Today, Christians around the world observe Maundy Thursday. The holy day with the curious name (Maundy derives from the Latin for commandment) marks the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples. There was nothing socially distanced about that first gathering some 2,000 years ago when the sacrament of communion was first introduced. By design, the setting was intimate and close—no digital worship in the first century. In the modern-day context of COVID, it’s hard to imagine how Zoom from the Upper Room would have been impactful.
So how important is in-person participation to the worship experience, and is it an essential ingredient for building a healthy fellowship community?
COVID’s Impact on In-Person Worship
Over the past year, that question has animated legal battles, ministry staff meetings, and kitchen table conversations. In February, the Supreme Court ruled that restricting worship services, even in the throes of a pandemic, violates religious rights. Jurisdictions across the country have been loosening controls on houses of worship in recent weeks. Yet even now, many churches continue to wrestle with the important question of how best to balance public health concerns with a longing for in-person worship.
A new study from the Barna Group confirms what many churchgoers have known inherently for years: worship is a communal affair. In the year of COVID, 85% of churchgoers surveyed, who were limited to online services, said they most missed the social aspects of gathering together in the pews. These included greeting others, passing the peace during service, corporate prayer, or simply socializing with other churchgoers before and after services.
That statistic does not surprise Reverend Dale Ridenour, who has committed four decades to pastoring congregations within the Presbyterian Church USA. “The Christian faith is incarnational. Jesus came in the flesh, so worship is best offered face-to-face. The nature of God is communal. This is shown in the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity.”
Ridenour adds that developing personal relationships virtually is difficult: “God created humanity with the capacity and desire for community and relationship. In-person worship enables participants to engage personally and relationally with God and with each other.”
Yet last spring, as the scope of the pandemic became apparent, virtual community became a practical necessity. Back then, some churches made the decision to move forward with indoor services as usual. Others moved services outdoors. But according to the Barna study, nearly 60% of churches scrambled to host their first-ever digital Easter.
Now, a year of living virtually has many Christians longing for a restoration of community in the more traditional sense. And churches are responding. According to the Barna analysts, “This year, the majority of pastors (80%) is excited to celebrate Easter with congregants inside their church buildings with COVID-19 precautions in place.”
Even so, pastors and church officials have warmed to the idea of digital worship, or at least a hybrid model. Nearly three-quarters of pastors surveyed (71%) are planning to livestream Easter services online in lieu of or in addition to in-person services.
In fact, many church leaders believe that digital church is here to stay beyond Easter and long after the last COVID vaccine has been administered. “The new world will be a different place in some deeply recognizable ways but in some profound ways as well,” predicts Carey Nieuwhof, founding and teaching pastor of Connexus Community Church in Ontario Canada. Writing for the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, Nieuwhof says, “As much as you may want everything to go back to normal, you can’t go back to normal when normal has changed forever.”
Nieuwhof believes that unprecedented challenges can also provide unprecedented and exciting opportunities. “What we’re seeing in these early days of digital church is a huge spike in engagement and interest. To put digital church back on the shelf in the new normal is to ignore the greatest opportunity the church has today to reach people.”
Finding Fellowship in Any Format
Personally, I am weary of our Zoom reality. I’m ready to ditch the digital worship model. Like many others, I long for the intimacy of in-person engagement—at church, in the coffeehouse, in the public square. And I believe the face-to-face moments, like the one shared between Jesus and his disciples in the Upper Room, are where meaningful relationships are forged and God does some of his best work.
But Nieuwhof has a point. We are forever changed after this pandemic. We can resist the change or leverage it, but we deny it at our peril. Our challenge in a post-COVID world will be how to authentically cultivate the social capital that binds us together regardless of the format. How to make and maintain meaningful connections—whether they are made over lunch or over Skype.
In church-days past, friendships were forged flipping pancakes in the Fellowship Hall on the third Saturday of the month. Or in the choir loft on Thursday nights. Or Sunday mornings between services, drinking marginally good coffee on the church patio. In the weeks ahead, even as we climb out of our COVID silos, we will do well to seek out new, techie sorts of opportunities to augment—not replace—the more traditional means of connecting with each other.
Here’s another great resource from the Barna Group.
In a recent podcast, Carey Nieuwhof and Barna president David Kinnaman speak with author/pastor Tim Keller. Keller addresses the challenges and benefits of a hybrid church model: “There are a lot of things we can do digitally that are actually going to involve more people. We are going to be able to do better education and outreach. Still, at the same time, we have to use the digital to woo people into face-to-face relationships, or they are not really going to be changed by the Gospel.”
You can listen to the full podcast here: ChurchPulse Weekly Conversations: Tim Keller on Hybrid Church