Left-click the bread icon to consume the bread. >Click<
>>> Thank you. You have eaten the bread.
Left-click the cup icon to consume the cup. > Click<
>>> Thank you. You have drunk the cup.
Sound preposterous? Why shouldn’t we do virtual Lord’s Supper? Our technology has made this scenario possible. But is it desirable? Probably most would say no. In fact, probably most who advocate for livestreaming their services would object. The question is why they would object to virtual Lord’s Supper, but not to virtual everything else.
The Lord’s Supper is that act of worship which everyone seems to understand requires physical elements, the physical presence of God’s people, and their physical eating and drinking. If we were to simulate this with graphics, icons, or little avatars, probably most would use the words artificial, inferior, or fake. Perhaps some churches would make sure every believer has his own personal Lord’s Supper kit, and at the appropriate livestream moment, everyone would consume. While this would be better than pretending to eat, it still wouldn’t be much better. The Lord’s Table is a table. People gather around a table. They eat, drink, and fellowship.
When a pandemic prevents us from gathering, the appropriate response is to grieve that we cannot gather, and then do what is the closest thing to corporate worship while praying for the restoration of normal life. Creating a simulation of gathered worship, however “live” or “real-time” is just that: a simulation.
Video conferencing technology is great for many things: business meetings, certain kinds of teaching, adding an image to a phone call. In a lockdown, it’s also good for making sure every member of the flock is loved and cared for. On the other hand, video conferencing is not good for a wedding, for a feast, for a funeral, for a family reunion. Which is corporate worship more like: a lecture, or a ceremony? A business meeting, or a family gathering? A performance, or a renewal of vows?
The event of corporate worship is a very physical moment, meant for embodied beings. We are to gather. The early church would greet with a holy kiss. They would pray and sing not just to God, but “to one another” (Eph 5:19, Col 3:16). They would baptise, and renew their vows to God and one another in each other’s presence. They would read the Word and hear it preached and make commitments. They would then share a meal.
It is a sign of the pervasive mind-body dualism in modern Christianity that we think of Christian worship as primarily the communication of ideas. We think of only the ideas contained in the songs, the ideas preached and prayed, the ideas read and understood. And if that’s all worship is, then all we need is mechanisms to transfer the information. In that case, an Internet connection and a screen is all we need. The only extraneous digit in this scheme of information transfer is that pesky Lord’s Supper, which doesn’t seem to be convertible to pure information. If more churches celebrated the Lord’s Supper more frequently, we might be less willing to brush it aside as “the one thing we can’t do online”, and take the physicality of all worship more seriously.
Worship is not a transfer of information; it is a training of imagination. The way we image reality is primarily shaped through our embodied practices, which requires our physical gathering. Again, is corporate worship more like a lecture, or more like a ceremony?
Just a few months ago, pastors were laughing at this satire. Now they’re insisting that their virtual church is a great form of community during the lockdowns. But of course, if worship is information transfer, why stick with your bland, vanilla pastor this Sunday? Livestream the best preachers in the world, or download the best sermons ever preached.
Beyond all this, there is a hint of partiality creeping in when everyone advocates for internet church. Can everyone in every congregation have the same access to a livestream that they had to get to a church building? Is it possible that livestreaming favours a certain group in the church, and that churches shrug their shoulders about those who cannot use it?
What then? Am I advocating defeatism? No, but a nice does of realism would be good. When we are housebound, corporate worship cannot, and does not, happen. The sooner we realise that, the less we promote the make-believe that corporate worship is going on through our screens on Sunday.
Even though corporate worship cannot happen, we can promote and encourage the next best thing. We can provide our households with a similar order of service, so that the church, though dispersed, is still doing its best to gain likemindedness on the Lord’s Day. Families can worship together. Singles can worship privately using the same service. We can use technology to share the music or hymns we would be singing. A pastor could use technology to send a sermon transcript, or a pre-recorded sermon to all. And yes, he could also preach live to those who could access that, as long as we communicate that this moment is not an “online gathering”. Instead, it’s a painful moment of separation, where we cannot break bread together, and await our reunion. At best, it’s private worship, or family worship, aided by technology to be loosely in contact with the rest of the church.