During the COVID-19 pandemic churches have faced daunting challenges and unending decision-making. Should masks be required or optional? Should multiple small services or one large service be held? Should in-person services be held at all? What about government restrictions? What about communion? And what about the vaccine?
The exhaustion and tension are palpable as misunderstandings multiply and divisions deepen. Decision fatigue drains pastors and leaders, while keeping unity among the flock seems impossible. Where was the seminary course on Pastoring During a Pandemic?
What you’ll find here is not an essay about masks or claims to religious liberty. Nor is it an essay about how churches should relate to government pronouncements. It is about how we understand Christian worship. Under the surface of the very practical and important questions that have consumed so much time and energy for well over a year, there lie deeper theological issues that churches and individuals are being confronted with in new ways. In the understandable rush to stream services during unprecedented times, few stopped to think about long-term implications, or what such a practice might suggest theologically. Can the full reality of Christian worship be neatly captured and curated in an online stream or digital download? What do these formats communicate about the nature of the church service? And, if you can really do church online, why ever return?
While there is a role for digital technologies in the overall work of the Church, it is my contention that Christian worship cannot be duplicated on screen. Thus, it should remain as pristine, low-tech, and embodied as possible, untouched by what Byung-Chul Han calls the digital dismantling of the real. The primary work of the Church in the ministry of Word and Sacrament requires physicality and presence. I say this first because of the primacy of the body in the human experience, and second, because of the sacramental nature of the Church. These two realities draw us toward gathering as the one Body.
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This is the Church’s confession: that in the Word proclaimed and the Eucharist celebrated, Christ delivers himself, in his very person—for you. That can happen in a group as small as two; with masks or without; inside or out; in a church or house. It can happen in accord with government regulations or in violation of them. But the digital medium, by its very nature, makes a contrary confession, causing online worship to fall short.
The Primacy of the Body
Humans are not simply “brains on a stick,” but “embodied agents of desire or love,” argues philosopher James K.A. Smith in You Are What You Love. That means that “we need to reject the reductionistic picture we’ve unwittingly absorbed in the modern era . . . that treats us as if we’re only and fundamentally thinking things.” Hubert Dreyfus reasoned similarly decades ago in his classic What Computers Can’t Do, explaining how we have come to “assume that man must be a device which calculates according to rules on data which take the form of atomic facts.” This, Dreyfus suggests, follows “the tradition, which from Plato to Descartes has thought of the body as getting in the way of intelligence and reason.”
This stark separation of mind and body is evident not only in the legacy of Descartes’s cogito ergo sum or cognitive science’s information processing model of human intelligence, where humans are “thinking things,” but also when one assumes a more Romantic view, where humans are “feeling things,” driven primarily by emotions and instincts. In both trajectories, dualism reigns. Instead, Smith explains, “we need to embrace a more holistic, biblical model of human persons that situates our thinking and knowing in relation to other, more fundamental aspects of the human person.”
These “more fundamental aspects” stem from our embodiment. As Dreyfus suggests, “what distinguishes persons from machines . . . is . . . an involved, situated, material body.” Having a body means that our experience of the world is in large part sensual. And such sensuality is a gift: smelling, tasting, touching, hearing, and seeing shower on us endless experiences and variations of beauty and repugnance, pleasure and pain, hot and cold, harmony and dissonance, sweet and sour, and so much more. And all of it comes to us through our bodily senses. Such direct experience of and action upon the world is what we are designed for.
To be sure, digital experiences still engage the senses—sometimes quite intensely. But when life is increasingly automated and digitized, and human interaction is further mediated by additional technological layers, we cross what L.M. Sacasas calls “a threshold of artificiality beyond which . . . our capacity to flourish as human beings is diminished.” Or, as Matthew Crawford puts it, what atrophies is our natural “animal genius for learning about the world by acting directly on it.”
We’ve all bumped up against the limits of such disembodiment as our dependence on digital technology and screen-mediated telepresence exploded during the pandemic. We’ve garnered a thousand object lessons revealing how disembodiment jams the signals of natural human experience in education, work, and relationships, reinforcing what we intuitively know: in person is just better. Our embodiment is not an accident. As bodily creatures, we have inbuilt limits that are purposeful and for our good. Our bodies bind us to one physical location at a time, and place us in humanely scaled and manageable frameworks that guide us toward what we should attend to. Such guardrails actually make the world navigable, reminding us that the world is to be experienced directly with our sensual bodies.
The Sacramental Nature of the Church
Embodiment’s centrality in the human experience has implications for the Church. Certainly since its earliest days the Church has gathered, whether in secret or public, in catacombs or cathedrals. Perhaps the most frequent rationale for such gathering comes from Hebrews 10:24–25: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
What is so vital and unique about gathering for church that God commands it? The answer lies in the historic understanding of Christian worship as sacramental; that is, God communes with man through tangible means that deliver God’s work in Christ to humanity. Gospel. If this is what happens in church, streams or downloads just won’t cut it.
Perhaps then, a faulty understanding of worship lies behind why so many churches rapidly turned to online church and consider it a viable option. And, contrary to what seems a logical assumption, it has not just been low-church Protestant traditions embracing online worship. High-church traditions from Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy to Anglicanism and Lutheranism—even with their elevated view of the ministerial office, the sacraments, and liturgical worship—have not been immune to digitalization. In my denominational home, the LCMS, which takes seriously historic orthodoxy, worship practice, and Christ’s bodily presence in the Eucharist, online communion was endorsed in some quarters, though the Synod officially dismissed the practice.
What this reveals is that experiences of digitality in every other life domain have seeped into worship practices and are superseding longstanding theologies of worship and their doctrinal underpinnings. Couple this with the widespread understanding of humans as “thinking things” or “feeling things,” and no matter one’s denominational affiliation, no longer is worship primarily sacramental and theological; it is individual and anthropological. In Disruptive Witness, Alan Noble (following Charles Taylor) calls this new focus of worship “excarnational,” which makes “communion with God a thing that happens inside our heads, not with our whole selves, including our bodies.” When humans are understood primarily as “thinking things,” then, Noble continues, “we shouldn’t be surprised when people stop showing up to church once they feel they’ve learned everything. . . . In this sense, excarnation is not only a deviation from historical Christianity. It also renders regular church attendance obsolete.”
Correspondingly, if humans are essentially “feeling things,” worship becomes principally personal and emotional. Theology and preaching diminish as the experience of praise and worship take on near-sacramental status. Worship leaders become the new priesthood, presiding over not the Lord’s Table but the Spirit’s Moving, as congregants complete their emotional work subjectively while the sermon joins the actual sacraments in the shadows. Noble captures what’s at stake here: “The result is that we experience worship much like we experience a concert. It becomes an individual, emotional, and spiritual exercise, . . . [and] even though I am surrounded by the saints, I remain comfortably in my own head.”
In both the “thinking” and “feeling” trajectories, worship becomes chiefly about intellectual or emotional acts of man toward God. Such privatized, atomistic expressions subtly spurn physicality and community, unintentionally endorsing a mind–body dualism that runs counter to Christianity’s holistic view of the human person. This is further magnified in the digital age; for if worship is an internal work of feeling or thinking for Jesus, there really isn’t much reason to attend when those things can easily be done online—and with better musicians and preachers to boot.
Recovering Christian worship as sacramental provides a better way. Church is not just a place to sing, listen, think, or emote. It is where God delivers Christ and his forgiveness through Word and Sacrament into the whole human person. The intimate union of Christ and the Church in the Eucharist is the rightful climax of Christian worship, and for most of church history was celebrated as such weekly, if not more. With the modern tendency to spiritualize worship and digitalization’s mind–body separation, the frequent reception of the Lord’s Supper anchors us in embodied reality, keeping the body and soul unified and connected to the resurrected Christ.
Staying Anchored to the Real
Ten years ago in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI was crystal clear: “without the Eucharist, the Church simply does not exist.” After over a year of navigating church life during the COVID-19 pandemic, his decade-old message is more relevant than ever: “In an increasingly individualistic culture in which Western societies are immersed, . . . the Eucharist is a kind of ‘antidote’ which operates in the minds and hearts of believers and is continually sowing in them . . . the logic of the Gospel.”
While the realities of the pandemic may have required (and may still require) temporary physical separation or modifications to church practice, both human physicality and the sacramental nature of the Church draw us toward the assembly, where we receive Christ’s gifts. Whenever post-pandemic life arrives, my hope is that the Church hasn’t forgotten this.
There may certainly be a place for Christian education and edification through digital media—whether podcasts, online classes, articles, prayer groups, Bible teaching, and so on. But Christian worship and the celebration of the Eucharist should retain the pristine physicality and simplicity that make them as relevant and conceivable in the twenty-first century as in the first century: unencumbered by cords, wires, cameras, and microphones; uninterrupted by flashing screens, notification dings, and PowerPoint presentations; unmediated by the technological layers enveloping us in everyday life.
In such a place our human finitude encounters Divine life through water, Word, bread, and wine. In such a place we are steered away from digital evanescence and restored to the realm of the real, both transcendent and physical. In such a place God meets man—no screen or app required.