I was disappointed to read Tish Harrison Warren’s New York Times editorial calling for a blanket ban upon online worship (“Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services”). To be clear, I’m not arguing for exclusive online worship (except in emergency situations). In this blog, I’m not debating COVID-19 safety policies. And I agree with Warren that the ideal worship of the Incarnate God is together in-person.
The heart of my counterargument is that online ministry has a place in coordination with physical gatherings. As is true with many aspects of spiritual importance, it is a matter of “both/and,” not “either/or.”
By stating that online worship makes in-person worship “implicitly elective,” Warren dismisses those physically unable to attend services. She claims to guard against this by asking church leaders to visit the sick and homebound. She does not mention those who are especially vulnerable to infectious diseases like COVID-19.
I agree that such visitation is essential for ministry. Yet, it does not, as Warren states, preclude the benefits of online worship. In fact, I know from our members that worshipping online helps them to feel connected to the larger church.
I also believe that Warren fails to recognize the opportunity for online platforms to encourage participation. She concluded her editorial with an anecdote about a small group of millennials (“digital natives”) who found meaning by coming to church.
But what data can we consider?
A recent Gallup poll showed that a higher percentage of Americans than ever before now claim no religious preference. But, especially among younger generations, the “spiritual but not religious” and “inactive believers” remain curious about organized religion. The ideal is to gather in-person. The question is, how do we encourage people to “come and see” (John 1:39)?
Rather than cold calling a sanctuary one Sunday, seekers often check out a church online, noting such features as music preference, preaching style, even architecture. This no-pressure inquiry may prompt a visit: if they like what they see, they might come. Warren belittles this as “consumer preference.”
But I say that part of the genius of Christianity is its ability to adapt and speak to different cultures. This has been true since the beginning when Paul preached in Athens in front of the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-31). Christianity is growing in parts of the world where the local culture is engaged, for example, through traditional forms of music. “Digital natives” can be engaged in their online platforms, not as a bait and switch, but rather invited to understand the universal message of God’s love.
I agree with Warren that Christianity offers a “countercultural call.” I recognize the danger of accommodation to culture and, Lord knows, there are plenty of things wrong with the internet.
But online worship is not the line to draw in the sand. COVID-19 forced many churches to engage online. It would be poor stewardship to reverse course and disregard such financial and time investment.
Moving forward from the pandemic, churches should take a nuanced, both/and approach to worship services. Reflecting on the call to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matt. 6:33), Augustine spoke of rightly ordered love — that is, to use things to love God and God’s people. While not a substitute for physically gathering, online worship can be used for this larger good.