Why go back to (physical) church?

The local church I belong to has not met physically together since March. Since we don’t have our own building and there will likely be further lockdowns, we don’t really know when we will meet face-to-face again.

Since these are musings, allow me to explore a question:

‘Why not keep doing church from home?’

Let’s be honest, there’s a lot going for it.

First, hasn’t it been an unexpected blessing actually to have Sunday as a day of rest rather than another day of frenetic activity? Church leaders have a Sabbath too – the preaching is recorded during the week. Isn’t it a pleasure to curl up on the sofa, cuppa in hand, to watch church online? It’s also so much more flexible given how many people’s work commitments include weekends. If you can’t make ‘live church’, you can always tune in at a more suitable time.  

Second, isn’t online church still ‘real church’? There is worship, prayer, preaching and even communion. Community is built as people connect over video before or after the service. There can be virtual Bible studies and youth events during the week. The calling of all Christians to witness, to serve and to love God and neighbour isn’t changed by how they meet on Sundays. Indeed, maybe online church can help to free us from equating ‘church’ with a couple of hours per week on a Sunday morning.  

Third, online church seems much more cost-effective and environmentally friendly than traditional church. Just think of all those car journeys saved. Just think of the millions spent on church buildings and the cost of construction, heating, insuring, equipping and maintaining them. Might online church help us to re-evaluate our expensive attachment to bricks and mortar?

So, what do you think? Is the Coronavirus pandemic a time for a radical reimagining of church? Are we better off staying virtual?

I think my answers to those two questions are ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.

‘Yes’, this is a good time to think hard about traditional church – to ask why we were doing what we were doing. What lessons can we learn for doing church differently in the future? It would be interesting to hear your answers to that question.

‘No’, despite what I’ve said so far, online church feels second-best. Theologically there is an essential physicality to the Christian faith. The Word became flesh and came to live among us. We are embodied people made by God to relate to one another, and that happens best in person. A central thread of the Bible story is that of God’s people, together as a body called to worship, love and follow their God. Jesus’ command to break bread and drink wine in his memory is best obeyed sharing the communion meal together around the Lord’s table. If love includes caring for others, it’s hard to do that well via a screen. Young children, I suspect, come off worst from the shift online – they need physical relationships, play and learning with friends.

But there are other problems with online church. It all too easily ends up being a product designed to fit the personal preferences of its ‘customers’. It encourages individualism and erodes the difficult calling of genuine community. We can choose whom we hang out with and when. It generally suits those with comfortable homes, internet access and who are relatively self-sufficient and makes invisible those who don’t. My guess is it will weaken a church’s commitment to mission. And it also enforces an already powerful trend where worship, teaching and even Bible reading is all mediated via a screen. This tech take-over of church is now almost complete and, I think, has profoundly dehumanising results – it narrows further our worship of God to listening passively to a screen.

So, while I’m grateful we have been able to continue to ‘meet’ as a church, my hope and prayer is that we will be able to worship together again ‘in the flesh’ once more – as Christians have done from the very beginning of the church.   

[These ‘Musings’ are from the latest edition of Vox]

4 thoughts on “Why go back to (physical) church?

  1. Thanks for creating space for this conversation Patrick, I think there is much need for it (wee forum perhaps 😉 ). I agree with the essential need for physicality in the body of christ but I think we also must ask hard questions about what why and how we do what we do as local church…my fear is that we are still not really asking these questions collectively. Global pandemics might give a good case for meeting as small house churches!

    • Interesting. Are there two separte questions here.
      How do we do church if the pandemic is long term and we can’t meet collectively for another year or more? Is that where you see small house churches kicking in?
      And how might we do church differently if / when we are able to get back together more ‘normally’?
      What do you think about the second question?
      I suspect a lot of business type meetings could be done online for sure, both in a local church and especially in a denomination or network. At local church level, how fluid and flexible can a community be without losing something essential? I think there is something essential about gathering, worship, preaching, sacraments.

  2. Thank you Patrick for your article. I attend a city centre church and hardly anybody lives in the city centre. The congregation is quite dispersed, not only within Dublin but even beyond! The other issue is that most of the congregation come from Africa, India and the Philippines, there are very few westerns. Zoom, was of great help to me because I was able to get to know names (which at times are quite difficult to remember) plus when we divided in small groups, ethnicity didn’t matter. So from that point of view it was helpful. However, as you said we are better at face to face encounters, that is the way we have been created.
    I do think that instead of seeing this time as an interruption to the way that we have been used to do church, we should see it as an invitation to rethink what we have been doing. To spend listening to what God might be saying.
    The other issue is, that we can quickly jump into try to have a service going on, as soon as we are allowed and dismiss or not to pay attention to what people had gone through.
    N.T. Wright said in an interview that when this is over there will be a lot of grieving to process. The people that sat in many congregations before the pandemic are not the same that will come back. One way or another, they have been affected and I think it is important to pay attention to that and to help people to process. God is more interested in our wholeness than what type of service we manage to put together.

    • Wise words Ana, thanks.
      I realise that for many people the pandemic has been an extra busy time. But perhaps many Christians have more ‘space’ with less meetings to go to etc. I’m biased but wouldn’t it be a great use of these unusual times to read the Bible and to seek God? Study after study has shown that ‘evangelicals’ who give primacy to the authority of the Bible, actually don’t in practice read it very much … or use it in ways that shapes decision making and priorities.

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