Drop Online Church?? Bad Idea of the Week (and it’s only Monday morning)

New York Times: Excerpts from, Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services

By Tish Harrison Warren — Jan. 30, 2022

(My comments follow.)

My meeting: so near, and yet so far . . .

Over the past two years a refrain has become common in churches and other religious communities: “Join us in person or online.” I was a big proponent of that “or online” part. In March of 2020, we knew little about the new disease spreading rapidly around the world but we knew it was deadly, especially for the elderly.

My church was one of the first in our city to forgo meeting in person and switch to an online format, and I encouraged other churches to do the same. . . .

Now I think it’s time to drop the virtual option. And I think this for the same reason I believed churches should go online back in March 2020: This is the way to love God and our neighbors.

We are not in 2020 anymore. Even for vulnerable groups such as those over age 65, Covid has a roughly similar riskof death as the flu for those who are fully vaccinated, and the Omicron variant seems to pose even less risk than the flu. A recent C.D.C. study found those who are fully vaccinated are 90 percent less likely to be hospitalized because of Covid-19 than those who are not. Certainly, the Omicron variant brought a surge in cases and hospitalization that has threatened to overwhelm hospitals in certain regions, but it appears that Omicron is waning.

For all of us — even those who aren’t churchgoers — bodies, with all the risk, danger, limits, mortality and vulnerability that they bring, are part of our deepest humanity, not obstacles to be transcended through digitization. They are humble (and humbling) gifts to be embraced. Online church, while it was necessary for a season, diminishes worship and us as people. We seek to worship wholly — with heart, soul, mind and strength — and embodiment is an irreducible part of that wholeness. . , .

. . . . But embodiment is a particularly important part of Christian spirituality and theology. . . .

“Christians need to hear the babies crying in church. They need to see the reddened eyes of a friend across the aisle,” Collin Hansen wrote in his Times essay about online church. “They need to chat with the recovering drug addict who shows up early but still sits in the back row. . . ..

One might ask, why not have both? Why not meet in person (with Covid precautions in place) but also continue to offer the option of a live-streamed service? Because offering church online implicitly makes embodiment elective. It presents in-person gatherings as something we can opt in or out of with little consequence. It assumes that embodiment is more of a consumer preference, like whether or not you buy hardwood floors, than a necessity, like whether or not you have shelter.

Throughout the pandemic, everyone has had to evaluate what is and isn’t essential. We as a society have had to ask whether in-person church attendance is more like going to a restaurant or more like elementary school education — whether it’s something that is a nice perk in life or something that is indispensable. . . . In Christian theology and practice, physically gathering as a church should be seen as similarly essential and irreplaceable.

There are some brass-tack realities of phasing out an online meeting option. . . . [N]o longer offering a streaming option will unfortunately mean that those who are homebound or sick will not be able to participate in a service. This, however, is not a new problem for the church. For centuries, churches have handled this inevitability by visiting these people at home in person. . . .

It’s time to begin to relinquish our online habits and the isolation they produce. . . .

Throughout history, the mere fact of meeting together in person to sit, sing and talk to others was never all that countercultural. Being physically present to others was the default mode of existence. But for these digital natives, the stubborn analog wonders of skin, handshakes, hugs, bread and wine, faces, names and spontaneous conversation is part of what intrigued them and kept them going to church.

A chief thing that the church has to offer the world now is to remind us all how to be human creatures, with all the embodiment and physical limits that implies. We need to embrace that countercultural call.

COMMENTS: She’s generally right about “embodiment” as a good thing for church communities, especially diverse ones.

Yet when she adds, “bodies, with all the risk . . . are part of our deepest humanity, not obstacles to be transcended through digitization,” I shake my head.

Here she’s got it backward: in my church community, even our fumbling efforts have done a great deal to include those whom the pandemic has otherwise marginalized. Streaming has transcended many (tho not all) the obstacles to participation by many.

ALso: in my religion (& in hers too, even if she’s ignoring it here), there’s a thing called “Spirit,” and/or “the Spirit.”

It accompanies the bodies, but is not limited to it, nor bound to the present moment in which the “embodiment” is found. I won’t say more about this except to quote from the Gospel of John, chapter 3: “The wind [aka Spirit] blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.”

And not to be a nitpicky literalist about it, but “wherever it pleases” even includes Zoom.

And since it was my lot, shortly before Covid descended on us, to join the ranks of the partially disabled, I have largely been deprived of being “embodied” in “my” Quaker meetinghouse.

Keillor on the meetinghouse floor.

Yes, I miss it, in all those many tactile ways the author describes. (Have I mentioned that between two back benches, a strip of the hardwood floor contains in its grain an instantly recognizable image, not of Jesus, but of Lake Wobegon’s Garrison Keillor? I have pictures.)

But even amid this deprivation, sitting at home, I have also often heard & felt this wind, or at least a breeze, coursing among us, there in our bucolic unadorned building and at home, via that strange segmented portal on my laptop. Further, this wind has done its work, and helped me keep up my spirit and do my work during these difficult, turbulent 24 months.

One could call this phenomenon “enspiritment,” as a counterpart to “embodiment,” and still be entirely orthodox theologically. In my experience, it has also enabled us to do much of the “embodied” work of keeping our small congregation going: routine and non-routine business.

Let’s hope & pray that Omicron & Covid are on their way out, though   I think it’s much too soon to conclude that.  Harrison Warren’s comments on the pandemic are far too close to dismissive for my comfort.

(Perhaps she has not heard of the new  B. A. 2 variant? In the same issue of the paper with her piece, there is the report of 519,000 new Covid cases and 2500 deaths just the day before. Over? Not in my book. There’s a whole lot of waning left to do.)

“For centuries,” she argues, “churches have handled this inevitability (of isolation) by visiting these people at home in person. . . . .”

And for centuries, particularly this one, such practice has missed a multitude of those stuck in isolation or abandonment, as the dreadful saga of the epidemic has exposed again and again. I’m grateful for those who do such visitation, but online church opens a door, real if not ideal, for a great many of those who visitation misses.

Yet Warren is also right that it’s not too soon to assess the impact of these (first) two years, and what they mean for our “new normal,” or if we’re even approaching such.

In my personal assessment, contrary to Warren, the strong sense is that online/digital options are here to stay. For many church communities their new ways of connecting will outlast the pandemic. We may well need them for non-virological exigencies too.

“We are not,” the author correctly declares, “in 2020 anymore.”

No we’re not. And neither are we heading for a rerun of the halcyon, freely “embodied” days of 2019.  We still need to look for the Spirit and its work wherever it can be found.

“It’s time” Warren insists, “to begin to relinquish our online habits and the isolation they produce. . . .”

I suggest instead that It’s time for some to rethink their anti-online notions and the isolation they reinforce.

16 thoughts on “Drop Online Church?? Bad Idea of the Week (and it’s only Monday morning)”

  1. Thank you for this rant. Friend Speaks my mind.

    We do need more computer nerds to improve the technology so we can all be more fully seen and heard. I imagine that is happening ad we speak.

    Silicon Valleys to the rescue?

  2. Thanks, Chuck, for this article. Two things.

    First, I’m a little confused, as you seem to be arguing for continuation of online option but you had the sentence early on in your article: “Now I think it’s time to drop the virtual option.” It seems the article goes on to argue the opposite. Can you clarify?

    Second, I’m in the camp of those folks that has found the online option has been a way for me to be more engaged with our Meeting, not less. Due to age and underlying medical conditions, we do not have an option, even when others do, to attend Meeting and other functions with groups of people. For us the online option has been really wonderful – both for Meeting for Worship and business meeting. Our meeting seem very eager to return to in-person worship and that’s fine – but it would be a big mistake to lose the virtual option.

    Again, thanks for your thoughts.

    1. Tom, the sentence you quoted, “Now I think it’s time to drop the virtual option,” is from the article. The author had started out by saying she initially supported online services, but that now she had changed her mind. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

  3. This is so reckless and irresponsible. According to the current CDC map, there are only four (4) counties in the entire US that are not currently experiencing “High transmission” (iconic, red zones). I find it shocking that so-called “Christians” can display so much callous disregard for their own health and safety, that of their household members, and that of their local and wider communities.
    It is good that many of our meetings are placing love and concern for our co-religionists and for the wider community above the self-centered sensual thrill of in-person gatherings by maintaining online meeting for worship during this unusual period.
    For what it’s worth, I doubt that “history will be kind” to those who advocate pre-mature return to “the old normal”–a state of affairs that will probably never come back in all of its details, because over the past two years we have learned how much can be accomplished through readily available tools of current technology (as well as, sadly, some of the things that cannot be replicated without in-person meetings).

  4. A gathered Meeting. During the pandemic I’ve wondered whether a gathered meeting could even occur. such a silly question! During my 40+ years as a Friend only once has there been a gathered Meeting. It’s a silly question because I have never before this wondered about whether a gathered Meeting is possible. It’s a silly question because it questions the power and presence of Spirit to act.

    May God be with and bless each/all of us.

  5. The video Meeting for Worship just does’t work for me, due to my being a bit ADD and there are always distractions when sitting in my home office that don’t exist in Meeting (there are other distractions, but I usually manage to ignore those).

    That said and as you pointed out, there are many for whom the video Meetings are a lifeline and I don’t see hybrid Meetings ending very soon, if ever.

    I should mention that Multnomah Meeting has a large enough meetinghouse that they can have an in-person Meeting downstairs and a hybrid Meeting upstairs. That seems to be an almost ideal situation for those Meetings with the space to enable that.

  6. Remote worship is a great idea for many reasons beyond COVID. It removes geographical limitations and allows people who don’t live close to a meeting to participate. It saves the danger of winter driving. It is easier on the environment. Yes, many prefer in-person worship and I understand missing it but she does not make a case for slamming the door in the faces of the rest of us.

  7. Dear Chuck,
    Thanks for your thoughts on the NY Times article. It might be clearer if you put quotes around it. I was at first confused until I realized you were quoting the article before responding. Someone just shared this article with our Ministry & Worship Committee, proposing it in a positive light. I was about to respond with my own similar rant when Dave told me to first read A Friendly Letter. I was afraid my initial words were too fierce but now feel supported by yours.
    Blessings, Friend.

  8. Beware those whose arguments depend on words like “embodiment” — giving the commonplace (“bodies in the pews”) the assumption of magical powers.

    During a period of a year or so, around 2004/5, Fort Myers MM where I was a member had 2 to 4 covered meetings per month. One day a visitor from the North was with us, sitting in our big circle in Iona House, the nature preserve bright in the morning sun out the big windows on one end of the Meeting Room. The meeting was totally silent. When we stood up (as we did) at rise of meeting to share anything not yet shared, the visitor said with surprise: “this was a covered meeting!” We nodded our heads.

    Could this happen in an online meeting? Or a hybrid meeting? I don’t know. Neither does anyone else I know. I know a covered meeting can happen in unlikely circumstances (that’s another story). So I would leave the door open on that one.

  9. I’ve been wondering if separate online and at the Meeting House might be better than a hybrid meeting. Our hybrid meeting has oscillated between seeming like a large meeting at the Meeting House with a few folks looking in via Zoom and a large online meeting with a few people maintaining the traditional meeting. In either case it seems difficult for the two groups to connect, and of course we do separate after the announcements into a group online and a group in the Meeting House.
    (Sorry for the awkward phasing. I’m trying to avoid using “in-person” for “in the Meeting House” since it seems to me that the online meeting is equally in-person, and that one of the advantages is that I can see most people better and even see their screen name.)

    1. We (Berea Friends Meeting) have one computer, with the speaker on, set on a speaker’s stand (turned around) with the screen facing the length of the Meeting room. That Zoom session is set to show the active speaker.

      We have a tablet, with the microphone on, sitting on a chair or stool in the middle of the circle. The person speaking stands near that chair so the microphone will pick them up.

      It works well. We have had the same remote/in-person relative ups and downs, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference.

  10. Thank you for this. Like so many posts above, I’m with you on this. I from the start felt able, perhaps almost “just as able” to sink into Spirit online as in-person. Once or twice, I even offered messages to myself and the birds unaware that I had failed to unmute myself.😆(In pleasant weather I enjoyed joining worship from my woodsy back yard). In such cases, I imagined Spirit was saying, “This Friend needs to hear himself talk.” Undoubtedly, the embodied Friendd watching me mouth my messages soundlessly but fervently shared in the revelation! Surely, of all denominations, Friends should appreciate that the “Mute” button merely gives Spirit a new tool of ministry.

    More seriously, Friends, you and many have shared the grace of “enspiritment” that visits those who are not able to be bodily present in the MH in these times. Last Sunday I was able to participate despite isolating due to COVID exposure m, and I did in fact become ill the next day — I would have been at maximum infectivity had I been bodily present. Don’t know who needs this message, but COVID ain’t over yet!
    However, being mostly able-bodied I expect to return to the MH soon. I want to speak to the grace received by us in the MH by being able to have our elders present with us despite or even because of their bodily infirmities. We have gained a new member who is challenged by life in a wheelchair in another state. We have our 98 year old “most elder elder” with us most every week — she would likely not have been able to be bodily in our presence for a good bit of the past two years, but instead has brought some beautiful messages to us, and more importantly the simple grace of her enspirited presence. I think also of a dear Friend who passed of cancer a few years ago, His wife noticed him “doing his exercises” in bed the Saturday before he died. “What are you doing?” She asked. He wanted to be strong enough to go to meeting once more before he passed. He passed early the next week. What a blessing it would have been for him and for us and for Spirit had this Friend been able to attend meeting one last time from his hospice bed.
    Thank you for articulating this need we have to be together even when we can’t.🙏

  11. While my ideal (and the emphasis is on “my”) is meeting for worship in person, the fact is our little meeting has found hybrid and Zoom only (depending on the COVID infection level in our area) valuable and communal. We now have Friends and seekers joining us from around the world (some are former members who moved away and have no meeting in their area or just long for a connection their “home” meeting). Our financial outreach has stayed strong and indeed Friends are more engaged in meeting for business than before.

    When we do hybrid, with use an Owl 360 degree camera/speaker/microphone setup, running through a laptop, that has an HDMI connection to a large screen smart TV mounted above the facing bench. All can be see and heard. We also record MfW and post it on YouTube for those who miss meeting and as a form of outreach.

    Is it ideal? Perhaps not, but the Spirit has used it well and Friends say they still feel gathered in the Light and grace of God.

  12. I am one who feels strongly the difference between meeting in person versus on line. I attend our very cold Meeting (open windows!) every chance I get. But sometimes I can’t and I can still have Meeting. I have new Friends from the Meeting desert lands of Texas and New York who are now dear friends and working hard in my committee. Our vunerable elders can come to Meeting.
    Embodiment is a true gift and nourishment. So is seeing and hearing all the people I miss because of CoVid. We have short break out groups after on line Meeting and they are wonderful!
    Yeah diversity!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.