A recent article in The Christian Post gives a précis of a blog post by Canadian pastor Carey Nieuwhof, under the rather alarming title ‘Nearly half of churchgoers say they haven’t watched any online service in past 4 weeks’. The headline information, that ‘48% of churchgoers reported that they had not watched any church online in the last four weeks’, would seem to challenge the prevalent idea that online church is an effective way of engaging parishioners.
Nieuwhof disagrees. His original blog post is full of jargon and examples taken from the world of internet startups, on which he has obviously modelled some aspects of his ministry. ‘It’s foolish to ignore the fact that people connect more easily online and often admit the truth more readily online than they do in-person’, says Nieuwhof in defence of his argument that ‘churches in the future will become digital organizations with physical expressions, not physical organizations with a digital presence’.
Let us for a moment ignore the fact that Nieuwhof misrepresents the Stanford Magazine article he cites as evidence (which in fact says that online communication is likely to be more honest only with people whom we personally know and regularly interact with offline), and that the statistics on poor online church attendance that Nieuwhof himself cites belie the idea that online church is likely to be the way of the future, and say for the sake of argument that his thesis is correct. In a Nieuwhofian world of primarily online church, what will we necessarily lose?
One of the first things to be sacrificed, I argue, will be the ability to truly love our neighbours as Christ has commanded us.
Certainly, as many have argued, ‘the Church is the people’. This argument has of late been uncritically bandied about by many for whom the physical presence of church buildings, and, one dreads to think, of their fellow parishioners, is superfluous or even antithetical to spiritual progress. However, to merely say that ‘the Church is the people’ misses the fundamental point: people exist in physical space, and their physical dimension cannot be elided or altogether dispensed with – as Jesus’ incarnation could not be dispensed with if humanity was to be redeemed. We are composed of both soul and body, and so ‘matter matters’.
The truth is, it’s remarkably easy to love our neighbour in the abstract, when their physicality is either totally unseen and unfelt, or safely confined to a small bit of glass in one corner of our homes. As much as we might think of them or pray for them (as of course we should at this and indeed at all times) they are in a very real sense removed from us. If we are not careful, then it becomes not our actual neighbour – George or Mary in both their glory and in all their human frailty, as God has created them – that we come to love, but rather our own sanitised conception of them: aspects of ourselves projected onto the image of our neighbour – if we even know what they look like.
It is more difficult – and perhaps ultimately more efficacious for our spiritual progress – to be confronted at least once a week with the ‘otherness’ of others: the quirky, or infelicitous, or occasionally downright uncongenial habits and mannerisms of those whom God has sent us to worship with and to serve amongst. In physical space, one cannot ‘turn off’ one’s neighbour to hide from the duty (and, often, the joy) of learning to live with them, and, ultimately, to love them.
Online church necessarily elides or dispenses with most of the physical dimension of worship, including the presence of our neighbours. The people are literally not present to each other during the act of worship. Indeed, we are not even sharing the same experience of worship, as we do when physically gathered in our church buildings. It is not as a corporate body that we gather for online worship – the Church as the people, as one body – but as individual bodies.
Another aspect of loving our neighbour that we lose is of course service to our neighbour, who may not even be part of the congregation of our church. Online ‘church’ as it is commonly practised seems to be primarily for the benefit of individual attendees. Focusing on our individual online attendance or our individual prayer life – on the Church as atomised, individual people rather than a corporate body of the people – risks ourselves becoming myopic, cliquish and clericalist.
Many churches are taking steps to burst the bubble of splendid isolation that online church can tempt us to indulge in. Phoning up elderly or isolated individuals whom we know from church is certainly admirable and ought to be done. Food banks are able to continue under current government guidelines. Clergy are heroically providing pastoral care as best they can in these trying circumstances. However, there is little indication that we are reaching new people with these activities, which still rely either on the strength of social connections formed by physically interacting with individuals pre-pandemic, or on continuing to meet people in the flesh, albeit at a social distance. These vital activities are happening despite church being online, not because of it.
Online church, far from democratising attendance and broadening the pool of those able to participate in the corporate and sacramental aspects of worship, may instead circumscribe our ability to serve members of the wider community who are unknown to us, or who cannot access our online services.
If the commandments Jesus gave us were meant to be lived – and there can be little doubt that that is what he intended – then they must be physically lived. They must truly become incarnate through our actions. Online church may be a temporary stopgap (albeit a highly unsatisfactory one, if Nieuwhof’s statistics are to be believed), but physical space and physical presence cannot be dispensed with if we are to remain a church.
Nieuwhof’s argument is fundamentally about scale – another internet business buzzword. And indeed, scale is the most salient feature of the internet, which is designed to disseminate information and to facilitate transactions. Its possibilities for evangelisation should therefore not be discounted. We can and should use online means to draw people towards Christian belief, and into our real-world church communities. But to argue that a church community itself can be fostered or sustained wholly or even mostly online is necessarily to violate our primary charge as Christians: to love our neighbour, body and soul.
Charlotte Gauthier is a historian whose research focuses on late-medieval conceptions of ‘Christendom’ and the effect of the crusades on church, state and society in fifteenth-century England. Her professional background is in newspapers, where she led teams researching how readers make sense of information they find online.