In the past couple weeks, as cities, counties, and states across the United States and around the world have basically shut down to help slow the spread of Coronavirus, leaders have tended to categorize everything as 'essential' or 'non-essential.' The idea being, of course, that essential services, activities, and functions may stay open during our stay-at-home orders while non-essential services must cease.
In our area, even before the real shutdowns began, churches began to cancel their worship services and all other gatherings, opting for online 'worship' as an alternative. Some struggled and still struggle to find creative ways to meet in person, even during the pandemic. Anecdotally, it seems that what churches believe about worship drove them down one of these two paths pretty quickly. Those churches that view worship largely as something we do for our benefit, education, or edification were quick to go 'virtual' with their 'worship.' Most of the Evangelical, liberal mainlines, and non-denominational churches went this route right away. Those churches that understand worship as principally something God does for us, usually through Word and Sacrament, are the ones fighting to find meaningful ways to continue gathering. These congregations largely included Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches.
Over at "The Jagged Word," Pastor Paul Koch published a thought-provoking post this morning, challenging readers to consider whether the church is 'essential' or 'non-essential.' He writes:
Locked in, shut down, confined to our homes, consuming too much TV while eating comfort food and longing for fresh air and time away from the children. It is enough to make us crazy and finally understand what “cabin fever” is really like. But then again, this is not exactly how its playing out. People go out. They may not go down to the bar or out to eat at a restaurant, but people still go out. They go out for what are deemed essential services, places that stay open amid a pandemic.
Turns out there are a lot of essential services out there. Hospitals of course and skilled nursing facilities. But there are also auto shops, lumber yards and hardware stores (thank God for Ace Hardware). And there are the strangely morphing grocery stores, with limited hours and social distancing spacers in the lines. So, I cannot go to the gym or get a haircut, but I can hunt for that scarce prize of a carton of eggs or a pack of toilet paper amid the other shoppers loving every minute away from their homes.
Which brings me to the real question I am pondering, how essential is the Church? Is the gathering of the people of God at a particular time and place an essential service? Does it provide something crucial to society, something necessary, even in the face of a pandemic? Or is it non-essential? Is it something that can be set aside, not willingly of course, but akin to a haircut or getting to the gym? Is it a luxury which is not crucial for society, so it is regrettably placed on hold, at least for a while? After all, God has blessed us with such incredible tools of modern technology. We can broadcast our service over the web with ease. We can stream them live and interact via screens. Should that not be enough? Is it enough?
I am huge fan of technology. It gives us ways to spread our message world-wide in just a few moments. It allows us to communicate with people in places where, just a couple of decades ago, it was either prohibitively expensive to correspond with or outright impossible aside from written letters. It allows us to interact in ways that were the stuff of science fiction until just very recently.
But technology, no matter how creatively applied, cannot replace the actual gathering of God's people in a specific place at a specific time. 'Online worship' may be the band-aid we need right now, but it isn't true worship in any historic sense. To answer Pastor Koch's question...NO, online 'worship' is NOT enough.
While I can have a reasonable business meeting via Zoom with people scattered around the world and work this way indefinitely, it is impossible to worship online for any sustained period of time. Online 'worship' is almost entirely passive and borders on entertainment, another entirely passive endeavor. Even the most well-orchestrated live service offers only very limited interaction. Online 'worship' will never allow us to be reconciled to our brothers or sisters as we should be doing during the Passing of the Peace, it will never allow us to kneel together in prayer, it will never allow us to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, it will never allow us to Baptize, it will never allow all our senses to be engaged as they are in the face-to-face gathering of God's people in corporate worship. 'Online worship' at its best is as close to gathered worship as watching Rick Steves' travel shows is to actually traveling--interesting, but it ultimately makes you want the real thing even more.
Our parish is recording services to post online during our current situation, and I have heard glowing comments from people about how meaningful they were for them. I rejoice that God is using these means to reach people who are largely isolated, I really do, but I hope the praises are from the novelty alone and not from any sincere belief that online 'worship' is equal to or even good enough to be a permanent solution. I hope that people miss coming together. I hope that people yearn to be gathered together for corporate worship. I hope, if our isolation draws out for more than a couple of weeks, that people will cry out for us to find ways to gather in very small groups to receive Communion and pray together--even the simplest of services.
For now, we must love one another at a distance, but in the long-run let us keep the exhortation from Hebrews close to our hearts and not forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Heb 10.25). It is the arguably the most essential thing of all.
Photo by Anna Gru on Unsplash