Church Incarnated: Spirits and Song
A few days ago, I posted an article entitled Has the Internet Made Attending Church Obsolete? If you haven’t yet read it, you can do that here. In fact, I’d encourage you to do so. This article will make much more sense in light of that.
In that article, I explore the idea that in the given circumstances we find ourselves, churches are rapidly replicating the in-person experience in an online format. (Take the service you would normally have, record video of it, broadcast it through the magic of the internet.)
This phenomenon made me wonder: if we can simply replicate the experience of going to church online, what is the point of physically attending a church service?
I find that to be a fascinating question. It’s also slightly unsettling. Moreover, it’s a perilous question to give voice to if you’re a pastor. After all, your self-worth job security is often positively and perfectly correlated to attendance. Better attendance equals more job security. (Also, better attendance equals more impunity with respect to your leadership. “It’s working, so I may do what I desire without any checks or balances.” But that’s another conversation for another day.)
It turns out, many of you find it a fascinating question, too.
And while I received comments and DMs with your answers to that question, I thought I would attempt to provide a response of my own.
But, first, let’s talk about the big problem with the typical answer we give to the topic of church attendance.
The Big Problem.
We all have our reasons for desiring (or lacking any desire) to attend church. Some are fleeting, while some are systemic. And, in many ways, those reasons are irrelevant to anyone but you. That is, they matter to you, but to someone else, that reasoning may appear absurd.
But that’s somewhat beside the point. Important. Sure. But most important to you.
Therein lies the problem.
Most people respond with reasons why they like going to church, but they don’t move beyond that. At the end of the day, it seems that our individual preference is to attend church. And there is nothing wrong with that at all. But let’s call it what it is: a partiality.
I mean, the audio quality of my computer speakers is horrid compared to the quality of the speakers used by the church I attend. So, on that basis alone, I can prefer to attend a church service in-person. That does not mean, however, that the online experience is less beneficial, edifying, engaging, or worthwhile. It just means I need better speakers. And I would most definitely prefer that my computer had better speakers.
But do you see the conundrum?
In answering a question like this, teasing apart the difference between our deeply held preferences and what we believe is an essential reason for attending a church service can be a difficult task.
Look no further than the number one reason people feel attending church online isn’t obsoleting attending church in-person: relationships.
Many people cited relationships were a reason to attend a church service. I don’t dispute that in any way, shape, or form. (Except as an introvert at heart.) You can develop relationships with people who attend church.
It’s not a matter of if you can do that by attending church in-person. It’s not even a matter of if you like doing that. Of course, you can. And, of course, you just might like it, too.
The real question, though, is if it is essentially only church attendance that provides relationships. Strictly speaking, it cannot be that attending church in-person is better than attending online because it helps develop relationships. After all, you can also develop relationships at the gym, a sporting event or league, a bar or public house, or any other number of places. So that doesn’t seem to be a plausible explanation for the internet failing to replace the experience of church in-person.
Because relationships are possible everywhere. Attending church is simply another avenue to do achieve that end.
But that raises another question: is it simply that you prefer to develop relationships with other church-goers over those who do not attend church?
That’s a fully loaded question.
Our answer, though, may be somewhat frightening to even ourselves. But it also evades answering the original question. How? Because you can develop relationships with other church-goers outside of a church service. As such, attending church in person is not essential in developing relationships with other church-goers. (Aside from the fact that church-going is a prerequisite for being labelled a church-goer. So, for argument’s sake, let’s consider church-goer to be an equitable term for a believer.)
It’s also not a matter of whether you prefer developing relationships with other church-goers in-person. Rather, the question I posed in my initial article, made it a matter of whether or not the Church is providing something at their in-person experience that cannot be replicated in the online format. And, given the whole-hearted acceptance of using video-conferencing technologies such as Zoom to establish new (and continue old) community groups, it seems that the online format is an adequate substitute for in-person gathering.
Technology seems to have made it possible to, basically, replicate everything. And that includes relationships.
With all of that said, it’s important to ask and answer the question plainly: is there anything from the in-person experience that online church cannot replicate?
I know, right? I was beginning to think that I really thought gathering together for weekly church services is fruitless, too!
I don’t think that’s the case at all, by the way. But, my reasoning might not make much sense when you first hear it.
So here it is.
Because it’s physical.
Yes, you read that right. I don’t think that attending church in-person is rendered obsolete by replicating and broadcasting services online.
Because attending church in-person is physical.
I know that seems a cheap trick. Being at church in-person isn’t obsolete because…it’s in person?
Being at church in-person isn’t obsolete because it’s physical.
I told you it wouldn’t make much sense at first. So let me flesh that out a little more.
Let’s get spiritual.
The spiritual is thin. It’s tough to grasp.
Have you ever noticed that many people offer explanations of spiritual things by speaking more airily and less concretely?
In many ways, this makes sense. After all, the spirit of God is often written about (in the Bible, even!) as though it is wind. Sometimes it’s described as something similar to breath. One minute it’s there in full force, and the next it has diffused into a low-pressure, seemingly non-existent entity.
It also blows where it will.
How do you talk about something like that without the assistance of advanced degrees in fluid mechanics and pneumatics?
In a breathy, airy, nebulous kind of way.
So, it’s no real surprise that we struggle to put words to why going to church in-person isn’t rendered a moot point in the face of technological innovation.
Perhaps the real reason we struggle is that we tend to leave our faith in the realm of the spiritual. That is, in some strange way, our faith is nothing more than an idea and words. (Love. Peace. Faith. Hope. You know the buzzwords.) However, to be blunt, those ideas and words are nothing if they are not acted upon. In fact, you and I can think and talk about our faith for an eternity, yet all of that intellectual exercise may never make a difference in how we live.
We can think and never bring those thoughts to bear in our lived lives. In fact, that is often the reality for many church-goers.
I think Father Richard Rohr says it best when he writes the following:
“We do not think ourselves into new ways of living.”
In short, our thoughts don’t usually change our behaviour. I assume he’s not suggesting that thinking never accomplishes anything substantive. However, I think it’s a fair assessment. Thought typically doesn’t precede action. Consider that some scientists estimate that up to 98% of our existence is governed by unconscious biological processes, and Fr. Richard Rohr seems to be on to something.
But that’s not where his thought ends. He goes on to complete it by writing this:
“We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”
I think he’s correct.
And that’s precisely why I think we need to get physical.
Let’s get physical.
The physical is thick. It’s robust.
Have you ever noticed that people don’t really have too many difficulties describing the physical world around them?
Sometimes the appropriate word is difficult to find, sure. In general, though, it’s not too hard to describe what we observe. For example, I can typically recall every shot I took during my last round of golf. I can describe it’s lie, what tree my ball was behind, trajectory, shape, sound, yardage, where it landed, whether it rolled out, plugged, or spun back, and even qualify it with descriptions such as perfect, good, bad, and awful. And I can do that for all 75-80 shots I took over the preceding four hours or so. I can observe, remember, and describe the physical.
It’s relatively easy to do with the physical.
It’s hard to do with the spiritual.
But the physical is spiritual.
And that’s often a lost concept. Especially this side of the Enlightenment. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
Look no further than the opening pages of the Scriptures. In the first two chapters, we are regaled with a poetic description of the movement of spirit and the innervation of the material world. In fact, the Scriptures go one step further and describe humankind as a complex amalgam of the two. That is, they are both spirit and material.
We were formed from the dust.
God breathed life into us.
We are spirit.
We are matter.
We are thin.
We are robust.
We are tough to grasp.
We are concrete.
The physical is the spiritual.
The spiritual is the physical.
It’s all right there for us to read.
But it’s not just the physicality of creation.
It’s important to not simply create a theology of the physical realm based on two chapters of the Bible. (Although, we’ve created other doctrines on far less.)
So, let us look at three distinct events that the entirety of Christianity hinges upon; the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection.
Christmas. A baby in a manger.
Spirit clothed in flesh. In a nutshell, that’s the incarnation.
Although, that doesn’t seem to do it justice, does it? How do you explain the mystery of spirit innervating flesh?
(In slightly more airy and ethereal terms, I suppose.)
Any way you consider it, though, the incarnation of Jesus isn’t a miracle because of the spiritual invasion of earth. Genesis 1 talks about the spirit hovering over the face of the deep. The spirit has always been there. The incarnation of Christ is a miracle because of the unification of the spiritual with the physical.
The real miracle is the physicality of the divine, not the spirituality of it.
But it’s not simply the reality that this describes the incarnation of Jesus, it’s the reality that is you. You are spirit clothed in flesh. Or is that spirit-infused flesh? (See what I mean, words are difficult when it comes to the spiritual.) Perhaps, though, our lived experience can give words to understand the incarnation of Jesus.
To be Jesus was to be human, and all that term entails.
Blood and guts.
Think about your own existence. What does that tell you about what it was like to be Jesus? It might not tell you everything. After all, we don’t live in first-century Palestine. Also, we aren’t Jesus. But thinking about your own existence might tell you something about his.
The incarnation was not solely a spiritual event.
It was also indelibly physical.
Never forget that.
Oh, one more thing. That very physical incarnation led to another unavoidable human reality: death.
I think it’s important to note that the penultimate event of Jesus’ life was physical.
His body was broken and beaten.
It had thirst.
It gasped for air.
It was punctured.
It breathed its last.
It gave up its spirit.
It hung lifeless upon the cross.
It was removed, wrapped, and buried.
It was cold.
The crucifixion was not solely a spiritual event.
It was also indelibly physical.
Never forget that.
If the penultimate event of Jesus’ life was the crucifixion, the ultimate event was the resurrection. The entirety of Christianity is based on the validity of the resurrection. (In fact, the Bible even goes so far as to suggest that if the resurrection didn’t happen, we ought to be pitied above all people.)
But it wasn’t solely a spiritual event.
It was physical.
The dead body was alive once more.
It walked from the tomb, scars and all.
It moved through walls. (Come again?)
It walked on the beach.
It cooked food.
The blood it was born with, that was shed, coursed through its veins once more.
The breath that gave it life, that he gave up, was given back.
The crucifixion was not solely a spiritual event.
It was also indelibly physical.
Never forget that.
The events we base our faith upon are a very physical reality.
Let that sink in.
Your faith is far more than a spiritual reality. It is a physical one.
It was incarnated in the very fabric of creation.
It was made flesh in the human.
The miracle of the divine was that it was made flesh in the Son of Man.
The Son of Man tasted the physical reality of death.
The Christ rose, bodily, from the grave.
Your faith is based far more on physical realities than you may first realize.
And it is those physical realities that ought to shape our attendance of church. Attendance in the flesh.
So why has the internet not made attending church in-person obsolete?
It took a while to get there, but there are two very physical realities that, I believe, are essential and not simply preferential when it comes to attending church in person: spirits & song.
I’m not talking about the spiritual realm, either. I’m talking about booze.
Wine, to be precise.
Have you ever noticed that our calendars come pre-loaded with dates to commemorate? Electronic or physical, all of them contain special dates.
- In the United States, the fourth Thursday in November is, for all intents and purposes, a religious holiday; Thanksgiving.
- In Canada, the penultimate Monday of May commemorates Queen Victoria’s birthday and is the unofficial start of summer.
- On February 2nd, many North Americans wait for a groundhog to appear from his hole. When he appears, they read the signs to see how many weeks remain in the winter season.
- On November 11 of this year, Sweden will mark National Chocolate Day. I will be celebrating privately.
- November 11th marks a very different kind of day if your nation was involved in the Great War. On November 11th, 1918, armistice was declared. For over 100 years, we have commemorated that event with poppies and a moment of silence.
With few exceptions, the holidays of any consequence are instituted to commemorate a physical event of great importance. Quite often, those events are ones that altered the trajectory of human history. On July 4, 1776, the world changed forever. For better or worse, it changed. On November 11, 1918, the world changed forever. The day Queen Victoria was born, the world changed forever.
Some events changed the world forever. And on those days, we humans have a proclivity to do one thing: sample spirits.
Don’t believe me?
Liquor sales spike in the days before New Year’s Eve, Thanksgiving, and other holidays.
But what if the physical event you are memorializing changed not only the world but the cosmos?
Commemorate it more often?
That seems right.
But what on earth are we remembering?
That’s a good question.
I said it earlier, but perhaps it’s worth repeating: holidays commemorate physical events of great importance, and they often involve spirits.
The Resurrection of Jesus is a physical reality that bears remembering. After all, we believe it altered the course of the cosmos. But it’s much more. The belief is that the physical event changed our lived reality, too. In fact, it gave us a glimpse of what is to come: another resurrection. But this time, it’s for you and me to be involved in. We won’t just witness it, we’ll live it.
It will be our physical experience.
A spiritual innervation of our dry bones.
So why celebrate that only once a year?
Why not every seven days?
That sounds like a good idea to me.
But why every seven days?
Because of the physical reality of another event: the Creation.
The rhythm of the physical reality of Creation is a cycle of seven days. Every seven days, everything refreshes.
It begins again.
As the sun sets on one cycle of seven, another cycle of seven is given birth.
It’s right there in the fabric of all things.
Every seven days we receive another chance to restore.
Another opportunity to refresh.
Another occasion to rest in the peace of God.
Another moment to bring things to their fulfillment.
That fulfillment, in a personal sense, is your restoration.
That fulfillment, in a cosmic sense, is the restoration of all things.
Their setting right.
And it’s all possible because of physical events.
And the physical is spiritual.
Only it’s more concrete.
This is why we commemorate the Crucifixion and Resurrection every seven days. We incarnate the spiritual reality and cause it to manifest in our midst in a physical way. We memorialize this reality through the physical reality of Communion.
You might call this Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Last Supper, the Holy Sacrament, or some other name I’m not familiar with. Whatever you might call it, though, it involves two very physical elements: bread and booze.
Okay, perhaps that was a bit crass. Communion, however, does involve bread and wine. (Unless you are a good Baptist. Grape juice all the way, baby!) And these two elements are symbols of Jesus’ body and his blood. (Unless you are a good Catholic. Then they aren’t merely symbols, they are the body and blood of Jesus.)
And what do you do with food?
You eat it.
And what do you do with spirits?
You drink them.
The material concretizes the immaterial.
The physical informs the spiritual.
The behaviour precedes the belief.
The food sustains the faith.
We might not fully understand how the Resurrection of Christ transfers to us. Heck, we might not ever come to comprehend the Resurrection of Jesus, let alone how it transfers to us.
But you can engage in an undeniably physical re-enactment of the spiritual reality.
Imagine. Every seven days. The spiritual reality that we find difficult to understand being embodied within us.
We might not understand it, and thus we might avoid living it.
But if we start living it, we just might come to the beginning of understanding.
Imagine what life would look like if we ingested, digested, understood, and incarnated the Resurrection every seven days?
There is a benefit, because of spirits, to the spirit, when we congregate together. We manifest a deeper reality in every fibre of our being. It’s a collective remembrance of an event that changed the course of cosmic history. Not simply an intellectual exercise in the confines of self-isolation. It is a collective embodiment of transcendent reality.
And you cannot do that through the wonder of the internet.
But there’s something else that can’t be done through the internet: song.
Okay, YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, and all the other streaming services out there might fight me on that last claim.
And they would be right to.
Songs are all over the internet. Want to listen to some of your favourite symphonic pieces? No problem. The internet has you covered. All the Mozart, Beethoven, and Handel you can handle. Have a desire for some heavy metal? If that’s your thing, the internet has what you want. The internet also contains everything in between these two vastly different genres. You get the picture, though. The internet possesses all the songs you could want.
So, what do songs have to do with attending church?
Well, it’s not so much about songs as it is about song.
Now, I know, it seems like I’m doing that thing pastors love to do: taking a noun and making it a verb. I’m not. Trust me, I hate it just as much as you. But I’m sure you’re wondering what the difference is between those words other than one being the plural form of the other. I’ll tell you.
But first, let’s add a definite article. See, it’s not so much about songs as it is about the song.
There, that’s better.
But, I digress. On to my explanation of the difference between songs and the song.
For the purposes of our conversation, songs are short poems or other sets of words set to music or meant to be sung.
In contrast, the song is the deep undergirding pulse of Creation. It is the rhythm, the hum, the bass note that is foundational to the functioning of all things. It’s a cadence that you and I are invited to participate in.
And, as funny as it may seem, songs can often help us access the song.
But first, a conversation about breath.
Breathing is vital. If you don’t breathe, you don’t live.
What I find most fascinating is that there are two components to breathing. Breathing isn’t complete until you have both inhaled and exhaled. The technical terms for those processes are inspiration and expiration.
To inspire is to breathe in life.
To expire is to unleash that life into the world around you.
I like to consider the process of breathing when I think of Creation.
In the beginning, God spoke.
Before we speak, we often breathe.
So, what if God inspired before speaking, too?
The real question is, what did he inspire?
Well, nothing less than his breath, I would assume.
And what is his breath?
The Hebrew tradition would have us understand the breath of God as the Spirit of God. After all, the terms are used synonymously.
So, God inspired himself. He gathered all of his creative energy and drew it into himself. And then he unleashed it all through speech. He expired and life came to be.
And now a conversation about the song.
If you’ve ever read the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, you’re familiar with the creation of Narnia. If you aren’t, take a few hours to read the first book in that saga, The Magician’s Nephew. It’s a wonderous few pages of literature.
In that book, you read about the Creation of Narnia. Or, perhaps more correctly, the genesis of Narnia through song.
In the creation narrative, the God-figure, Aslan, moves about the darkness humming, singing, and calling all things to generate themselves from the darkened canvas surrounding him. It’s as if the whole world dances with the song. The notes extend to the material, and matter responds to the spirit.
The song gave that which was to come order and structure.
It gave it vitality, energy, and a purpose.
It’s no stretch to imagine the creation of all things as God writing a symphonic masterpiece. The 12th-century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen says it this way:
“All of creation is a symphony of the Holy Spirit which is joy and jubilation.”
And that song persists to this very day. The rhythm, the hum, the bass note from the beginning is still resonating to this day. In a way, it’s the foundational structure of all things. The creative, generative energy of the breath of God persists unto this very day.
And he gave that same breath to us.
So we may continue the song.
And therein lies a vocation: continue the song.
So what does attending church have to do with the song?
Herein lies the delicate interplay between songs and the song.
When we sing collectively, we communally order our breathing. We orient ourselves to the rhythms of Creation that have been uncovered throughout the centuries by the saints and poets who came before us.
I breathe in the same metre and time as the prophets who penned those words in bygone eras. I breathe out in the timeless cadence, joining the eternal order of priests, expiring the life and vitality of God into all things around me.
And when two or three of us begin to do that, the collective force of our unified breath begins to change the very atmosphere around us.
Can you sing on your own from the comfort of your own home?
Can the collective breath coalesce while we are all engaging the musical content from the internet?
I don’t think so.
Is a live concert the same as watching the recording afterward?
Because the collective breath changes things.
In unified singing, the world begins to change.
The immaterial will form the material.
The spiritual innervates the physical.
The belief determines the behaviour.
The breath provides life to the body.
Let all Creation be ordered around the flow of our collective breathing.
As spirit invades our lungs, let it be passed to those around us.
Let it invade every corner of the earth.
As we sing, let the song refresh, restore, and resurrect that which needs it.
There is a physical reality hidden deep within the very foundations of the earth.
When we engage in the song, it’s as if we are swept up in a communal inhale and exhale. We take part in the rhythm of God. We recalibrate to the holy pulse of Creation. We refresh, restore, and resurrect Creation to it’s intended order.
How the internet can re-create that, I am not sure.
Spirits & Song: Why I believe the internet has not made attending church obsolete.
The reality is, attending church is physical just as much as it is spiritual. And therein lies what the internet cannot re-create: a physical reality.
Attending church isn’t simply physical because it is in-person, it’s physical because of what is done while we attend in-person.
It isn’t fundamentally about preference.
It ought to be about something deeper than that.
It isn’t centrally about relationships.
Those are achievable elsewhere, too.
It’s about the physical realities that are also spiritual ones.
Our faith is predicated on physical reality.
Past events that have spiritual implications, too.
By attending church, we have the distinct privilege of incarnating the deep rhythms of creation, crucifixion, and resurrection.
We do this through spirits.
We do this through song.