Online church wasn’t just a stand-in for the pandemic. It was an opportunity to re-imagine how we do church. It demonstrated to us ways that we could be more accessible, inclusive, and ultimately loving. At our church, we not only continued to worship together, we included people who were disabled and couldn’t attend the meeting, as well as people from around the country and world.
With the omicron variant disrupting our progress on covid-19, our hybrid meeting – one where people can worship in-person (so long as they are vaccinated and masked) or online – has become even more important. Last Sunday, we had more people online than we did in person. Two families joined in the same house to worship together as they watched the Zoom call – is that less than church? Hardly. The advent of online meetings has led us to the ability to continue to worship, despite existential threats, like the pandemic. It has made us more agile and adaptable.
We’ve even figured out ways to baptize people and to share in the communion meal. None of this replaces the intimate work that happens in our small groups—we call them cells. Or the pastoral care that cell leaders and pastors provide (which has happened over the phone, over video, or in-person). And that’s the beauty of being the church, it is far more than merely our worship meetings. Church isn’t a meeting you attend, it is people, it is community. We find numerous ways to express it, so much so that an arbitrary “ending” to online meetings seems not only near-sighted, it is also reductionistic of what the church is and historically has been.
The idea that online church isn’t as complete as in-person church is an ableist position. The idea that you need to be able-bodied to fully experience God in worship is exclusive and prejudicial. Do disabled people still need physical touch and connection? Absolutely. And do visitations and small groups help with that? Yes, again. But the truth is that even able-bodied people need the intimacy of a small group and the personal care of a pastor or a leader. The former are not a replacement for the latter.
A commitment to continuing online worship meetings isn’t a crazed response to the pandemic and it shouldn’t be framed in political terms. The idea that churches are staying online for politics, or for fear of shame, is absurd. Sure, some safety and change in lifestyle may always be necessary, but since the advent of vaccines, we meet online not just for safety reasons but for how it nourishes our lives and includes others. It is hospitable, meant for accessibility, and offers the church tools and skills it needs for an agile and increasingly online future.
The argument that maintaining an either/or option or a hybrid model gives people too much of a consumer choice is quaint, but falls short of reality. The fact is that most people already see the church as a consumer option – whether it is online or not. People already see church as optional, and increasingly irrelevant. Making it less accessible or more rigid is precisely the opposite response we need. The church has thrived when it has reformed, and it should continue to reform.
Further, an online option is purely that. Some people will opt not to attend. When they did at the height of the pandemic because of screen fatigue, I understood. The same compassion and generosity needs to be extended. Our spiritual formation and discipleship doesn’t need to happen in a formal worship service, so we needn’t clutch our pearls about in person or online worship. Rather, we should offer them freely, and reinforce that our spiritual formation happens across a life, across formats, across relationships and not in a sacred hour on a Sunday. That sacred hour, in person or online, does not replace the vibrance of community — which is really the hallmark of our discipleship, and should never be replaced. In fact, a good sense of community helps us understand the needs of disabled people and immunocompromised and keeps us from delivering insensitive and offensive declarations about how in person church shouldn’t be optional.
The idea that the integrity of the church is at risk if we are online is a politically motivated one, and not unlike the arguments that things like gay marriage and women’s ordination are going to ruin the church. The idea that online relationships are less genuine than “real life” relationships is old and outdated. Some of the best friends I have I made online. The church not using the Internet to keep people connected is as much of a Luddite position as not using Powerpoints, electric guitars, or drum kits. It’s like objecting to a church using a projector screen to broadcast the speaker, or even multi-campus churches that have a pastor speaking at multiple locations at once. It sounds old-fashioned and judgmental – exactly the forces that is keeping our churches empty. A commitment to arbitrarily ending online services is anti-evangelist, anti-inclusion, and anti-reformation.
Worship and being a part of a community are an essential part of human flourishing. We should be expanding opportunities for connection instead of limiting them. We should be safe and conscientious about disabled people and immunocompromised people, more conscious of public health, but more than that, we need to learn from the lessons of the pandemic for how they advanced the Gospel, and the church. We need to learn how they made us more equipped and capable of dealing with crisis. And they made us more loving, more connective, and more inclusive. I understand the frustration with the lingering pandemic, but there’s no reason to discard the best of what we learned.