How Did We Get Here? The Pre-COVID Road to “Online Church”

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.

Technologizing of the Means of Grace

Merely demonstrating the inability of modernity to appropriately factor “worship of the Triune God” as a human need into its cost-benefit analysis leaves half of our task undone. Christian leaders and communities then must take the next step to ask: how much is physical presence necessary for worship that is truth-confirming and life-giving? When physical presence together has the potential to impose a cost on some, how adequately can the biblically prescribed actions of worship be mediated by technology?

Christians have always known that gathering together for worship is not the entirety of the worshipful Christian life—singing, prayer, reading/recitation of scripture, and holy living are possible without gathering together with others. Yet even though Daniel provides us an example of private, daily prayer as part of diaspora Jewish piety (Dan 6:10), Jews also established synagogues for communal worship—and the early Christian church built upon this practice.

In-person gatherings for Christian worship have continued through some of Europe’s most deadly epidemics—in eras when religious and political leaders were ignorant of the pathogenic causes and spread of disease. God’s Word certainly calls us to humility, wisdom and prudence, places a high value on preserving human life, and reminds us “not to put the Lord our God to the test” (Matt 4:7; Deut 6:16).

Technology as Enabler?

Yet the reaction among religious and political leaders to the COVID-19 crisis was striking, compared with similar flu outbreaks in modern history, starting with the 1918–1920 flu pandemic that killed perhaps one to six percent of humanity (estimates range from 17 to 40 million deaths)[1], and including the 2009–2010 “swine flu” which killed between 150,000 and 575,000 people globally.[2] During these previous outbreaks, people still attended religious services, sporting and entertainment events, and went to their jobs. Some became sick and died as a result.

Regardless of how we might assess the prudence of such actions (then and now), we must recognize the role of technologically-mediated communication in restructuring societal interactions, thereby changing the costs and benefits of avoiding in-person interaction. Most significantly, digital communication has reduced the cost of communicating information—through writing, and through oral and visual communication—essentially to zero. Much of the work of information-based or white-collar jobs can proceed in some form online, perhaps with some inconvenience. Because information jobs are the most productive as measured by financial income, tax bases in developed economies have not collapsed, allowing governments to still provide many truly essential services (hospitals, police, public utilities)—and in some cases, to provide support payments to working-class people whose jobs are lost or suspended.

The result is that restrictive measures undertaken and supported by those in the elite classes (government officials, university professors and researchers, journalists, many religious leaders) seem less immediately burdensome to those making the decisions than to the majority of those subject to the lockdowns. Technology has ameliorated the hardship for decision-makers such that the restrictive measures may persist longer than they did before the technology was available.

This is an issue of political economy which is important, and I may come back to it in a future post. For now it is sufficient to note that parallel developments have occurred in the church, to positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, even before COVID, the easy digital spread of information has led to greater specialization within biblical and theological research, and also allowed local church leaders (and laity) access to information that they would not have had otherwise (or only had at great cost previously). For example, some material in this series was initially presented via Zoom to the faculty and students of a colleague’s institution on another continent.[3] A former student of mine, hailing from one Eastern European country, living and ministering in another, is attending an American seminary online (pre-COVID). Many academic conferences have been moved online for the exchange of ideas.

We all know that something is lost when conferences and courses move online: conversations before and after sessions, meetings, browsing for one book and finding a different one also—the question is how much is lost, and what are we willing to sacrifice for that additional benefit, in terms of risk and financial cost. When mere exchange of information is the goal of an interaction, mediating technology is extremely beneficial. But if more than exchange of information is essential to the experience, then technology can actually enable a slide into less effective, less satisfying mediated practices.

The Means of Grace: Discursive and Non-Discursive

I assert that even before the COVID-19 crisis, many Western evangelical churches have been slowly, unwittingly adopting—along with Western society—modernity’s epistemology and teleology, through (among other means) our use of technology. The health crisis and the measures taken in response accelerated structural changes in churches that had already begun prior to the crisis. The logical end or extreme of some of these earlier changes was on full display as, for some of us, nearly our entire experience of the church was technologically mediated for a period (still ongoing for many).

One way of taking stock of gains and losses of the introduction of technology, is the so-called “means of grace” as our categories: Scripture, prayer (including liturgy and song), sacraments (or ordinances), and the fellowship of the saints.

Scripture, Prayer, Song: Digital, but Disposable

The first two means of grace, scripture and prayer, are fundamentally discursive (i.e., belonging to the realm of words instead of images or presences). Some of the earliest applications of electronic media in the 1980s and ‘90s were the digitization and promulgation of the Bible—now, we have hundreds of versions of the Bible available at our fingertips. Beyond the biblical text itself, we find also an ocean of mediated discursive content, including text, audio and video; scripture, song, preaching and teaching.

This must be regarded as a mixed blessing. In my bilingual church, having the Bible on the screen means we can move back and forth between English and Lithuanian with ease. When there is a technological issue, however, we are in trouble—few of us are in the habit of bringing physical Bibles to church. This also presents a problem for the participation of children who cannot yet read.

Outside of church, scripture is available to us all the time on our phones—but evidence suggests that we read it infrequently, in a distracted and decontextualized manner.[4] Beyond the pragmatics of frequency and depth of Bible reading, there is also an ephemerality communicated by the words of God that appear and evaporate on a screen—“the Word of our God stands forever,” until it withers and fades on my Kindle Paperwhite.

Regarding prayer, liturgy and music: the use of screens, rather than prayer books or hymnals approved by an authority and costing something to print, permits the rapid incorporation of new songs into regular worship, which allows us to be more nimble—and less deliberate. (Jonathan Aigner has written rather emphatically about these dangers over at Ponder Anew.)

Beyond the church service, the internet now allows us to access “the best” (by whatever criteria) preaching, teaching and music, which allows us to gain from the training, excellence and wisdom of others beyond our local body. But it can also lead to dissatisfaction with the local church, whose pastor and musicians cannot measure up to the “big names” we can access online. Those online pastors and worship leaders have no knowledge of me, my family, our local church or community.[5]

Liturgy, Fellowship, Discipleship

One of the historic strengths of Protestantism, and evangelicalism within it, has been our emphasis on the discursive—at its heart, “evangelical” signifies a transformative personal encounter with a discursive message: the evangel, the “gospel”/“good news.” This is why we emphasize Bible translation/access, and the sermon as the centerpiece of the worship service. But when our engagement with the gospel is merely discursive, then we risk neglecting or underplaying the performative/symbolic/substantive dimensions of our faith[fulness]. James K.A. Smith expresses this interrelation in terms of liturgy:

Christian worship, we should recognize, is essentially a counterformation to those rival liturgies we are often immersed in, cultural practices that covertly capture our loves and longings, miscalibrating them, orienting us to rival versions of the good life. This is why worship is the heart of discipleship. We can’t counter the power of cultural liturgies with didactic information poured into our intellects. We can’t recalibrate the heart from the top down, through merely informational measures. The orientation of the heart happens from the bottom up, through the formation of our habits of desire. Learning to love (God) takes practice.[6]

In relation to the third and fourth means of grace, the sacraments (or ordinances) and the fellowship of the saints, technological mediation was already leading to some troubling trends.

First, we have the phenomenon of the multi-site church, in which a live or recorded sermon performance is broadcast into an assembly, either in another part of the building (so that congregants can choose their musical style in the first half of the service) or in another location (other campuses). This is an extension of the “exposure to the best” phenomenon—we have a pastor who is really a “preaching specialist” on a screen, speaking to a group that s/he cannot see. Instead of extending to other campuses, why not simply plant a new self-constituting local congregation, with its own elders and pastors? This smacks of Smithian specialization (“The division of labour is limited by the extent of the market”) that should not be a guiding principle in the church.

Second, technology that could have allowed us to organize and plan fellowship and discipleship has actually enabled our plans to always be in flux. This seems to be a general societal trend: firm commitments have been replaced by “maybe,” or “I’ll check in with you.” (Aziz has a humorous take on this—warning: strong language.) But discipleship requires commitment, and “fear of missing out” undermines this necessary element.

Third, due to changes in our economic and social structures people move around more than in decades or centuries past, which makes it difficult to put down roots and stay invested in a church beyond weekly attendance. Do you know anyone, besides a pastor’s family, who moved house simply in order to join a particular church, or to be closer to a church? My brother and sister-in-law, in their mid-20s, have made their home and job decisions with church community as a significant consideration, and I admire them for that—but they are the exception, I think.

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.

Next…

In the next piece, I will talk about how online “presence” for worship makes the mistake of substituting “mere simultaneity” for true unity and presence. Unfortunately, “mere simultaneity” is the experience of many Christians in church, pre-pandemic—and I fear that this is true of evangelical, mainline, and liturgical churches.

For more in this series, click here.


[1] https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/reconstruction-1918-virus.html

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/2009-h1n1-pandemic.html

[3] Sattler College, Boston, MA, USA; October 2, 2020.

[4] See the research gathered by Jeffrey S. Siker, Liquid Scripture: The Bible in a Digital World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017), 57–96.

[5] Carmen Joy Imes speaks about this dimension: “When I signed on as a Christian, it was not a transaction designed primarily to secure my eternal destiny. Becoming a Christian means becoming part of God’s family and changing how I live here and now. Spending week after week with these people, sharing this experience, eventually adds up to a network of caring relationships. It doesn’t happen overnight (remember, it’s a field, not a vending machine), but as we do life together, we lend support to each other on our faith journeys. Simply watching from home positions me as a solitary consumer rather than an active participant. While digital worship has been a gift to keep us connected during this strange season, it is not a sustainable way to cultivate the community of faith.” https://www.christianitytoday.com/scot-mcknight/2020/september/church-after-covid-why-bother-going-back.html

[6] James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016), 25.

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, living and learning in Eastern Europe…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
This entry was posted in Bible-Theology, Culture-Economics-Society and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to How Did We Get Here? The Pre-COVID Road to “Online Church”

  1. Pingback: Online “Church”: United, or Merely Simultaneous? | think hard, think well

  2. Pingback: Online “Church”: Are the Kids Really Fine? | think hard, think well

  3. Pingback: Re-Forming Church Biblically | think hard, think well

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