Gregory E. Reynolds
“Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12).
There is nothing like my black raspberries in early July. The ones I get from the grocery store are good, but the first-hand experience of picking and eating my own is much more satisfying. So, the mediated connection with other people, especially people we love, whether by phone or teleconferencing, is good in certain circumstances, but nothing can replace their actual presence. The apostle John felt this keenly as we all do each Lord’s Day during this time of coronavirus. I will use the word “actual” to refer to our physical presence in gathering for worship. I do so because worship is an act, an act of bowing and adoring our Lord body and soul: “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!” (Ps. 95:6). Worship is an act of the whole person which cannot be done mediated by a screen. The present necessity is like John’s paper and ink—better than nothing—but making us long for a better day. As we shall see teleconferencing platforms are unsuitable for worship and preaching.
Permanent self-isolation would be a denial of the incarnation. This has been an increasing problem in the church ever since the internet became a household reality in the 1990s. The First Church of Cyberspace was a pioneer in this sad folly. We live in the midst of many who believe we can lead disembodied lives. This present crisis will only tend to fuel the fire of radical individualism and enable cybergnosticism—living in cyberspace as if without a body. The writer of Hebrews warned of this tendency long before the electronic environment: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24–25). My pastor and another nearby, whose Lord’s Day presentation I have viewed, have done their very best, given the weaknesses of the various electronic means of communicating, to feed their congregations. I believe this is true throughout our communion. For this I am grateful.
Having studied the phenomena of electronically mediated church since 1990, when TV ministry was all the rage, I have been critical of many of the ways the church has unreflectively used electronic media. But now not only is this version of the coronavirus novel, but so also is my experience of live streaming church meetings each Lord’s Day. Experiencing almost two months of tuning in to virtual church presentations made me think that it might be helpful to share some of my reflections on the benefits and liabilities of such presentations both to immunize church officers to the temptation to have such meetings regularly and to help them appreciate why it is so good to gather for corporate worship each Lord’s Day.
On the spectrum of responses to the sudden need to have something available each Lord’s Day to the church during the COVID shutdown are two poles of approach: those who have a devotional via audio or video prepared beforehand and those who live stream something close to a full liturgy, and in a few cases in the church building, and even with a few people (in line with local and state requirements). My experience is with a live streamed liturgy reduced essentially to confession, assurance of pardon, preaching, and prayer. The fact that we as a presbytery and local church do not do this very well speaks highly of our commitment to corporate gathering for public worship because it means that we have no experience with live streaming any church meetings. And because we know one another as a small congregation, the live streaming is probably more meaningful than if we had never met or were a large group.
However, using backgrounds, having proper lighting, using the full screen to block out distractions, and practicing a host of other more technical aspects of live-streaming in particular, require experience and the proper knowledge required of the speaker and the audience on how to use the Zoom application. Paying better attention to these things helps to mitigate the negatives of a medium that is in itself essentially unsuitable for worship. I recommend Zoom over other live-stream applications because it is free for the limited use we will make of it. And, unlike Facebook or other social platforms, you do not have to join the platform to join the meeting. With Go-To-Meeting one must subscribe for a fee in order to use the system settings, so those who join the meeting are not able to have backgrounds to filter out what’s happening in the viewer’s home. There may be other platforms that are being used that are better than Zoom, but this is one I am experiencing in my local church, presbytery, and its committees.
The efficiency of such platforms as Zoom in terms of cost and convenience will tempt many, even in Reformed churches, to make this a standard practice at some level. In our general culture we already see the temporary being made permanent. Twitter is letting its employees work from home permanently. Consider these statements by evangelical pastors recently interviewed by Sarah Zylstra for the Gospel Coalition:
“I think the Lord is showing us a new strategy, if we’d just pay attention,” he said. He’s seen unexpected fruit from the online worship he never wanted to have—members watching services at home with unbelieving family members, more people in more small groups, a higher number in the discipleship class for new people.
“There hasn’t been a [ministry] retreat at all,” Mabry said. “I think this is a strategy God wants us to hang on to.”
Even though I believe that OPC officers and people will be less tempted, we should never take that for granted in rapidly changing times. The Lord’s Day worship hill is the one I am prepared to die on; but I would also argue strongly that a lack of personal presence in all sorts of meeting and teaching venues is an impoverishment.
There are two fundamental errors that I wish to address at the outset. First, the idea that the introduction of electronic media is the same as the introduction of other technologies in history, such as the printing press. Recently a prominent evangelical leader wrote that
For centuries faith has flourished when technology could meet spiritual need. The Gutenberg Bible transformed Christianity, combining a hunger for faith and disdain for hierarchy with the printing press. … Necessity has sparked innovation during the coronavirus outbreak as well. Recently a church in Nashville, Tenn., offered drive-through communion, distributing consecrated bread to congregants in their cars. … Ministries also have shifted from physical spaces to digital platforms. Online viewers at First Baptist Church in Dallas, for example, surged from 50,000 before the coronavirus outbreak to over 200,000.
There is a vast difference between the cultural effect of the printing press and the electronic environment, even though both media inventions radically changed culture. Canadian scholar Arthur Boers observes that modern technological change is unique in five ways: 1) Change is occurring at an unprecedented rate, leaving little time to adapt discerningly, and thus technology is overpowering culture. By contrast the change from handwritten manuscripts to the printed word took several centuries. 2) Change is artificial, separating us from nature and the real world. Matthew Crawford demonstrates the importance of the integration of manual and mental competence for living in the actual world. Wendell Berry contends that the Bible is an “outdoor book.” 3) Change is pervasive, dominating everything from communication to irons, restaurants to family. It tends to intrude on vacations and the Sabbath. 4) Change is not related to personal skills; rather, change is marked by such things as self-driving cars and automated airplanes. In contrast, on January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed an Airbus A320 in New York’s freezing Hudson River by human skill that no automated system, at least at the time, could replicate. 5) Change demands universal conformity, tending to eradicate the unique, local, and diverse. The title of James Howard Kunstler’s book emphasizes this point relative to our built environment: The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape.
That leads me to the second error, the idea that all technologies are simply tools. Because various technologies are designed with certain functions and consequences in mind, each has a genius of its own, a suitability to a particular purpose or purposes. There are, of course, also unintended consequences. The automobile was intended to make travel more efficient and far reaching, but it also disintegrated the social structures of family and community. In analyzing the new electronic environment and its devices, a good steward of technology will become familiar with both the intended and unintended influences and consequences of human inventions.
Suitability is a useful lens for the wise assessment of various technologies. A hymn would not be suitable music with which to begin a baseball game; just as a Sousa march would be unsuitable as an opening hymn in worship. Television is suitable for drama because it captivates us with faces and visual stories. This is why Neil Postman argues, I think convincingly, that television is not suitable for preaching or worship. It diminishes the transcendence of God while amplifying the importance of the preacher.
So, we come to the question of the suitability of a live-streaming application like Zoom, which is the platform I have experienced regularly for church meetings since the stay-at-home orders in March. Some of us have a problem with calling them worship services. While live streaming is, I believe, unsuitable for many things, its place in education, business, and elsewhere should be discussed in term of suitableness and also with an eye to what is lost in the absence of actual human presence. This will vary at various times and in different situations. Being able to see a loved one in a nursing home or the hospital when it is not possible for a physical visit is a great blessing. Not being part of an actual community in learning or business may not be.
One caution: we must be careful in this fluid, and hopefully temporary, situation to be generous in assessing the practices of various churches in response to this pandemic. This is why my remarks in this article are called “reflections.” While I hope to articulate principles rooted in God’s Word which we can all affirm, I do not expect everyone to agree with every detail of my analysis, especially of the liabilities of virtual church meetings. I am also limited in terms of the kind of virtual platform I have become familiar with as well as the particular form and content of the presentation at the church of which I am part.
In such a time as this we would simply be unable to meet without virtual conferencing platforms or some form of electronic communication. And if churches actually met as usual during a pandemic, many more deaths would likely occur. It is also my opinion that with people we know well face to face, seeing them mediated via a screen is helpful, perhaps similar to the way that carrying a picture of one’s family is meaningful while traveling.
Modern electronic technologies have made possible the analysis of a virus like COVID-19, the rapid manufacture of medical materials, the gathering and analysis of data, and communication of information and guidelines that have saved many lives.
In my recent experience with Zoom, sermon discussion often took place unplanned after the meeting. This was unusual because everyone heard the discussion and benefited from it. Ordinarily, after worship, discussion takes place one-on-one or in small groups. Of course, this may be implemented, and often has been, in the corporate setting by holding an actual meeting for just this purpose after worship. But this unintended consequence reminded me of the value of such discussions, not that we should continue using live streaming for Lord’s Day meetings.
Also, some of us have been able to attend, actually to see and hear, the evening meeting, which we, for various reasons such as distance, health, and little children, are not normally able to attend.
It has often been thought that I do not like electronic media because I engage in critical analysis. This is not true. Because we as Americans are generally positive and even enthusiastic about every new invention, I have found it important to be alert to ways in which the electronic environment diminishes and alters embodied existence and personal presence. In a fallen world our inventions always have liabilities as well as benefits. Consider atomic power.
If we examine words that we often take for granted, like congregation, corporate, or public we will be reminded that our physical presence in Lord’s Day worship is essential to the nature of worship and the visible church. The congregation congregates on the Lord’s Day. Congregate is derived from the Latin verb congregare, meaning flock together. Corporate is from the Latin corporare, to form into a body or social group. The accent on bodily or actual presence is pronounced. When we refer to the visible church and public worship we are also accenting the personal presence of a group of believers.
Since Lord’s Day public worship is a celebration of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus in history, the physical presence of gathered worshippers is an essential expression of that reality. The visible and tactile nature of the sacraments accents the embodied character of corporate worship. The Directory for the Public Worship of God of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (DW) says this eloquently, “Because God’s people worship, not as an aggregation of individuals, but as a congregation of those who are members of one another in Christ, public worship is to be conducted as a corporate activity in which all the members participate as the body of Christ” (emphasis added, DW I.B.4.d). Some may be tempted to think that the spiritual nature of public worship obviates the necessity of bodily presence. But, since Paul refers to Christ’s and our resurrected bodies as “heavenly” or “spiritual” (1 Cor. 15:40, 44–45), and Christ ate fish with the disciples after the resurrection, it seems clear that whole persons, body and soul, are called to gather for worship in space and time.
The “gallery view” in Zoom reminds me of the sixties game show Hollywood Squares, except that they were social distancing whereas we are not actually present. Individuals in little boxes are the focus rather than the corporate reality of a gathered people. With the pervasiveness of visual media we do not need one more venue in which to focus on ourselves. In “speaker view” the preacher is the visual focus, rather than God and his gathered people, as I have said above. These are the limits of screens, which can never replicate space. We view others, clustered on a screen but not actually present together. Instead of focusing on the pastor leading worship, the “gallery view” has us looking at ourselves; even in “speaker view” some viewers can see themselves, although that can be turned off. I chose to turn off the video so that a still picture of me shows up. But this is still distracting.
One of the great joys of actual gathering on the Lord’s Day is the informal, serendipitous fellowship we enjoy after worship. The screen does not allow the one-on-one of small group conversations after worship. Those who are more reserved tend to say nothing.
Live streaming is also a threat to the reality of the local church. It may tempt us to go elsewhere electronically on the Lord’s Day because the preacher is better at another site. This is a denial of the vital importance of the local assembly of God’s people with the preacher whom God has called to that place. Paul emphasizes the importance of locality when he addresses the various churches in his letters, such as “To the church of God that is in Corinth (emphasis added, 1 Cor. 1:2)”
The home environment is by its nature informal. Mediated through a screen, social and cognitive space are altered radically. The formalities of our culture have been under attack for a long time. What I call the Cult of Informality is the extreme implementation of egalitarianism, and certainly one of the weak tendencies of a democratic society. I love lose-fitting sports clothing and have not strapped a tie around my neck in nearly two months; but the way we dress should be appropriate to the various occasions of our lives. I have never worn my three-piece suit for gardening. A home is a place of refuge where informality is appropriate. Also, when we dress for church it gives us a sense of the difference and the importance of what we are doing. We are essentially paying attention to coming into the presence of the living and true God in his resplendent majesty and marvelous mercy.
In actual worship, worshippers face the minister; in Zoom we are looking at each other as I have mentioned. If the preacher fails to mute everyone, even a sneeze or a screaming child will take center stage momentarily. Also, even when muted, if viewers do not use backgrounds, everyone sees the many ordinary things that go on in a home: children and pets walking through rooms, people reaching for coffee across the kitchen table, the chiming of clocks; all of these draw our attention away from what is supposed to be holding our attention. Also, we can turn ourselves off at will and walk away. With this medium we tend to lose our focus and the seriousness of worship is diminished. We are naturally distracted; worshipping in a single space with one another minimizes distraction and enhances our sense of mutual accountability. Fortunately the sensibilities we have formed over many years of actual worship will, I believe, enable us to endure this temporary challenge with its temptations.
Nothing reveals the unsuitableness of streaming church meetings more than the physical impossibility of the elements of worship. Some elements like preaching, the assurance of pardon, and fellowship are seriously impaired and awkward; other elements such as singing, corporate confession of sin and faith, the offering, and especially the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are impossible. Not being in the same space, especially with varying qualities of microphones and internet connections, conjoin to undermine true worship and preaching.
Our Directory for the Public Worship of God reminds us of what Scripture teaches concerning the administration of the sacraments:
Because the sacraments are ordinances of Christ for the benefit of the visible church, they are to be administered only under the oversight of the government of the church. Moreover, in ordinary circumstances they are properly administered only in a gathering of the congregation for the public worship of God …” (DW II.A.4.b)
Many have asked about having the Lord’s Supper administered virtually. Because the sacraments include physical elements and the physical actions of the minister of the Word, they require our presence body and soul. The sacraments are part of the worship of the gathered congregation and “under the oversight of the government of the church.” This is not possible virtually.
Evangelism is made more difficult with platforms that require a meeting identification number and password. While unbelievers may be invited, they cannot simply attend. Churches with livestreaming coming directly from their website have the advantage of being publicly accessible.
May our Lord keep us from the digital temptation to live disembodied lives. May he bless us as we return to actual worship with a renewed enthusiasm and commitment. There is a longing in John’s statement quoted above (2 John 12), a deep desire for personal presence, which is one of the great unintended blessings of social distancing: it makes us yearn for the presence that the psalmist longed for, “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Ps. 84:2).
 Gregory E. Reynolds, “Face to Face: The Importance of Personal Presence in Ministry and Life” Ordained Servant Online (December 2012).
 Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “How 6 Pastors Are Thinking About Reopening,” The Gospel Coalition (May 2, 2020), https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/how-6-pastors-thinking-reopening/.
 Ralph Reed, “A Coronavirus Easter,” The Wall Street Journal (April 10, 2020): A13.
 Arthur Boers, “Open the Wells of Grace and Salvation: Creative and Redemptive Potential of Technology in Today’s Church” (lecture at the conference From the Garden to the Sanctuary: The Promise and Challenge of Technology, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, June 6, 2013).
 Matthew B. Crawford, The World beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).
 Wendell Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community (New York: Random House, 1993); reprinted in Cross Currents 43, no. 2 (Summer 93): 149, https://www.crosscurrents.org/berry.htm.
 James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (New York: Free Press, 1994).
 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1985), 114–24.
Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, June 2020.