Against Online Church
Hawaiian Punch and crackers aren't an appropriate substitution...
Written by Zoomer Enoch
There was something fun about it, wasn’t there? If your long-term memory hasn’t completely collapsed over the last two years, do you remember those first few weeks of online events? Your boomer church elders leaving their microphones on? You texting the boys about what you see in the background of so-and-so’s camera?
For the first bit, it also made sense; even those most skeptical of the power of the virus were in unknown waters at the start. With the simple goal of “bending the curve”, or “two weeks to slow the spread”, or whatever other slogan that was beaten into your skull, it actually made sense.
This move online then included the most visceral experience Christians participate in, on a regular basis: church. While my brothers in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions probably felt this a bit more than I did initially, with my church tradition, everybody felt it. My home church fumbled through Zooms for a few weeks, those weeks then turned into months, and those months turned into almost a year straight of “online church” (if you are even allowed to put those two words next to one another). Like many other things that have broken down across society, the decline in church attendance (I refuse to include watching a service from home as ‘attendance’) was exacerbated and accelerated over the last two years.
Over drinks recently, I celebrated with some friends that the wheat might finally be separating from the chaff in the West, but there was probably more nuance there than my tipsy-self realized at the time… The root of the issue is that this reckoning was going to happen whether the virus had entered the picture or not. While, as a Protestant and a descendant of the Reformation, I do believe in the necessity of the Protestant outlook, but I may also see something like “Paleo-Protestantism” as a more suitable direction for Protestants like me to move in, especially for navigating the times ahead (bare with me here).
With the absolute cultural saturation of the consumer mindset and consumer culture in the West, the Church has said “yes dear” to all of those who wish to make the Christian experience as hyper-individualized as their sexuality. Now this outlook has stuck its little fingers in many more places in the individual and the society, beyond the Church, but it’s been able to affect the Church so deeply because of just how deep the ocean of consumption that we all happen to swim in goes.
Generally, the rise of the consumer class, post-WWII, has led to an outlook that makes Christians see church-going the same way that they might see selecting lunch options from a mall food court, rather than seeing church as a place where you go to be shaped. When the Church can be shaped to someone’s personal outlooks and [consumer] preferences (which are sinful and warped by said sin), the outcome is an incorrect understanding of what the Church is actually for…
Now before the Apostolic pitchforks start rising, I can actually blame Protestantism specifically for this one—in part, at least. There has been a slow march ever since, more or less Zwingli’s era, where bits and pieces of the historic Church were abstracted from their visceral, ‘bone of my bone’ understandings, and then moved into the realm of the heavenlies, or even yet, into our brains.
Even dialing the aperture back from Church specifically, this is a sickness that has actually infected the online right for years at this point, and we don’t even have a virus to blame it on... Many sources that I read like to talk about ‘brotherhood’, building and creating ‘networks’, forming ‘parallel institutions’, and so on, but what has this really resulted in? Yes, things like Basket Weaving have begun to create inroads in local communities, but a vast majority of those online still don’t participate in any visceral community building, even when we’re the first to tell people to go “touch grass” (… but I digress).
An initial encounter that I had with this sort of intellectual gnostic abstraction of Church praxis then, was at a Bible camp that I volunteered at. In short, the final evening of camp culminated in my co-leader handing out Hawaiian Punch and crackers to our fellow campers (at least a quarter of whom I was pretty sure weren’t saved, but were just at camp to try and snipe babes)...
The slow devolution of the Lord’s Supper could probably have a whole textbook written about it, but I use this example to think of what is happening to the Church more generally, outside of but also including, how we view the sacraments. With the abstraction of the Lord’s Supper from actual participation in the body and blood of Christ, to now some sort of brief weekly exercise in metaphorical and intellectual ascent, the rest of the Church surely could follow, and move on from this ancient idea of “participation” in Church, couldn’t it? After all, the Apostles couldn’t foresee Web3.0, right?
Locally, for myself, the restrictions are now over, and our church is free to do as it wishes with the blessing of the PHO (public health officials)… But the people aren’t back... There are many reasons that I’ve heard conjured up; people have “become busy” on Sunday mornings, or have “other obligations”, or aren’t “in the habit” anymore. The list continues, but what if these people don’t come back to church simply because we have no reason for them to come?
As at least partially a gospel issue, how could we teach anything other than a flesh and blood Church, when even a cursory glance down the halls of church history paints a starkly ‘in-person’ picture? One need only to skim the stories of martyrs or saints, read a liturgy, or read any of the gospels (you know, the part where God became man and came to us in-person) to understand that we don’t have any other option but to respond in a like manner.
With most popular churches now pushing every opportunity for the laity to participate away, as more and more are hired full-time to be your child’s babysitter while you listen to semi-professional soft rock, where in the entire equation of the modern evangelical church is your presence actually necessary? I mean hell, gas is $2/litre (In Canada), and you get to “watch” (note, not participate in) church whenever you see fit, with instantaneous YouTube replays of the service from that morning… Maybe a good barometer for your own home church is if you can actually go and not say or do anything all morning. You can’t hear your voice over the speakers anyway, so why sing?
However, there is no easy epic IAA READER DESTROYS EVANGELICAL THEOLOGY solution here (not from me, at least). Working our way out of the participatory gap we’ve created for ourselves will take just as long to get out of as it took to get in, if the calculus works the way it should. But if you understand why being a body apart from the Body is a matter of concern, then do tell your friends. Some of them might just need a cheeky poke in order to see them again on a Sunday morning… I’ll have more to say on ‘Paleo-Protestantism’ at another time, but helping your brethren stay on track is probably a part of it... Meanwhile, I’ve also been petitioning my Elders (with success) to STOP livestreaming/recording services in order to force people off of their couches and gamer chairs. There are small ways to get people back in the door. I leave the rest to you though; to remind your Brother over coffee time why they indeed need to stay.