Our technologies have come a long way from when John wrote, likely using a reed-pen on a papyrus sheet, “I had many things to write, but I do not wish to write to you with pen and ink; but I hope to see you shortly, and we shall speak face to face.” (3 Jn. 1:13-14)
In the centuries since then, we developed better forms of paper, codexes, and the printing press. Still, the delay between writing a message and receiving it was still significant. The electric telegraph of 1837 produced the first nearly instantaneous communication, followed by the telephone in 1876, radio communications in 1907. By the year 2000, the Internet had brought myriads of new forms of instant communication. Increasing Internet speeds have driven the web from being mostly text to becoming the next form of television. In the last 10 years or so we finally have what we’d watched on Star Trek all those years ago: a live, full-colour image of another person we’re talking to.
Skype, Zoom, Connect, Facetime, WhatsApp and many more have added “living” colour to our communications. It has enabled cheap international conference calls, distance education, cheaper broadcasts of live events, and a host of depraved uses, too.
The Covid-19 crisis has forced most churches to use some form of these technologies in some context: whether it was actual services, or video calls with members or leadership meetings. And it has also forced us to ask, how close are these forms of communication to the “real thing”?
Of course, the vast majority of people would agree that in-person worship is superior to “virtual” forms. Even if their reasoning is inchoate, most people still sense that, given a choice, being together in person is superior to watching screens.
The real disagreement has arisen over whether instant digital communications are a substitute (even if a temporary one) for in-person worship, or whether the very nature of worship and the nature of digital communication excludes such a possibility.
In favour of the first idea are all the similarities between in-person worship and a live image. We can see and hear one another immediately, as we would in a corporate gathering. We can listen and respond to prayer, Scripture, and preaching. We can even sing to music played through the screen. Furthermore, we experience a kind of corporateness, in that we are able to see the many faces participating in that moment. In this thinking, the presence of the simultaneous communication, and the presence of visual image captures the bulk of what worship is.
In favour of the second idea are all the differences between a live image and in-person worship. The live, colour images belie the fact that they are just that: pixels digitally reconstructed and sounds. They are two-dimensional images and electromagnetic sounds that reproduce those of the actual person. In reality, we are not “with” anyone. We are alone, or with a few at home, looking at a screen. Several others, we know, are also looking at a screen, seeing images of us. It is a seemingly magical simulation of being together, but it remains a simulation. Any act of ministry that requires more than the transfer of verbal and non-verbal information cannot be done with an image of another person: greeting one another physically, showing hospitality to one another, meeting each other’s financial or physical needs, eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper together. Many of the other ‘one another’ commands such as “exhort”, “comfort”, or “admonish” seem incomplete without the many forms of non-verbal communication that take places in one another’s presence – the arm on the shoulder, the posture, even fragrances, or sounds inaudible over a computer. For a proponent of this theory, the bulk of worship is not communication, but communion: the communion of persons with God. And yes, there is an a priori here: communion of persons requires the actual presence of those persons together.
Very likely, it is our a prioris about worship that colour our view of what live digital communications are really accomplishing. Our presuppositions are often invisible to us, but they are probably what drives a lot of this debate.
In my opinion, a Christianity that is still reeling from Enlightenment rationalism and from contemporary technopoly tends to see the faith in informational terms. Christianity becomes a set of ideas to be transmitted, and if one can see and hear what is being communicated, then worship is thought to be largely occurring. Everything can be reduced to sights and sounds: audio-visual information.
A Christianity that is trying to shake off its modernistic and post-modernistic influences sees the faith in incarnational terms. Even loving God takes place when it is embodied in loving one another (1 John 4:12, 20). The truth is embodied in persons, whom we must be with and share our lives with. Worship is not what happens “up front” where the pulpit and musicians sit. If that were the case, then we could point a camera at it, and replay that image to whomever, wherever.
Instead, worship is what we do when we gather. When the believer is no longer solitary, but assembled together with other believers in the name of Jesus, there Christ is in a particular way (Matt 18:20). The context of Matthew 18 is church discipline, and Christ’s presence there speaks of His authority behind the action of discipline, but this application does not alter the overall truth: the assembled people of God can expect the working of Christ through His Spirit in ways not available to a believer on his own.
In short, the images and sounds might be “live” (i.e. their sending and receiving is roughly simultaneous). But they are not living. Humans are living, not their letters, phones, radios, or screens, nor the sounds and sights they produce. And worship is more than communication: it is the communion of living persons with one another.