One of the ethical issues that repeatedly demands our attention in our contemporary age is the issue of digital technology in corporate worship. Like other such ethical issues, this issue comes with plenty of heated passion and inflammable dispute.1
On one side stand churches such as Capitol Hill Baptist Church, which filed a lawsuit against the District of Columbia on September 22, 2020, arguing that D.C.’s coronavirus restrictions had violated their First Amendment rights to gather physically in person for worship.2 Its pastor, Mark Dever, insisted that livestreamed worship was not a viable liturgical or theological option for CHBC.3 This conviction stands in contrast to churches like Life.Church of Edmond, Oklahoma, which has an online campus featuring ninety services per week.4 On the weekend of March 20–22, 2020, a week after the world shut down due to COVID-19, Life.Church streamed its worship to more than seven million devices.5
While one side of this issue involves a debate over the theological viability and liturgical benefit of digitally mediated worship, another side involves an argument around what exactly counts as “embodied” worship. In a New York Times opinion piece written by Tish Harrison Warren around the time that the Omicron variant had been waning and the Centers for Disease Control had begun to relax suggested restrictions for indoor gatherings, Warren argued that it was time to drop virtual worship. “Online church,” she wrote, “while it was necessary for a season, diminishes worship and us as people. We seek to worship wholly, . . . and embodiment is an irreducible part of that wholeness.”6 Arguing against this view were people like Samir Knego, a disability/accessibility advocate. He remarked:
Bodies that require assistance are still bodies, and accepting assistance comes from a place of understanding one’s body and its limits—not a belief in transcending/rejecting/abandoning embodiment. I am human over Zoom and human in my wheelchair—these pieces of technology enable me to engage with the world around me physically and socially. To deny me, then, would not make me more human, just more isolated.7
It goes without saying that equal parts undiluted enthusiasm and visceral antipathy, along with a great deal of “talking past each other,” have marked Christian discussions of technologies such as livestreaming, Zoom, and broadcast television, among others, in relation to corporate worship.8 For some, the preservation of virtual worship amounts to the death of our embodied liturgical life. For others, such technologies make it possible for people on the margins—the homebound, the immunocompromised, persecuted Christians around the world—to enter meaningfully into worship. It is a tension between what we might call “incorporated bodies” and “distributed bodies,” or between what the physicist Michio Kaku calls “high touch” and “high tech” experiences of worship.9
How shall we then live?
I suggest first that we must reckon soberly with the losses that the use of digital technologies entails for physical bodies in corporate worship and that we must embrace with faith, hope, and love all the good that they might bring to our liturgical experience.
One loss involved in virtual worship is the loss of serendipity that occurs uniquely in a gathering of people in a common physical room. Serendipity within such a context, whether in the passing of the peace or in a time of communal song, opens up space for the Spirit to “interrupt” the activities of worship with a word for the moment or a work of transformation sensed in real time. Jon Tyson, lead pastor of Church of the City New York, remarked how, during the early weeks of the global pandemic, he missed the serendipitous laughter that took place during a sermon, as well as the need to linger in prayer discerned by “reading the room” intuitively.10 This was a loss shared by many pastors and worship leaders. Such things are exceedingly difficult to replicate on Zoom or a livestreamed worship service.
Similarly difficult to replicate in an online space is the experience of nonverbal communication. The psychiatrist Curt Thompson says this about the power of nonverbal communication:
Human beings use our bodies, vis-à-vis our actual words, to communicate upwards [of] 85–90% of everything we “say.” These nonverbal cues—eye contact, tone of voice, facial expression, body language, gestures, timing and intensity of responses—are the body’s portion of what it means to “be” with others and ourselves—to communicate what we are experiencing.11
Worship without nonverbal communication is like playing basketball in a video game, which lacks the possibility of on-the-court moments of serendipitous play facilitated by real-time nonverbal cues among jostling, sweaty bodies attuned to the total physical environment.12
While it is extraordinarily difficult, then, for worship leaders to get a “feel for the room” in the experience of digitally mediated corporate worship—either because it is unfeasible to see everyone at the same time on a Zoom screen or because they lie on the other side of a digital camera, unseen and unheard—it is impossible in a virtual context to sing seamlessly in four-part harmony, or to smell incense, or to anoint bodies with oil, or to partake of a common cup, or to share silence in a meaningful fashion.13 In liturgical traditions, shared bodily worship fundamentally involves the experience of bodies “marching in time,” as historian William McNeill describes it,14 whereas in charismatic traditions, the experience of bodies “improvising in time” is central to common worship. All such things not only define true worship, but also represent for them what bodies must do in a shared physical space in their corporate worship.
But are digitally mediated experiences of worship not truly “embodied,” or even “real,” as many on one side of the divide might allege? This depends on how we define our terms and frame the discussion. Teresa Berger, in her book @Worship: Liturgical Practices in Digital Worlds, challenges the assumption of many within her Roman Catholic context who argue that online worship is a contradiction in terms. In defense of a more expansive notion of “embodied” worship, Berger insists, “Rather than being fundamentally dis-embodied, digitally mediated worship entails its own specific bodily properties.”15 All digitally mediated experiences of worship are necessarily bodily, and in some cases, as with members of a hospice care center or a family sick at home, a shared bodily experience. “In digitally mediated worship,” Berger concludes, “‘perceived co-presence’ rather than ‘physical co-location’ becomes a defining feature.”16
While Berger’s argument may seem to be stating the obvious (“Of course everybody who worships online has a body!”), the obvious sometimes needs stating.17 The pain that many in the disabled community experience on account of the persistent rejection by the able-bodied of their unique needs and perspectives on corporate worship deserves to be acknowledged. A similar pain marks the experience of people who are elderly, terminally sick, caregivers, homebound, homeless, on the autism spectrum, or living with social anxiety. Existing perpetually at the margins of the church’s liturgical life, such people are often made to feel that they are a problem to be solved or simply ignored.
For them, digitally mediated worship opens up extraordinary opportunities for relationship, discipleship, and mission. Douglas Estes, in his book SimChurch, shows how for many people today the experience of worship in a virtual world is attractive because of the transparency and diversity they find there.18 David Bourgeois, in Ministry in the Digital Age, makes a similar point, grounding his argument in Jesus’ ministry to draw those on the margins into community.19 And the authors of the book Mobile Persuasion add that “mobile” ministry is much less about technology and much more about connectedness.20 Not only does digital worship become an occasion to be salt and light in the digital spaces that increasingly mark life in our contemporary age, then; it also becomes an occasion to offer hospitality to those who earnestly wish to “stay in touch” rather than “out of touch” liturgically with Christ’s Body.21
As with the Sabbath, it is always important to remember that technology is made for humans, not humans for technology. However we may use digital technologies to facilitate corporate worship, it must always be done for the sake of deepened relationships and formation in Christlikeness. There will, of course, be no one-size-fits-all approach, and we may get it wrong the first, second, or even third time around, but we get to try again—together. In doing it together, we invite all members of Christ’s Body into the discernment and decision-making process rather than treat any one member as a passive observer without agency, or as a mere recipient without insight. We especially invite those who may find themselves on the margins, trusting that Jesus has entrusted to them too the wisdom that the Body of Christ sorely needs for worship to be faithful.
“To try to heal the body alone,” writes Wendell Berry, “is to collaborate in the destruction of the body. Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing.”22 What Berry says here applies not just to the ethics of digital worship, but also to every matter that remains our ethical responsibility as followers of Jesus. The way forward together is the way of true, embodied corporate worship. Anything less betrays our truest convictions as Christ’s Body, showing them to be hollow or false in some fashion. How we treat one another in corporate worship, moreover, is a reflection of how we might very likely treat one another outside of worship. “Liturgy of the neighbor,” writes Nathan Mitchell, “verifies liturgy of the church,” by which he means that if we fail to love our neighbor well in life, then we have failed to worship God in the sanctuary.23 The hope, of course—and indeed the prayer—is that our liturgical life will remain integral to our ethical life, lest we betray in our bodies what we confess with our lips.
This piece was adapted in part from A Body of Praise by W. David O. Taylor. Published with permission from Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
- Cf. W. David O. Taylor, “How to Lead Online Worship Without Losing Your Soul—or Body,” Christianity Today, March 17, 2020, https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2020/march-web-exclusives/how-to-lead-online-worship-without-losing-your-soul-or-body.html.
- Michelle Boorstein, “D.C. Agrees to Pay $220,000 in Legal Fees to Baptist Church That Sued over Coronavirus Restrictions,” The Washington Post, July 12, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2021/07/09/dc-bowser-coronavirus-settlement-baptist-church-restrictions/.
- Tom Strode, “Capitol Hill Baptist Church Sues D.C. on COVID Order,” Baptist Press, Sept. 23, 2020, https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/capitol-hill-baptist-church-sues-d-c-on-covid-order/.
- Kate Shellnut, “When God Closes a Church Door, He Opens a Browser Window,” Christianity Today, March 19, 2020, https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2020/march/online-church-attendance-covid-19-streaming-video-app.html.
- Tish Harrison Warren, “Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services,” The New York Times, January 30, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/30/opinion/church-online-services-covid.html.
- Daniel Schultz, “Ending Zoom Church Is a Great Idea for a Column—Provided You Completely Ignore the Disability Perspective,” Religion Dispatches, February 1, 2022, https://religiondispatches.org/turn-on-the-news-ending-zoom-church-is-a-great-idea-for-a-column-provided-you-completely-ignore-the-disability-perspective/.
- Cf. W. David O. Taylor, “Appendix A: The Videographic Arts: Questions for Discernment,” in Glimpses of the New Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019).
- Michio Kaku, Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 (New York: Anchor Books, 2011), 17.
- Collin Hansen, “What We Lose When We Livestream Church,” The New York Times, Aug. 8, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/08/opinion/covid-church-livestream.html.
- Curt Thompson, “A Body of Work,” curtthompsonmd.com, April 15, 2020.
- Andy Crouch, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017), 189.
- Chris Palmer, “A Worship Practice Zoom Can’t Replicate,” The Christian Century, January 5, 2022, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/reflection/worship-practice-zoom-can-t-replicate.
- William H. McNeill, Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 2.
- Teresa Berger, @Worship: Liturgical Practices in Digital Worlds (London: Routledge, 2018), 20.
- Berger, @Worship, 106, 109.
- Berger, @Worship, 16.
- Douglas Estes, SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 28.
- David T. Bourgeois, Ministry in the Digital Age: Strategies and Best Practices for a Post-Website World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2013), 25.
- Mirjana Spasojevic, Rachel Hinman, and Will Dzierson, “Mobile Persuasion Design Principles,” in Mobile Persuasion: 20 Perspectives on the Future Behavior of Change, ed. B. J. Fogg and Dean Eckles (Stanford, CA: Stanford Captology Media, 2007), 119–120.
- Estes, SimChurch, 25.
- Wendell Berry, “The Body and the Earth,” in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2002), 98–99.
- Nathan D. Mitchell, Meeting Mystery: Liturgy, Worship, Sacraments (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), 38. Emphasis original.