In perhaps the state’s most extraordinary action in the COVID-19 lockdown, churches were not allowed to hold in-person services. So they took advantage of today’s technology and started streaming services, so congregants could participate online via Facebook, YouTube or the church’s website.
Now the restrictions are mostly over and the majority of churches are meeting in person as usual. But many of them still broadcast their services. Previously, online services largely consisted of the pastor addressing a camera, with attendees at home following with their hymnals. Now, congregations are streaming their services in person, showing not just the pastor but the rest of the congregation with audio of the music. Online services are seen as a good way to raise awareness and a way for locked-in people and other members who have to take time off to attend worship.
In an article titled Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services, published in the New York Times, no less, Tish Harrison Warren, a priest in the Anglican Church of North America, argues that congregations should stop doing this. She gives four reasons:
(1) We are bodies and worship should engage all of our senses;
(2) The risk of being separated from others is greater than the risk of COVID, at least now;
(3) We need an embodied community;
(4) Meeting in person forces us to deal with people different from us.
Now, a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, David Kummer, has written a rebuttal to that position, published by the Acton Institute, Reply to The New York Times: Online worship is still worship.
It starts with to agree with these four points.
What must be understood about online worship, however, is that it is additive in its congregational function. It is not a substitute for in-person worship. It offers people the opportunity to engage in their community when they can’t physically be there, whether they’re home sick, on vacation or, yes, if they had a little too much to drink the night before. . The church at its best has never been in the game to force someone’s hand. On the contrary, because Jesus disperses his gifts abundantly and graciously, we are blessed to do the same. This is his church, and we are not able to withhold the gifts he gives to everyone.
He then defends online worship in light of Lutheran theology of worship:
Because I am a Lutheran Christian, I believe that worship is first and foremost an act of God, hence the liturgies of Holy Communion in our hymnal are titled Divine Services: God Comes to Serve His People by His Means of Grace , declaring him forgiven by the power of his Word!
For those familiar with Lutheranism, you might be surprised that I disagree with Ms. Warren. After all, Lutheranism confessed in the 16th century and still does that in the Lord’s Supper and in Holy Baptism, God imparts and delivers His forgiveness through means – something tangible in person. In the case of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus gives us his body and his blood through the bread and wine for the forgiveness of sins. Likewise, in Holy Baptism, the Word impregnated the water bury all original sins and sins in the tomb of Christ. In absolution, the incarnate pastor forgive the people of God in place of and by the command of Christ. For Martin Luther and his successors, the means of grace were at the heart of how God works in our lives: they are tangible things that bring God and his hard-earned gracious love before our eyes.
So, because worship is first and foremost God coming to us through his Word, or a person receives that the Word is not essential; the Word does not lose its power in its transmission through waves or electrons.
Reverend Kummer says streaming services “are not anti-sacramental”. It is because the Word operates sacramentally. The Lord’s Supper is certainly important, but he communes with the inmates of the congregation when he visits them. In the meantime, even if they cannot leave their homes, they can feel connected to their congregation, participate in its liturgical life and be edified by the Word of God.
“Online services overcome the barrier of distance and offer a kind of fellowship,” says Reverend Kummer, “a fellowship not defined by proximity but by confession of faith, which is at the heart of fellowship.”
Two other perspectives to consider:
(1) Trevin Wax warns that excerpts from “Gotcha” sermons are bad for the Church. Now that pastors’ sermons are generally available online, some people are taking the opportunity to vilify pastors for what they say, often editing clips and taking them out of context in order to tear down their ministry. Reverend Wax points out that a sermon is an intimate address by the pastor to his flock and is not always appropriate for strangers.
Then again, I would add, sermons can also be proclamations of the gospel to strangers, and they would do well to be careful what they say even to their members. The social media rule even applies to sermons: don’t say anything on the internet that you wouldn’t want the world to know. And yet, if you preach with this mindset, you risk being censored.
(2) Another Missouri Synod pastor and media expert, A. Trevor Sutton, agrees that online worship can be legitimate. But in his essay Bringing Common Sense to the Online-Worship Debate, he discusses how digital media rejects the unity of the senses that is essential to both worship and human life.
I co-authored Authentic Christianity with Trevor, who is also the author of a new book on Christianity and digital media called Redeeming Technology.
So here are my questions: what do you think? Does your church still broadcast your services or has it stopped doing so? Why? What has been your congregation’s experience with all of this?
Image by Russ Allison Loar, CC BY-SA 4.0