At the beginning of the pandemic, lots of pastors were worrying about the future of the church as congregations began contemplating live stream strategies, online Bible studies, and virtual communion.
Everyone had an opinion. Progressive-minded Christians were open to new possibilities and wondered if this would open the door to a new kind of church. Traditionalists and conservatives were worried. “If we compromise and start going down the path of virtual church, and people like it so much, they will expect this from now on.” The theologians, pastors, and social apologists were either in a state of panic about the downfall of the church or the rise of a new model.
That was April. Now it’s August, and what I discovered has surprised me: People don’t like online church. At first, I thought it was just me, but I have heard the same from so many people.
Online church is a shadow of the real thing.
The Failure of Convenience
I will admit it. The first few Sundays were nice. My wife and I slept in. We had a casual morning with the kids. Breakfast was easy. We tuned into the children’s Sunday School Zoom meeting at 10:00. We didn’t need to get in the car. We didn’t have to hear the well-known words from the kids that came anytime I was strapping them in the car seat. If you are a parent you know what I mean, the inconveniently-timed statement from a kid: “I need to poop.”
I was so glad not to have to deal with kids that always needed something every time we would get ready to start the car and head to church. It felt so go not to be late, pulling into the parking lot in a frenzy, hoping no one would notice the food stains from my son’s breakfast on my shirt.
Well, the ease of Sunday mornings quickly became the beginnings of a dreary day. We missed church. Our kids missed their Sunday school class and friends. We missed being in the presence of other Christians. I missed the songs, the rituals, the sermons, the prayers, the consistent rhythms and patterns of our Anglican church that made Sundays different from the rest of the week.
Sure, I tried watching online, but it wasn’t the same. The whole experience was alienating. My wife and I were distracted. This online experiment in social distance has even made God feel distant.
Some Christians will hear this and wonder if maybe I am too institutionalized, relying upon rituals and organized religion rather than the Holy Spirit. But this misses the point. I was still hobbling along in my Christian walk. I still prayed and read the Bible. I still talked to people on Zoom. But I missed the presence of others and the presence of God giving himself in ordinary bread and wine.
This online church experiment has made it clear to me that so many of us Christians like the old ways. We don’t want virtual communion. We don’t want a church that is convenient or easy.
We want an inconvenient church that challenges us to strive in our faith and love. We want an inconvenient church that forces us to build relationships. We want an inconvenient church where the pastor can see if we are falling asleep during the sermon, or energized and encouraged by the words. We want an inconvenient church because we want an inconvenient Christianity, the kind in which Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).
Right now with everything that is going on in this country—a pandemic with an uncertain future, a movement for racial justice and police reform, economic instability which seems to be leading to more homelessness and poverty—I hope that many of us will embrace an inconvenient Christianity that gives no easy answers and calls us to invest ourselves in the lives of others, bringing peace and love that leads to change.
A convenient Christianity can never do this. And while some of our churches are still shut down because of the pandemic, I hope that we can see this temporary situation is a way for us to learn what is really valuable about the church and why the historic practices of an ancient Christianity is the kind of Christianity that can shape us and mold us to lean into the difficulties of life to fight for the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Although I am really glad that my church has used online means to help us have some sense of our historic faith through these trying times, I am also looking forward to returning to the old ways.
But here is the tension. I’m happy to embrace the inconvenience of church in the middle of a pandemic.
We can’t be under the illusion that the church can return to normal as if people’s lives aren’t really at stake, because they are. I’m happy to embrace the inconvenience of wearing a mask as churches beginning to open up here in California. Sacrifice, love, concern for the sick and the poor—these are basic. To disregard love in my desire to return to in-person worship misses a key lesson of the essence of historic Christianity: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
The whole point of our doctrine is that it would lead us to love God and love people, to care for the vulnerable as God cares for the vulnerable, not to put the convenience of my worship experience above the needs of my neighbor.
Think about how connected justice and worship were in the Old Testament. God doesn’t want worship that lacks a basic love and concern for the most vulnerable:
“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21–24)
If I have learned anything in this time, it’s this: God calls us to embrace the difficult path of love.