Online “Church”: United, or Merely Simultaneous?

Note: This post is the next in a series, “Technologizing of Worship Before, During, and After COVID: Epistemology, Eschatology, and Presence, part of a larger project suggesting a pastoral response to COVID and lockdowns in the church. Read more and subscribe here.

Worship and Community: “Unity and Presence” over “Mere Simultaneity”

My diagnosis of the problem in the pre-pandemic Western church is that mediating technology has allowed us to emphasize the discursive means of grace (scripture and prayer) while neglecting the performative (sacraments/ordinances, and fellowship/discipleship)—and that in practice the discursive means of grace cannot be fully effective in our lives apart from the others.

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[1]) 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.

Can “Online Presence” Be Presence?

Few would argue that online presence is the same as physical presence—the question is really, what kind of presence can “online presence” be, and can such presence facilitate worship that does its intended work in the life of the believer?

In arguing for the inadequacy of “online presence,” I wish to emphasize the focusing, disciplinary nature of physical presence. “Online presence” in one sense means that I am accessible and interruptible, wherever I have internet service—everywhere, and nowhere in particular. By contrast, an embodied person, a physical situation, or an object before me, makes a demand on my attention that cannot be easily disregarded. It is more difficult for me to be distracted from a physical book, than it is when reading a Kindle book on my smartphone with its notifications and endless alternatives that are only a tap a way. If I am in church, I cannot pause the pastor’s preaching voice as I can when watching the sermon on YouTube (where other videos offer themselves as distractions elsewhere on the screen!). I cannot ignore the deacon in front of me asking me how I am really doing, in the way that I may ignore his Facebook message (or simply never get around to replying). When sitting in a hospital room with a suffering friend who cannot talk much but just needs me to be there, I am uncomfortably forced to learn how to serve that person with thought, word and deed in that moment, rather than sending my friend a brief “get well” message and then turning to the next task.

We are aware that we like to be captivated by an immersive experience, which is why we pay extra to go to a sporting event or a concert, even though watching a sporting event on TV or listening to a studio recording may offer better visual or sound quality—among other advantages, the in-person experience prevents us from changing the channel or interrupting the song in search of “a better one.” Moreover, our attention is engaged by the other members of the audience present with us, as we are all attentive to the spectacular experience.

Focused experience disciplines my tendency to distraction—discipline which is necessary for discipleship.

The biblical metaphor of the faithful community as an irreducible body comprised of different parts possessing different gifts must be instructive (1 Cor 12:12–27; cf. Isa 1:6). The harmony of the parts is essential to the functioning of the whole (1 Cor 12:25–26). The gifts given to members of the body include both discursive (apostles, prophets, teachers, tongues) and performative (miracles, healings, service, administration) (1 Cor 12:28). The discursive gifts cannot be fully effective if extracted from (or abstracted out of) the embodied context of the church gathering, nor does the exercise of performative gifts have meaning apart from the discursive context of the gospel proclamation.[2]

It may be argued that “online presence” cannot generate fellowship within the body of Christ, but it can perhaps maintain or facilitate existing fellowship of an in-person community. This may be true for those already accustomed to the disciplinary (i.e., “disciple-making”) practice of regular fellowship—maintaining a group chat to stay in touch with a circle of friends or Bible study group between meetings.

However, reliance on “online presence” may distract us as church leaders from modeling embodied fellowship practices for a younger generation of believers growing up with experiences of friendship that are highly “technologized.” 

Is Mere Simultaneity a Scriptural Value?

What might the Bible have to say about the value of individuals gathering virtually, simultaneously, for worship or other spiritual activity, using mediating technology? Of course, such technology is nowhere present or assumed in the Bible itself—we face a new phenomenon in human history, beginning perhaps with the telegraph in the 19th century, and continuing to include telephone, radio, television, and now interactive videoconferencing. In the Bible, whenever actions are conducted simultaneously in multiple locations, either the Spirit of God effects the simultaneity, or there is advance coordination (or both!). In every instance, physically separate but simultaneous acts have unity and embodied fellowship as the intended goal. Let’s consider a few scriptural examples:

  • Directly relevant to the issue of worship is the Sabbath, which is a universal simultaneous act. When we think about what we should be doing simultaneously with others while physically apart, Sabbath rest should be top of the list. Simultaneous rest and worship are built into the fabric of creation (Gen 2:2–3; Exod 20:11). In this simultaneous rest, all of creation actually follows God himself in resting, restoring, celebrating, and enjoying fellowship. It therefore makes little sense to extrapolate from the (ideally) universal simultaneity of Sabbath celebration, that we must layer on top of our family rest and local fellowship a technologically mediated connection to everyone, everywhere, who co-celebrates the Sabbath. The Creator God, present with his creation everywhere, effects our unity with him and so with one another.
  • Building on the Sabbath principle, the Israelite ritual calendars coordinate several times of activities: things the priests to do at the central shrine; things for the common people to do in their hometowns (such as the Sabbath, or Passover meals); and pilgrimage feasts that bring the people to the shrine. As I highlighted in my previous article, God introduces technology (money) that somewhat restructures Israelite worship, in order to remove practical hindrances to Israelites gathering centrally for embodied worship (which involves Word, prayer, eating, and fellowship).[3] [However, even the simultaneity of sacred time can be abrogated when exceptional circumstances require the delaying of communion through sacrificial meal; see the “delayed Passover” allowance in Num 9:1–14, expanded in 2 Chr 29–31.[4]]
  • Queen Esther coordinates an empire-wide fast among the Jews before she visits the king (Est 4:15–16). In Esther 8:8ff, instructions are given for the Jews to avenge themselves on the particular day that they were to have been annihilated. In this case, humanly-coordinated simultaneous action serves God’s purposes, but still represents embodied action, presence, and unity (fasting, saving lives).
  • In both the Old and New Testaments, we have examples of divine healing accomplished “remotely,” i.e., physically distant from the human mediator of divine power. Elisha tells the Aramean general, Na‘aman, to wash in the Jordan seven times in order to be healed—Na‘aman is initially offended by the prophet’s lack of “presence” with him to effect the healing, but ultimately obeys and is healed “from afar” (2 Kgs 5:8–14). Jesus heals the Roman centurion’s servant “remotely,” taking the centurion’s confidence that Jesus would be able to do this without a physical visit to the servant as a sign of great faith (Matt 8:5–13). These healings of people who are outside the visible people of God (Gentiles), along with other miracles performed through Jesus, the prophets and the apostles, communicate a message specifically about “distance”: God’s desire that those who are “far off” from him and his people would be “brought near” (Isa 57:19; Eph 2:13, 17).
  • In Acts 12, the Holy Spirit responds to the fervent prayers of the church gathered together to pray for Peter while he is imprisoned (12:5). Their prayers were effective, even though it seems that they didn’t fully believe they would be (12:11–17)! Here the simultaneous prayer and answer to prayer bring about physical reunion of the believers, and increase their faith.
  • In Acts 10, we have the story of the Holy Spirit addressing the Roman centurion, Cornelius, telling him to send messengers to summon Peter (10:1–8). The next day, “as they were on their way and approaching the city,” it says, the Holy Spirit gives Peter a vision that prepares him to receive the messengers and to go to Cornelius. Simultaneity of action is Spirit-caused, and for the goal of physical meeting and unity of Jews and Gentiles in the one Spirit.
  • Paul was trapped inside a Roman prison, and yet still found ways to resist and overcome the dehumanizing separation from those he loved. In Philippians 4:10-20, for example, he still had people within Rome who would visit him, and he wrote letters to the churches and received letters from them. He found ways to share fellowship with them, not just through letters, but through tangible things like in-person visits and sharing money.
  • Finally, we have the example of Jesus, who could have accomplished a necessary task using technology (money) by hiring a slave to wash the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper—but instead washed their feet himself, showing as their master how they should love one another (Jn 13:5-20).

Conclusion

In the Bible, every moment of “remote-but-simultaneous” action is effected by advance coordination or God’s power, and leads to a joyous in-person (re)union of the human parties involved. From this handful of biblical examples, we might deduce that by contrast simultaneity effected by electronic technology is of limited value.

Media ecology teaches us that technology is rarely used simply to achieve previously-existing mediation slightly more efficiently—it affects the content of the communication. Once we begin live-streaming church services on Sunday for the benefit of those who are homebound or immunocompromised, others who could attend church will start to choose to stay home and watch as well. With recording technology, even the simultaneity aspect can be lost: I’ll simply work (or hike) on Sunday, and watch or listen to the service on Monday evening…or whenever I get around to it. Mere simultaneity for its own sake, apart from embodied presence and relational unity, is not a biblical value.

For more in this series, click here.


[1] Note that this danger is present in both high-church settings (Catholic or Orthodox services, in which the singing is performed by specialists not by the congregation) and low-church settings (when the band is too loud for congregants to hear their own voices, or the melodies are too stylized for the congregation to sing along with the band).

[2] The “body of Christ” imagery in the New Testament is also related to the marriage metaphor of Christ and the church as his bride (Eph 5:21–32). Wagenfuhr analogizes “online church” to two spouses maintaining relationship during an extended physical separation, but that physical reunion of the spouses (i.e., in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper) should be the goal. “Online worship” should therefore be characterized by lament over exile, and longing for reunion. G. P. Wagenfuhr, “Is Communion via Live-Stream Communion?” ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, Standing Theological Committee, March 19, 2020 [online].

[3] Benjamin Giffone, “Technologising of Word and Sacrament: Deuteronomy 14:24-26 and Intermediation in Worship,” EJT 28.1 (2019): 70–71.

[4] Benjamin D. Giffone, “Atonement, Sacred Space and Ritual Time: The Chronicler as Reader of Priestly Pentateuchal Narrative,” in Louis Jonker and Jaeyoung Jeon, eds., Chronicles and the Priestly Literature of the Hebrew Bible (BZAW 528; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2021). See also my sermon, preached via Facebook Live during the COVID lockdown, based on insights from this article: “God Draws Near.”

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, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Online “Church”: United, or Merely Simultaneous?

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

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

  3. Pingback: Halting In-Person Worship: Christian Liberty? Obedience to Romans 13? | think hard, think well

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