The pews and seats in sanctuaries and other sacred spaces of worship all over the world are empty these days, closed in an all-out effort to help ward off the spread of the highly virulent coronavirus.
Government-ordered shutdowns of churches would normally be an anathema to freedom-loving people of faith, but it’s a wise and understandable measure in these unprecedented times. Preserving life should always be prioritized.
But thanks to technology and the broad availability of access to the Internet, the shuttering of churches need not mean the suspension of group worship.
Faced with the mandate of social distancing, congregations all over the world are taking their services online. Of course, many churches have been streaming their services for years – a ministry primarily intended for the elderly or infirmed, or maybe an inclement weather day that made driving too dangerous.
Months ago, long before the coronavirus was even in the news, a former colleague of mine initiated a debate on Twitter about online worship. He seemed skeptical that it was really possible, likening a streamed church service to a television show you passively watch while sitting on your couch.
I get the spirit of his objection, but I don’t agree that online worship is inherently a discounted form of sacred praise.
My friend Dr. Tim McConnell, who’s a pastor of First Presbyterian Church here in Colorado Springs, likened this new season of Internet worship to the surreptitious behavior of the early Christian Church fathers. Faced with persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire, those first followers of Jesus met in small groups in people’s homes, where they shared a meal together.
During his message this past Sunday, my own pastor and friend, Brady Boyd of New Life Church, compared this new season of uncertainty we’re in to the Old Testament plight of the Jewish people, who found themselves living in the dangerous wilderness of the desert.
I want to be clear. I don’t view online worship as a preferable alternative to meeting in person. There is no substitute for the gathering of believers in a physical location, raising their voices as one, encouraging one another face to face, and building and deepening relationships all in pursuit of a great common cause. So, yes, the online church certainly has its limitations — but it also has its place, and especially in our present moment.
First, it’s keeping people of faith together during a very difficult time, albeit remotely, but still unified and connected to their pastor and their congregations. There is something powerful about reading the same Scriptures and hearing the same message.
Second, the rise of the online church is a reminder that a true “church” really doesn’t have walls. In the common vernacular, most people look at a building with a steeple or cross and immediately call it a church. That’s really not the case.
In fact, without people of faith inside of it, a “church” is just a building.
The “Church” is comprised of people who actually live out their faith in ways big and small. You can take away any church building – including the stained glass, pews, musical instruments, you name it – and the work of the church will carry on, because the true ministry of the congregation takes place largely outside the physical structure.
Online churches also stand to draw in people who would otherwise never be comfortable darkening the doors of a traditional faith community. In the last few days, I’ve seen evidence of churches putting a renewed emphasis on promoting their online worship platforms – and that’s bound to attract those curious who may be searching for something different and more meaningful.
In the coming weeks and months, as nerves fray and tensions escalate, people of faith will be called upon to serve as something of a soothing balm. The easily accessible and readily available online services and sermons of churches will be medicine for the mind and soul.
A colleague of mine grew up attending a vibrant Catholic Church that had a dramatic priest on staff named Tom Catania, who also taught Shakespearean literature at a nearby college.
At the conclusion of each liturgy, the priest would say with great fervor, “The Mass never ends! Go in peace to love and serve the Lord!”
So it is with online worship, which serves as a reminder that true faith and worship never ends – it only takes on new forms, especially in tough and trying times.