by Joni Bell | 14 November 2023 |
It’s 11:00 AM on Sabbath morning. I’ve slept late. I’m comfortable in my “sweats” and carry a hot drink in my hands. I haven’t fussed with my hair or make-up. My husband is similarly clad in relaxing garb as he and I casually discuss where we might “go to church” today.
Our choices are endless. We can pick one of the large university churches in the denomination or even our small congregation in Maine. Feeling like some beautiful orchestral music? We know which church to choose. Some upbeat gospel music? Not a problem. The sky is the limit. How about one of our favorite speakers who never fails to inspire us but is not part of our denomination? It’s like a smorgasbord of worship delights and we can choose any one we want. Maybe we will join an online discussion group on the book of John.
We snuggle into our comfortable couch and pick up the remote. Oh, and let me add this: I have no responsibilities! Has the special music arrived? Is the teen-ager I asked to have scripture prepared? Are the visitors being greeted, given a bulletin and invited to the fellowship dinner, etc. . . No worries with my “Online Church.” I can just relax and enjoy the blessing of an excellent discussion group or sermon, and it can be the venue of my choosing.
With Covid closing many of our churches over the course of a year or so, I really got into my new Sabbath experience. In fact, I must confess to feeling mildly depressed when churches started gathering again. I was quite satisfied with our “pandemic routine” and frankly, not inclined to go back to attending in person. I started to run out of excuses to actually show up.
Now, before you judge me too harshly, I don’t think I’m alone in this attitude. Many, maybe most, congregations are not back to what they were pre-pandemic. Churches report that they have lost some of their core people as well as some of the marginal attendees. The reality? Virtual church has met the needs of many who have stopped attending church in person. Pew Research Center Survey shows about 25% of U.S adults regularly watch religious services online or on TV, and most of them are highly satisfied with the experience.
I am, however, personally troubled by a question—a personal question, not primarily a question of institutional strategy. If I participate online, am I going to be as committed or connected as if I were attending in person?
There are some pretty good reasons for staying home as opposed to attending in person. I can watch two or three sermons and participate in a discussion group over the Sabbath hours. The time spent getting ready and then traveling to church can be better spent. I feel so much more relaxed and “rested” when I stay home, and isn’t that the purpose of the Sabbath—to rest? Is there any value to the effort of doing spiritual life in person as opposed to online?
So let me try to apply reason to the question. To think this through. Clearly, podcasts, Christian TV, and online church are enriching our spiritual lives. Can they take the place of community in the local church? I recognize the contribution of connection with others and the community experienced in presence with others. I am blessed in doing life with others. That happens in the church community. The diversity within the church enriches the communal experience. Each person has something unique to offer. Other Christians teach me, encourage me, and pray for me. Yes, often they irritate me. Living with that challenge offers personal growth.
And I am vulnerable to attacks of loneliness, doubts, and unbelief when I am without a church community. When I ask myself who I would call at midnight for help, it is inevitably a fellow Christian who is part of my Christian fellowship.
My reflection? I am inspired by the online connection, but I miss the community.
My spiritual growth is enriched when being nurtured through deep connections with others. When we share struggles and triumphs, it helps us on our journey. Studying scripture with others helps me see the teachings of Jesus in fresh and deeper ways.
Loving one another
Let me be real. I struggle with truly loving some of the people with whom I am in relationship at church. Let me explain. That homeless person I serve breakfast to at our local shelter. No problem. I love them. I truly empathize with them and their circumstances. That person sitting next to me on the pew; the one who always takes the fundamentalists’ view of scripture or is quick to judge? Not so much!
Love one another? Maybe there is something here for me, for us, in the call Jesus extended. It’s not just loving people in general; it’s loving specifically the people that we are in relationship with, yes, those folk at church with all of our shared flaws. There are a thousand minor, trivial offenses we pass over when we love one another. We don’t bear grudges or get offended easily. We forgive quickly.
Ah. I find myself praying for the grace of God when trying to do life together with other believers. That is costly and calls me to spiritual growth.
Then there is another reason to personally engage in a local community of believers. I am thinking of God-given abilities that empower us to serve. And as a church body we can more effectively meet people’s needs together. Children’s church is a blessing to children. Social events meet the needs of some who are lonely. Some need to ask questions of faith to a group of other – in person. Some long for a visit in their homes. There are so many ways I can serve as a connected member in a church congregation.
Gathering in person is the biblical and historical pattern set for us by the first followers of Jesus. They shared a community together. The New Testament contains many letters sent to these church communities that gathered in various cities. These letters were read aloud together. Together.
Some who meet online as a Bible study group describe the fellowship and community they have found. Perhaps the question is more complex than “online” or “in person.” Is it possible that we could attend in person and not find community, service, or spiritual growth? Building a meaningful in-person worshiping community is a challenge! And I would think building a meaningful Christian community of believers and seekers engaging online is at least an equal challenge. Is it possible that online services have offered an escape from the challenge of building a serving spiritual community?
The Christian community
Then the essential nature of our call to Christian community remains. To worship together, grow in fellowship with one another, to serve together. Whether online or in person.
Long story short, I’ve gone back to in-person church attendance. However, I’m not quite the same as I was pre-Covid. There are some traditions and rituals I am less patient with. Stand up, sit down, kneel, stand back up, dress like this, etc. And I am even more committed to our gathering’s being centered in Jesus, in grace, and with less judgment. I am less patient with the pronouncements of anti-science, climate change deniers and LGBTQ haters. I don’t have the wisdom or energy to pronounce judgement on who is righteous and who is a sinner. I simply want to follow Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And to serve “the least of these.” To address issues of justice in our community. I seek help from my church in answering that call.
Yes, there are valid reasons for going to church in person. But consider what we have learned from the years of the pandemic, and how it can make us stronger. How it impacts our mission.
People seeking answers to spiritual questions have multiple options, and different pathways are available to them today. A society that prefers streaming information presents challenge and opportunity. And in this age we do form connection with streamed sources differently than watching a TV episode or listening to a radio program. The desire to connect remains, although it is now often virtual and experienced via the internet.
If we foster a belief that a person cannot engage in community without physical presence, we create a barrier in forming connection with and sharing the Gospel with many in today’s world. My experience is that virtual worship experiences can play a part in our spiritual growth. It is also true that almost everyone who attends your church for the first time has already visited online. They’ve checked us out! They have visited our website and maybe even read our Google reviews.
No, I have not divorced online church. The love affair continues. However, I am also an active participant in my local church. What a blessing they both are to me, and our community at large.
Joni Bell is a contented wife and homemaker with a dodgy past as a psychiatric nurse. She divides her time between Maine and Tennessee.