A Theology of Digital Church

To stream or not to stream that is the question

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of separated cyberspace,

Or to take arms against a sea of isolation,

And, by opposing, end it?

A Modern Hamlet

I had a notion to rewrite the entire soliloquy but I thought readers would get bored. The idea of digital or streaming church has garnered a lot of attention recently and no small amount of controversy. The trouble is for many churches online worship was born of necessity during the pandemic and now pastors and churchgoers are struggling with understanding how this new digital worship fits within the roles of the Church. I remember a professor telling me that what is truly important to creating a worship experience is the question, “Why are you doing what you are doing?” He went on to say that if we have a clear vision for why we are doing what we are doing we will never loose focus on God. Yet, so many churches have– now that many pandemic restrictions are easing– have never seen a clear vision for the digital media they are creating and so it sits in the purgatory of questionable church practice. If I am going to help solve the tech dilemma (well at least for myself) I need to begin with asking what is the point of a worship service?

What is Worship?

I think worship has at least three key components: individual healing and growth in the Spirit, community healing and growth in the Spirit, and fellowship as the body. The worship time is multifaceted allowing a person to find the healing and growth that person needs as well as a place within the community we call the body of Christ. A worship service needs to be planned so that every individual who walks through the door has the opportunity to connect to God and the community. Worship fails when it does anything other than this (for example holds to a style that is foreign to the people or focuses too much on the people on the stage). Within this basic framework any number of creative decisions can be made to help us achieve our purposes within our own cultural reality. But, the 21st century has opened a door which is almost entirely without precedent in the life of the church a digital service. I say almost entirely because we have lived with the reality of televised and radio broadcasts for the better part of a century, but these are not perfect analogies since the reality of life online is significantly different from that of television. So can we create a legitimate online worship experience.

Digital Worship, Fair or Foul?

The question then is, “Can this new digital worship meet the spiritual needs of those at home or is it providing people with a false sense of worship and simply leaving them hungry, like smells dinner without actually eating?” Obviously, elements such as baptism, communion, and laying on of hands for prayer cannot be done digitally; for that reason we must recognize that digital worship is on some level inferior to traditional in-person services. These elements along with personal interaction are not merely additions to the worship surface they are essential elements providing us with profound connections to God. It is possible, for instance, to have individuals provide their own communion elements at home, however part of the reality of communion is the coming together implied in the name. There was nothing wrong with Buzz Aldrin taking communion on the moon by himself however the idea and the ideal is to celebrate together. This same principle applies to the new digital worship, and because some of these elements of worship are dulled we must recognize that digital worship is inherently inferior to and in-person worship experience. Yet this does not mean that a digital worship service has no value and cannot be a valuable piece in a person’s journey with God. And so the question is not, “is digital worship good”, the question is, “how do we use digital worship as one piece in the life of a believer connecting to God?” Or, put another way, how do we supplement digital worship in such a way that it becomes a valuable piece in the lives of those who cannot, for whatever reason, join the in-person gathering?

Making the Most of the Situation

In discussions of digital services it is easy to get caught up in what they cannot do for people and to be rather dismissive. Such a mindset is nothing new in the Church Acts 11 shows many Apostles and Church leaders showing a similar mindset as Peter explains why he baptized Gentiles. Our mentality (and this is not inherently bad) is to rely on the conventions which we know God has worked through in the past. Tradition teaches us how God has moved in humanity and we should be quick to conform to those standards while slow to adopt the new and revolutionary. But when the new is presented to us we should take time to think about how it can be incorporated into what exists. This principle holds true for digital worship; it does not conform to the received idea of worship and so it must be cautiously adopted– but it should be adopted. Digital worship provides people a connection to their church when other connections are not practical. Digital worship occupies that nebulous grey area helpful but not ideal. But to be helpful churches must be proactive with those worshiping at home. I remember early on in the pandemic I watched a digital service from a local multi-site megachurch and it was a combination of ’80’s MTV and TedTalk. I had very limited ability to participate in worship and frankly if that is a church’s digital worship experience it should be scrapped. By contrast I have also participated in digital worship with the congregations of some of my friends and the experience was far better. This is what they did right and how their worship experiences differed and were more authentic. First the music was not staged to look like a concert, it was a genuine reflection of the community of faith. Also in some way I had access to the music being sung and could sing with the congregation. [This is done in a number of ways from an ebulletin, to projecting the words on the screen]. The same is true of times of prayer, just like those worshiping in the service I was able to join in the liturgy– the prayers, responses, etc. I also was greeted by these congregations, that is if I commented on the post someone liked and responded. These are all important elements to being part of the service. In the reality of digital worship it is good to text in church. It is good for congregants to take some time to greet those worshiping online the same way people greet one another worshiping in-person. It is important for the church to have a way to contact those who interact with the online worship and to have a private place for church members to interact online [my church does it through a Facebook group]. All of this brings people closer to the communal elements of a traditional worship experience. None of this is an adequate replacement and so those participating solely in digital worship need additional resources, perhaps home visits or at least phone calls, so they can feel connected to the congregation as a whole. Those who are worshiping digitally must recognize how their worship experience is diminished and that they need to supplement these services with more authentic community. Anyone who worships digitally frequently must be in contact with a pastor, small group leader, or other mature believer to help ensure that the church understands the situation and is more attentive to the person’s needs. Just like we take extra and dedicated time to call a family member who cannot make an event and everyone stops to focus on that person, so it is in a church when a brother or sister cannot attend our weekly family gathering. Digital worship is a new reality in the world, it is both a witness to those outside the church and a tool for those who cannot be present, but we must use it carefully or it will become a snare preventing people from worship.

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