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]

Preaching to a screen

So I’m preaching at our local church this Sunday – except of course it will not be ‘at’ church but pre-recorded and broadcast during an online service.

Here’s the hi-tech preaching set up – note the garden rake holding notes in place via sellotape.

IMG_20200416_123537I really enjoyed having a go. After endless Zoom conference calls I wanted to try outside in the fresh air and sunshine (while it lasts). I always teach in class standing up, free to move about and engage with students. So I find sitting static behind a screen restrictive. Rather than preaching to a group of people with whom there is engagement and eye contact, a screen gives you nothing. And so I find communication becomes a bit flat – including non-verbal communication like tone of voice and emotion.

A couple of helpful resources I watched in preparing were these:

And also this one from Ian Paul’s blog. You take notice when he calls this a masterclass in online sermon communication by Bryan Wolfmueller, who is a Lutheran pastor in Austin Texas (don’t know what the health and safety issues are in preaching to camera when driving ..!)