As I write, we have returned to a season of enhanced precautions and online worship. To say that we’re starting to get tired of the pandemic would be an understatement. I can hear it in the voices of people that I talk to, especially when I talk to church people. Some of them got especially frustrated when church leaders made the decision to put a hold on in person worship. More than one person has said to me “They just don’t understand: they think online worship is just as good as the real thing!”
No, of course they don’t. No one in a position of church leadership really thinks that. We all recognize that online will always be a shadow of the community that is built when people come together in person to pray together, to sing together, to break bread together, and equip one another for life as Christians in the world. But sometimes we also have to recognize that while online is not as good as in person, it’s a whole lot better than letting churches become COVID hotspots.
More than that, it doesn’t take a COVID outbreak to make online worship an important connection for an aging congregation. I have heard from many people who have trouble getting up and ready for in person church in the morning because of medications or other morning routines. Others were hesitant to come before the pandemic because they were self-conscious about possibly needing to slip out to the bathroom during the service. Or despite their best intentions, they just weren’t feeling well enough to leave home when Sunday morning came around. Or they woke up to a load of snow, or felt unsafe on a slippery driveway. It may not be as good as ‘the real thing’, but as long as there are reasons not to attend church in person, online options will always be welcome and necessary.
Online worship is not all sitting back and watching, though. Now more than ever, we have powerful tools to invite others. Before 2020, we understood that churches grow when their members invite family and friends to join them for worship or social gatherings. In the early days of the pandemic, online services were widely shared. Now that the novelty has worn off, they are much more likely to be ignored. Not sharing a link, and trusting that someone else will do it instead, is just the same as never inviting anyone to worship before the pandemic, but assuming that someone else would.
If online worship “just doesn’t feel the same”, perhaps we should be asking ourselves if we are preparing ourselves to worship online with the same attention we would use to worship in person. Have we examined our consciences to help identify the flaws and failures we need to let go of in order to live the life God is calling us to? Have we settled on the specific prayers and intentions that we need to offer as part of our own worship? Are we coming with specific thanksgivings to offer? These are all essential ways to prepare for worship. If all we do on Sunday is “show up” without any preparation, it doesn’t matter whether we’re worshiping in person or online. It will always feel a bit flat, because we’re not really worshiping, only watching others do it.
Most of the problems of online worship are nothing new. They’re the same old problems that the Church faced in person. The good news is that we already see the solution: it’s not a question of what we get out of worship, but what we put into it.