the people of God were gathered together to worship. The setting is essentially a worship service.
The story tells us that the people wept collectively upon hearing God’s words read aloud, struck by their guilt. But Nehemiah instructs them: “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our LORD. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
The “your” is plural. In Texan, it would be y’all. The joy of the LORD is y’all’s strength—together, as one.
We’ve lost much this past year in our isolation. Online technology has held us together tenuously. But it’s not enough. There is grieving, rejoicing, feasting, and everything in between to be done—together, embodied, and fully present as one. May our longing lead us back home, to God and to one another.