We live in a time when so much of what we do is online. Banking, shopping, pictures, music, meetings, ordering food – I could go on, but you know the list. My kids laugh at me when I talk about the days before online shopping, social media, or smartphones – and I like to think that I’m not that old. Being online has become a normal part of what it is to be alive in 2023. Whether you love the conveniences that cutting edge technology brings or you’re tired of every 2-factor authentication and updated user interface for every aspect of your life, there’s no denying that people are trying to move everything online. (full disclosure – I had to fight to figure out how to use the latest interface update to write this blog, and found a work around to go back to what I knew from before…)
There are mountains of blogs, podcasts, and books on what this all means – why it’s good, why it’s bad, what we should and shouldn’t do or use. I’ve wrestled with what this means for the church, and I find myself feeling both hopeful and despairing. I think our modern technologies can be such good tools if we use them well, but it is so easy to become shaped and used by them in ways that don’t help us align our lives to the way of Jesus.
Before I continue, let me ask: what is it you think I’m going to say, and how do you feel about it? Have you almost stopped reading because I’m a luddite who isn’t fully embracing the power of online to reach more people, or are you hoping that I’ll tell people to sign off of social media and get back to printing the yellow pages?
Here’s what I’ve come to think: Church can’t be done entirely online. What makes going to church what it is? If it’s just content – music, a sermon, and some announcements that I can consume and add into my life – then church online makes sense. But that isn’t what church is. If that’s all you’ve ever experience of church, you’re missing out. Church is a community where we gather around the person and work of Jesus. Our worship gatherings exist so we can encounter God together, and doing that in active, embodied ways in the presence of others is the best way to do church.
I think live-streaming our gathered worship services online can a great tool, and serves a specific group of people really well – but for most of us, it should not serve as a substitute for being physically present in church. There are some who physically can’t be in the building due to health challenges. I think being able to see the “content” of church allows people to participate to a greater extent than they could without it. I understand that our lives and schedules also pull us away and sometimes the options are to tune in online or not at all, so I think it can be good there (and I’m hoping to dive into reasons we miss church more later). Here’s where it get’s challenging though: I think church online allows many of us to choose the easier path and consume rather than fully participating in the community that is encountering God together. Even with the best camera shots and broadcast sound mix, I’m missing out on so many things – the people singing and talking around me, seeing someone I know from years ago and asking how they’re doing, listening to someone talk about how God is working in their lives and asking questions about the sermon.
As our church has been learning about Rule of Life, we’ve used this phrase that I think sums up a lot of our cultural moment: Our strongest desires aren’t always our deepest desires. Tuning into the YouTube livestream, or watching it later, makes me feel like I’ve done church online, and it checks a few other boxes too: I don’t have to get up early or go out in the cold, I didn’t have to have awkward conversations I didn’t want to, I could have it at the volume that I wanted, and I could skip over the stuff I don’t like to the “important” stuff. But hard things aren’t always bad things – quite the opposite, I think we’re most formed by things that are hard. I believe that our deepest desires are to be known and loved, to belong and to grow – and all of these things are so much more present in an incarnate community than they are online.
Can we still find community online? I think it’s possible, but it’s a lot of work, and it’s different. It usually needs to be mediated by experts (programmers) who are trying to appeal to our strongest desires, not our deepest ones. That’s what gets the clicks, and gives us a quick sense of fulfilment – but also leaves us empty enough that we need to come back again and again to try to fulfill that deeper desire. I know there are a lot of churches leaning into the online space to reach people for whom showing up in person is a barrier. I think there’s merit there, and that churches should use online tools to help communicate and connect, but I think the Church is best when it is in person, and I’m okay with that pushing back against some of our modern desires of convenience – I probably need it.
What do you think? How did your experience of church and community change during the pandemic when we were forced online, and how do you think “online” will be a part of the church going forward?