” I can’t talk right now; I’m at church,” I told my mother when she called me up on a Sunday morning in March.
I wasn’t lying, though admittedly I could have been a bit clearer. I was actually sitting upright in my bed, watching a streaming video of my pastor preaching about God’s forgiveness.
There was worship. There was prayer. There was a message. Arguably the comment section of the video stream was a form of fellowship. Except for my lack of pants, what I was experiencing had all the constituent parts of church, though I was sitting in my bedroom.
I went through all the steps, but it just didn’t feel like church.
Perhaps I was distracted by the sheer novelty of it – the first of what would ultimately be several coronavirus church services relegated to the internet. In general, looking at a screen-sized image of a place makes you an outsider in a way that you aren’t by immersing yourself in a sanctuary.
If this virtual service was a test of faith, I failed.
I was better by the second service I took in electronically. I made a point of approaching it with more formality and better insulating myself from distractions.
I was able to connect with God as I would through prayer, though the experience was still too similar to streaming a movie on Netflix for my liking.
I’m not one of these people who reject the use of technology in places of worship. I attend a Pentecostal church, after all, so I’m invariably comfortable with sound systems and projected lyrics on screens (my apologies to the Catholic and Anglican readers – truly).
As someone who spends more time on my smartphone and computer than I’d like to admit, this isn’t about me being a luddite. I simply think some things can’t be replaced with an electronic version without losing something vital to their essence.
Screens in the church? Sure. Church on a screen? I’m still working through this one.
If the only way to hear the sermon is through a webcast, it’s certainly better than nothing.
While God exists inside and outside of physical churches, and his word can technically be shared across time and space via the internet, there’s no substitute for the real thing.
Catholic readers are surely unsurprised by this, having long known that the absence of the Eucharist is the absence of the Mass itself. As a Protestant, I hoped it would just work itself out and I would feel the Holy Spirit the way I’ve always known.
Church doesn’t need to be a building: The Bible is pretty clear on that. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” we read in Matthew. I’d have to check the footnotes but I’m not sure if the King James version makes exceptions for pandemics or allows for gatherings to take place in a Facebook group chat.
It’s entirely possible the feeling of incompleteness I experienced was a reckoning with how the world itself was changing at that very moment. The shuttering of churches’ physical doors went along with closures of restaurants, recreation facilities, many stores, not to mention all of the travel disruptions and cancellations.
While relatively assured of my own health, I still took to heart the ubiquitous calls for social distancing to protect those in my community. Despite often craving alone time, it feels very different when ordered by executive fiat.
In the church, just as in society itself, isolation can lead to alienation.
In the midst of all that chaos, there was nowhere I wanted to be more than at church. Instead, we were all confronted by with the earthliness of church buildings and the mortality of our Christian brethren.
It was only a year ago that Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris erupted in flames, and countless essays and columns put forth the idea that, tragic as the church’s blaze was, it didn’t incinerate faith itself.
Whenever a house of worship endures a tragedy there tends to be resilience from its flock, despite the impermanence of bricks and mortar.
I expect the same resilience to carry us through public health emergencies to come (though I hope they will be few and far between). The lesson is to never lose the community and fellowship that accompany our practice of faith.