Has the internet made attending church obsolete?
Disclaimer: This article is written to be a jarring exploration of the titular question. As such, the language I use is strong, snarky, and seemingly sarcastic. That is entirely purposeful. I’m exploring a deep question that, I believe, we have typically provided trite answers to. Accordingly, my aim is to create a bit of dis-ease with our long-held assumptions about why we attend church in the first place. With that information in hand, I hope you find this article to be thought-provoking. But more than that, I hope it leads you to a deeper, contemplative place; one in which you would find a depth of peace and joy.
What an unusual week, wasn’t it? I’ll be honest, I can’t remember a week like this past one; probably because, in my lifetime, there hasn’t been one like it.
I noticed this most acutely a few days ago when I was driving around town with my wife. As we were driving, I couldn’t help but notice one thing: every single church was closed.
Now, I know, that’s not too abnormal. It was Saturday after all.
But it was the same thing Sunday morning.
Churches are closed.
And then I thought: so what?
Now, that’s an interesting question, isn’t it?
Well, at the very least I think it is.
To put it another way: does it matter that every church is closed on Sunday morning?
Some of us may respond with a resounding, “Yes, it absolutely matters.”
And you may be right.
Others of us may respond with, “Well, it’s understandable that they are closed for a time. We want to love people well, and we can do that best by staying away in order to ‘flatten the curve’.”
Let’s face it, we all have our own response to the closures of churches. But that’s tangential to the question I’m trying to explore.
Consider the proliferation of applications for the internet. With the advent of live video streaming through the multitude of applications that do that, geography is no longer a barrier to attending church. We can still get our weekly dose of melodramatic music and a message, sitting next to the same people we would anyway. Plus, we don’t have to mess around with parking and panicked people.
So, I’ll ask it again: does it matter that every church is closed on Sunday morning?
With all this new technology at our disposal, what purpose is there to attending church?
I can consume ‘churchy’ content virtually.
I can hear a message from the Bible.
I can listen to and sing ‘Christian’ music.
I can stay connected and ‘in community’ from a great distance.
I can avoid getting ready by a certain time.
I can avoid driving into a packed parking lot.
I can push pause, go to the bathroom or refill that coffee (with better coffee), and push play.
I can stay away from people I don’t like.
If the internet can admirably replicate the experience of physically gathering together at a weekend church service while removing all the unwanted parts of it, why do we need a building and time to gather?
Again: does it matter that every church is closed on Sunday morning?
Now, I know, we are going to hear a lot in the next few weeks about how the Church isn’t a building, it’s the people.
I’ve heard it a lot already.
And that’s not incorrect. The Greek we translate to mean “Church” is more correctly understood as “assembly” or “congregation”. The Church is not a supra-individual entity, it’s the individuals that create the collective. Now, I don’t disagree with this, but I’m still not sure why the Church consisting of people is important in a conversation surrounding why you go to church.
Further, going to church – according to the many churches that are scrambling to produce video content for you to still “attend church” during this time of isolation – seems to be an essential part of being the Church.
I’m not sure I have a great answer to that question.
And I don’t know that many of us do.
I mean, if someone asked you, “Why do you attend church?” what would you tell them?
Now, before you answer that, ask yourself what physically going to church allows you to do that going to church virtually doesn’t?
I guess, put another way, that question could read more like this: when you can go back to church, in person, why would you?
To be honest, I don’t think many of us in the modern, Western, evangelical tradition has much to say on the topic. I scoured the internet (because let’s face it, that’s all we have to do these days, isn’t it?), and all that came back were the same tired responses:
- God says we ought to. (Where? Hebrews 10:25 was written by a human author, not verbatim from the mouth of God. And even if it were God’s direct words, does he mean that we ought to attend church as we experience it today? Why is church online an okay substitute now? Is it simply because of the circumstance?)
- We don’t go to church, we are the church. (How? What kind of wordplay is this? It doesn’t even answer the question of why we attend Church. All it says is that we exist as people who profess belief in Christ. “Are” isn’t a very powerful or descriptive verb.)
- For people that aren’t there yet. (So, let me get this straight: we attend church so that other people can come and attend a non-sensical weekend get-together? It’s not about us being there aside from our presence benefitting someone else? That may be a benevolent thought, but it’s most definitely inane reasoning.)
- To teach your kids to love the Church. (Why? If you don’t really like it, and it doesn’t make sense, why would you teach them to endure it? So they suffer as you have or because you think it’s good for them?)
- To encourage your pastor. (Is your pastor’s ego and sense of self-worth so fragile that they need you to show up?)
- Worshipping God together is powerful. (Sure; if the words we sang weren’t so vapid, repetitive and ego-centric. Or, maybe if we could remember that it’s not simply a time to be performed at by a band from the stage, or that it’s not a moment for you to “push away the distractions” of other people and forget they are there when you get lost in the emotional moment of a musical key change. Sure…then worshipping together might be powerful.)
- To serve others. (And that can’t be done anywhere else?)
- It will help you to be a happy person. (No. Just no. Attending church does not guarantee happiness.)
- It will give you something interesting to talk about on Monday at work. (Because nothing else interesting happens in our lives on the weekend. Well, except the NFL…oh, wait, nothing about the NFL or football is interesting. Maybe they’re on to something with this one. Hmm.)
- It’s where your real friends are. (As opposed to all of those fake friends who don’t go to church, or the same church as you.)
Listen, I’m not attempting to be snarky (although I do a good enough job of it in the above parentheses), or suggest that going to Church is ridiculous.
Far from it.
I’m simply attempting to raise a question that is being brought to my attention during the extraordinary times we find ourselves in.
We can’t gather physically.
But everything we would gather for is being provided remotely.
Why attend church anymore?
And the questions have led me to look for answers.
And the answers I have found are less than meaningful.
So, I’ll ask it once more: does it matter that every church is closed on Sunday morning?
Perhaps it doesn’t.
If it doesn’t, that should greatly shock us.
After all, we assume that it matters.
Let that shock wash over you.
Hopefully, that shock jolts us enough to ask why we’re doing what we’re doing every weekend.
Every seven days, millions (maybe even billions) of dollars are spent to make a weekend event happen. Why?
Perhaps that thought will shock us enough to evolve into something that, if it didn’t happen every seven days, the world would sit up and take notice.
What a world that would be.