One might ask, why not have both? Why not meet in person (with Covid precautions in place) but also continue to offer the option of a live stream service? Because offering the church online implicitly makes incarnation optional. It presents in-person gatherings as something we can accept or decline without consequence. He assumes that embodiment is more of a consumer preference, like whether or not you buy hardwood floors, than a necessity, like whether or not you have shelter.
What will work and life look like after the pandemic?
Throughout the pandemic, everyone has had to assess what is essential and what is not. We as a company had to wonder if going to church in person was more like going to a restaurant or more like going to elementary school — whether it’s something that’s a nice perk in life or something indispensable. There was a time, of course, at the start of the pandemic when, like churches, schools were fully online. Corn around the globe, experts believe the costs of school closures currently outweigh the risks of Covid-19. In Christian theology and practice, the physical gathering as a church should be seen as equally essential and irreplaceable.
The phasing out of an online meeting option presents some unreal realities. First, church leaders should adhere to local government protocols and strongly encourage members to be fully immunized.
Secondly, no longer offering a streaming option will unfortunately mean that those who are housebound or sick will not be able to participate in a service. This, however, is not a new problem for the church. For centuries, churches have dealt with this inevitability by visiting these people in their homes in person. A small team of “Lay Eucharistic Ministers” from our former church volunteered to go to the homes of anyone who could not make it to church and wanted a visit. They met people one-on-one, took care of them, said a short liturgy together, served communion and caught up. It takes more of a congregation’s time and commitment than delivering a service online. This requires trustworthy and trained volunteers. But it gives the gifts of a personal and embodied presence, and even of friendship and love.
Finally, many church leaders will have to deal with our genuine fear of appearing not to take Covid seriously enough. I still think the biggest religious story of 2020 has been how across the country religious communities of all denominations and ideologies have pivoted almost overnight to move the church online in an effort to love those that surround us. In April 2020, the Protestant research group Lifeway discovered that only 1 percent churches with more than 200 members have met in person (and only 4 percent to 7 percent Protestant churches of all sizes). Yet what dominated the securities meanwhile seemed to be every conservative, Covid-denying pastor who insisted on holding super spreader events.
For those of us religious people who have taken the pandemic seriously, there is residual shame around it. It was embarrassing for people to use God’s language to endanger lives. We don’t want to come across as one of those religious types of people, so we may be hesitant to phase out any precaution. But that should not lead churches to, as the Times’ David Leonhardt wrote of Covid and child-rearing, trying to “minimize the spread of Covid – a laudable goal in the absence of other factors – rather than minimizing the damage Covid is causing to society”. It’s time to start letting go of our online habits and the isolation they produce.
About four years ago, my family welcomed into our home a group of people from our church in their early twenties. We shared a meal and asked them what hopes and challenges our church offered to their generation. Their answers surprised me. Time after time, they said, one of the hardest and best things about the church was that they had to sit with people of different ages, classes, and political persuasions. It was a practice that they found impractical, yes, but really melting, nourishing and good.