Paul L. Caron

Sunday, August 15, 2021

What We Lose When We Livestream Church

New York Times op-ed:  What We Lose When We Livestream Church, by Collin Hansen (Editor-in-Chief, The Gospel Coalition; co-author, Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ Is Essential (2021)):

RediscoverT]he body of Christ, or church, isn’t the same when you separate its members (1 Cor. 12:27). The hands and feet and ears and eyes need to be assembled for this body to work for the good of all.

Christians need to hear the babies crying in church. They need to see the reddened eyes of a friend across the aisle. They need to chat with the recovering drug addict who shows up early but still sits in the back row. They need to taste the bread and wine. They need to feel the choir crescendo toward the assurance of hope in what our senses can’t yet perceive. My daughter needs to know the church members, even if it means wearing masks and setting up lawn chairs in a parking deck.

This all would seem to suggest that “virtual church” is an oxymoron. But when Covid-19 forced congregations to go remote and turned pastors into tech gurus, some churches even welcomed the change. You can understand the logic. Even the biggest church buildings could never accommodate a fraction of the potential audience for livestreamed services. Early in the pandemic, pastors touted online viewer numbers that dwarfed even their best-attended Christmas and Easter services.

Viewed this way, the pandemic didn’t temporarily sidetrack churches. It introduced a revolution in religion. The internet tears down nearly every previous hindrance to church attendance. You can watch from your lake house or the hotel room before your daughter’s travel soccer game. You don’t need to tune in at any given time. You can flex around your sleep or work schedule.

The logic extends, however, beyond what some churches want to acknowledge. Livestreaming is more than a little too convenient. You don’t even need to watch your own church’s services. You can drop in on that church across town you’ve always wondered about. Or even the church on the other side of the country, or in a different country. Why visit any churches in person before you’ve at least watched several online? Why bother with any one church at all? Watch the sermon over here and the music over there. Change it up the next week. Or skip a week. Or two. No one will notice the blip in the analytics. ...

As churches prepare for the start of fall programming, leaders debate whether or not they should turn off the livestream, especially if the Delta variant doesn’t abate. Livestream technology will almost certainly prevail in a majority of churches. ...

Church leaders who pull the livestream plug will face stiff resistance. They will be accused of acting in self-interest, because they know livestream viewers are not likely to donate much money. And church leaders coming off the political, pandemic and racial divisions of 2020 through the first half of 2021 won’t be eager to pick new fights. It’s much easier to let the livestream status quo continue, even if it means fewer volunteers and fewer resources for already overburdened leaders.

But this is a fight they must not duck. Because assembly is still required. The very word we translate from Greek as “church” in the New Testament suggests we must assemble in person. The church wasn’t just a bridge of 2,000 years until humanity reached Peak Zoom. It’s essential for the religion where God took on flesh and dwelt among us. It’s essential in a faith that believes Jesus physically rose from the dead and then sat down to enjoy a meal with his stunned friends.

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