One aspect of this has been the substitution of simultaneity for unity. Even unmediated by technology, if the entirety of my pre-COVID worship experience has been simply passive and receptive (hearing and observing the preaching and the musicians) while I am standing or sitting beside someone else in the assembly with whom I am barely acquainted—then there is little benefit to the incidental simultaneity of our passive reception of the information presented to us by the pastor or the worship leader. If this is all that church has been, then it is not surprising that people would feel little loss by introducing the mediating technology, i.e., receiving preaching and music while at home—with or without a pandemic.
Throughout this time many of us are simply missing human touch and human contact, and direct interaction not through a screen. We are doing the best we can, but it is not the same. I imagine those families in ancient Israel who had loved ones with skin diseases, who had to stay outside the camp or the city and only call out to one another from afar. But there is hope, there is Good News. God was not satisfied with living in a tent or a stone temple among his people. As John writes in his Gospel, “The Word became flesh, and pitched a tent among us, and we beheld his glory.”
Even before the pandemic, “word” and “image” had been technologized with some extension of their reach—but with increasing fluidity, and at the cost of “presence,” which cannot be replicated. Technology makes us feel as though we can replicate presence, but it rather enables us to persist in practices that do not really satisfy or edify.
Note: This is part of a series of pieces providing a pastoral response to COVID and lockdowns in the church. Read more and subscribe here. I posted some of the observations below back in November.
Some might object to my strenuous insistence on the essentiality of in-person worship, on the grounds that Christians are obliged to respect civil authorities (Rom 13:1–7), and should be willing to lay down our rights for the sake of others (1 Cor 8:9–13). Throughout the pandemic, some churches have voluntarily stopped meeting for extended periods of time (here, here); others have defied civil authorities in order to stay open (here, here, here).
If the government says we may not meet or should not meet, mustn’t we take that into account? Don’t we as churches have Christian freedom not to meet for worship? While these considerations should not be blithely dismissed, such biblical texts and principles cannot faithfully be deployed as justification for suspending in-person worship (Heb 10:25).
I have to say that I have felt a bit isolated in the last year—not just because of physical isolation due to COVID restrictions, but also when it comes to thinking about appropriate Christian responses to our global situation.
So far we have seen that a modern scientific worldview has difficulty accounting for the immaterial “essence” of human personhood, and therefore cannot meaningfully balance the risks of physical and spiritual harms. In this installment, we compare “scientific” ways of knowing (epistemology) with other means of knowing that are just as important for human life and purpose: knowing through love, and knowing through ritual. Knowing truth about God and ourselves by these means gives us purpose and hope.
If a 70-year-old man receives a cancer diagnosis with a six-month prognosis, but could extend his life possibly two years by chemotherapy that would make his life extremely painful—is it moral for him to refuse treatment? What about a 50-year-old man, offered a ten-year extension of unpleasant life through such a harsh six-month medical treatment? How should the costs of medical treatment, and the burden on family, factor into his decision? Who is fit to decide such things?
In the midst of a situation in which a serious communicable disease is present in the population, should it be permissible to hold religious gatherings? What about funerals or weddings? Extreme unction (“last rites”) in the case of someone dying from a disease that could be transmitted to the priest?
Is it moral to celebrate the Eucharist in the midst of a pandemic? How risky for the celebrant and the participants must it be, in order to be deemed too great a risk? How should the risk of transmitting the disease to others beyond the consenting participants be factored into the ethical calculation? How might it be acceptable to modify the structure of the celebration in order to reduce health risk?
This is the audio (40:21, 36.9 MB) of a sermon preached at our Lithuania home church, Klaipėda Free Christian Church, on May 23, 2021: Pentecost. The main text is Acts 2; I also make reference to Isaiah 28:5-13.
Enjoy hearing the sermon in both English and Lithuanian (back-and-forth)! You can also watch the service on Facebook, including the sermon starting at about 35:00.