Attending church virtually became as common as mandates and rapid tests over the course of the past two years. Churches pivoted and adapted to the changing landscape that Covid-19 created, and many embraced technology to connect people virtually. This has been a saving grace for all of us. During strict lockdowns we were able to continue our practice of meeting together, albeit in a different format. It was, we have to admit, not ideal – we missed the handshakes and hugs, we missed words spoken over us as we took the bread and wine, we missed the beauty of music as we sang together. For all its shortcomings, however, I believe there is much to be celebrated.
Who is my neighbour?
In light of the recent decline in covid cases and lifting of restrictions, an op-ed article in the New York Times suggested that it is time to end these online services and get everyone back in the pews (‘Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services’, January 30, 2022). Tish Harrison Warren, the author, states, “Now I think it’s time to drop the virtual option. And I think this for the same reason I believed churches should go online back in March 2020: This is the way to love God and our neighbours.”
While I appreciate the sentiment of the need to meet together as the body of Christ to share in our worship, liturgies and teachings in the presence of other human beings, I think the author failed to recognize the reasons why virtual church needs to remain and how this might be a more inclusive form of loving our neighbours. The author’s viewpoint reveals the way the church has failed to embrace the suffering ones, the ones weighed down by pain, disabilities and other limitations. These are the people who will be left behind when we discontinue virtual church. It sends the message that we are not about caring for the vulnerable and leaves the suffering ones on the scrap heap of success-driven Christianity.
Church for the marginalized
There has always been a portion of our local church body who are unable to join us in corporate worship. For years they have existed on the fringes of our faith communities. They have restricted their movements and stayed home because their immune systems required it, or because of the barriers they faced. This is their daily reality which some of us are only now beginning to understand.
Our current situation has revealed ways we have marginalized those who suffer, those prevented from attending church or participating in ways we view as “normal.” During these Covid times they have finally been included; they experienced church in the same way as the rest of us. To cut off their access to virtual church at this point is to say in effect, “you do not matter.” These ones who have often felt left behind, on the margins, are the very people we need to be most mindful of. Jesus, as he walked this earth, sought out these very ones. In His parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus says, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Safe approaches to worship
“Church hurt” has been the subject of many recent articles and books. Abuses of power within the church such as the ongoing saga of Mars Hill and The Meeting House, and the problems plaguing the Hillsong organization, have recently been exposed. There are a significant number of the walking wounded within our church communities. For many of these, entering a church can be emotionally triggering and harmful. Having the option to explore a new church without having to physically enter the space has been a godsend for those suffering from injuries inflicted by fellow believers and church leaders. Virtual church acts as a buffer for the hurting, providing a safe opportunity to participate.
Churches are often ill-equipped to care for children with special needs which can exclude parents from attending. These needs can include physical, developmental, behavioural/emotional or sensory impairments. The parents are often exhausted, isolated and desperate. Coming to church in person might not be an option for the safety of their own child and others. Nursery and childcare workers rarely have the training required to deal with the unique needs of these children. Having an option to attend church virtually gives these parents the opportunity to participate without having to do the exhausting work of advocating for their child after a full week of doing so elsewhere, and without feeling judgment and fear from other parents.
The prophet Isaiah has said, “build up, build up, prepare the road. Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people.” Could it be that streaming church services has been an answer to this call? We have successfully removed some of the barriers facing millions of Christians and have made space for them to participate in the local Body of Christ. Virtual church has paved the way for the vulnerable to be included and to remove this service would be detrimental for so many. In the words of disability theologian, Tanya Barlow, “the disabled and housebound, the neurodiverse, the single mothers and shift workers have all been included in church for the first time during the pandemic, because the rest needed online church. To now be excluded is ableism.” I would add it would amount to a blatant rejection of these the beloved of God. Keeping our eyes on the most at-risk, the physically challenged and the hurting and continuing to provide for them in this way becomes a way to love them and Jesus well.
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