“What we’ve learned during COVID is that doing church online doesn’t work. Trying to worship through a computer just isn’t church – there’s something about being together in person, in the body, that can’t be done online,” my pastor friend confessed to me a few weeks ago.
We were talking about online church and its viability as we grapple with what our communities look like as we become a post-pandemic society, but she and I were coming to different conclusions. For her, the losses of connection during COVID had highlighted the need for our churches to return to the old way of doing things: weekly worship services in the church building, with a mid-week touch-point for Bible study and prayer to set a routine of communal development.
For me, though, COVID demonstrated that we needed to continue adapting our habits, using online tools to root our churches more deeply in the ancient practices of our faith. At the time of this conversation, I couldn’t articulate this well, but I think I’ve been able to pinpoint it over the past couple of weeks.
Online Worship as Disembodied Community
When people criticize the idea of online church, they usually consider online worship services a form of disembodiment – a disconnection between Christians being able to use all five senses to engage with one another, hugging one another, participating in communion with one another, even smelling one another. Since we aren’t able to engage our full bodies in those markers of Christian community when we’re watching worship on our screens, online church feels disembodied.
This idea weaves together two different uses of the word “body.” The first is our literal, physical bodies as experienced through our senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. The second is the metaphor of our Christian community as the body of Christ, in that as we gather we are many parts with different purposes and needs bound together by the cross of Christ.
I actually agree with this criticism! In both of these uses, online worship services don’t give us full access to an embodied experience of our church community. For me, though, the problem isn’t that online tools are inherently disembodied (more on that in a moment), but that we have been trying to transplant physical models of connection into the foreign context of online connection.
We’ve been trying to make “online” a replacement for physical community, which is something it was never intended to be – online ought to be an extension of physical community. And when we understand it in this way, I think what we’ll find is that online church compels us to return to a deeply embodied form of faith that we haven’t experienced in generations. Let’s take a look at what that means.
What is an Embodied Community?
Over the past 50 or 60 years, the United States has moved toward suburbanization. In the decades after World War 2, around the same time as the Civil Rights Movement, the wealthier (mostly white) families who lived in the cities began to move out to the fringes of the urban environments, creating “suburbs” as new types of communities. (For more on this topic, I highly recommend The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.)
Urban communities have a mixture of homes, businesses, retail, and churches, so most of the people in those contexts were within walking distance of everything they needed on a daily basis. These new suburban communities, though, were almost entirely residential, and the people living there tended to still work in the city. Suburbanites, therefore, became comfortable with commuting – driving to work, to the grocery store, and to church became a core part of their daily routines. As I’ve previously written for Good Faith Media, suburbanization has created a context where churches are no longer embedded communities within their neighborhoods, but instead are made up of congregants from all over a metropolitan area who commute in for worship services.
Commuter Churches and Isolated Communities
At the time, I don’t think we realized how significant this commuter church format would become for the shape and identity of our communities, and I think this shift is what we need to consider as we talk about disembodied churches. We were still meeting together physically, so we maintained the literal sense of embodiment, but by spreading ourselves beyond our neighborhoods – and out of the reach of daily encounters with the church-goers and non-church-goers in our neighborhoods – we cut ourselves off from the metaphorical sense of the body of Christ in which we live in continual communion with people different than us.
For me, an embodied community is one in which we engage with the diverse people who live and move around us with all our senses, not just once or twice a week, but every day. And as I survey the landscape of churches in the United States, most of us do not seem to meet these criteria. Most churches, from what I see, pull Christians out of their neighborhoods to create a separate, isolated community of people who look, think, and behave with uniformity as they gather for an hour once or twice a week. And I think online church, if we do it well, can help us fix that.
Online Church as Embodiment
If the disembodiment problem is that we have lost the connection with our neighbors, then the solution has to involve re-establishing that connectedness. But our people still live in the same suburbs and are still accustomed to commuting to work, church, and so on. So are we asking our congregations to all move to the same neighborhood? Or to stop participating in our church and find a church that’s more local to them?
This is where I think online church, if properly understood, can serve as an extension of what we do as a church to actually empower our people to be more embodied within the communities in which they already exist. To get to that understanding, though, we have to redefine what we mean by “online church.”
What is online church?
For many people, “online church” is the same as a one-hour, online worship service. It’s a video stream of a church service, usually livestreamed from a church sanctuary, and it sometimes has some interactive features like live chat or digital sermon notes, but has no real impact beyond that one hour a week.
But when we talk more generally about “being a church,” we don’t limit that to just what happens during worship services – we include Bible studies, fellowship times, and opportunities to serve, pray, and care for one another. We should take that same approach to conversations about online church. It’s not only an online worship service, but also includes all the ways we engage and connect online. Most of us here in the United States are already connecting online through our phones and laptops, on social media or video chats or text messages, and we’re doing it all day every day. This is precisely where I find the potential of online church.
Embodiment in Our Communities
These online tools that allow us to have touchpoints with our people throughout the week – throughout the day, even – to give them encouragement, to provide them resources, to challenge them to go deeper, and to listen to them. Through these types of online connections, Christians can be equipped to be the hands and feet of Jesus within their neighborhoods, in their workplaces, at their kids’ baseball games, at the gym, and so on. While commuter church compels Christians to isolate their faith into a particular geographical space, the accessibility of online church invites Christians to extend their faith into every sphere of their lives.
When we challenge and equip our people to be physically, bodily present in their local communities, we are empowering them to live a deeply embodied faith as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in the world around them. It doesn’t matter to me where we worship, whether in a sanctuary or in a living room. It matters to me where we embody Christ.