We are worshipping online because we want to love our neighbors well. And online worship IS better than the alternatives. We are blessed to live in an age where we can attend a worship service online, from our own apartments or homes, where technology can bring excellent preaching and worship through our computers and phones into our homes and lives.
Due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 our church, like many others, has made the choice to worship fully online for the time being. For many who are only used to “big church” life this can be quite an adjustment. This past Sunday, the four of us in my immediate family worshipped in our living room along with our church body spread out across the DMV (District, Maryland, and Virginia) area. Our usually packed facility had only a few people present: James, preaching that day; Rob, leading liturgy; Jeff, leading singing; Jon, running tech; and only a few more. Yet week in and week out, we stress the importance of presence, the importance of being together. As the book of Hebrews said two millennia ago, “Let us consider how to stir one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some…” (Heb. 10:25). We meet together to worship a God who became incarnate, who came to physically be with us, yet we suddenly have to do it online.
How are we supposed to think about fully online worship in the time of the coronavirus?
A Theology of Incarnation
We should start by remembering one of the basic doctrines of our faith, what makes us Christian at all – that God became flesh, incarnate. In a way that can be only partially explained, Jesus is fully God yet also fully man. As the theologians tell us, God incarnate, made man, but no less God – and yet no less man. Nor does that mean Jesus is “something amphibious…like a merman,” as Dorothy Sayers cautions us.[i] It means, as mind-boggling as it is to comprehend, that God took on flesh, that God came to be with and in his creation, that God is with us in a stubbornly physical way. Further, the Christian faith so validates the physical that it is not only core to our belief that in Jesus God took on flesh, but we also believe Jesus will have his resurrected physical body forever. We cannot put a greater value on the physical than God did by becoming man.
Even more, we consider WHY God became man. God became man to be with us. Throughout the Old Testament, God had been with Israel in many ways, but those ways were largely metaphorical. The book of Exodus shows that God was with Israel when the nation was enslaved in Egypt. Throughout Samuel and Kings God was with Israel to deliver them on the battlefield. The Psalmists praise that God was with Israel to lead them and care for them and shelter them. God’s presence in the holy of holies in the Temple could even be lethal. But none of those compare to the claim that God took on a human body, walked the earth, ate fish, preached the good news, healed the sick, was crucified on a cross, and then resurrected in that same body – to keep it forever.
And so, in God’s model, being physically with someone matters. We see this working out not just in the gospels but also in our own lives. Paul wrote to Timothy in 1 Tim. 1:4, “I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy.” Paul can write Timothy a letter, but it isn’t the same as coming in person. He wrote a magisterial letter to the Roman church, yet as he wound towards a close in chapter 15, he wrote, “…by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company” (Rom. 15:32). Communication by letter – even letters that were Scripture! – was still at a distance, and Paul longed to see people in person. It is very much the same in our own lives. A letter is wonderful, a phone call encouraging, a FaceTime chat refreshing…and yet, none compares to a visit in person. Consider in that regard the deep handwringing of many recent commentators about social media – how it can connect us but leave us still feeling lonely and sometimes even leave us unable to connect in person as we should. Simply put, for the Christian faith, being with people matters, as any minister who has done hospital visits will tell you. We must, for good reasons, be socially distant for these weeks or months, as this interview with Francis Collins ably argues. Nonetheless, there will be a real cost in loneliness, especially for those who look forward to Sunday as one of their main times of connection with others.