First, note for a moment how much weight our culture has placed on the move from audio to video. I’m not sure we would see the kind of pervasive adoption of digital technology for church uses if it was only audio and not also video. Yet, we have five senses. When we add phone to video in what we now call Zoom, we’ve only hit 40 percent of the perceptive person. Forty percent may be a fantastic batting average, but for an embodied person it is rather limited. We are still lacking touch, taste, and smell. I’ll be the first to add that these latter three senses are not the ones we think of when we consider attending a church event. The visual and auditory dominate. But it is important to experience God’s world and His church as whole people. The faint mildew smell of an old church building communicates something about the generations that have filled that church before us. The handshake or hug from a brother or sister in Christ communicates our connection in Christ. The taste of the bread and wine is part of our complete participation in the Lord’s Supper. God intended these things to be experienced in these ways.
A second cultural curiosity is the growing unease around digital technology. It isn’t hard to prove that this super-awesome-thing-called-the-internet-in-our-pocket is also creating in us anxiety about our time spent staring at a plastic rectangle, photographing our food, mindlessly scrolling, or vituperating in comment threads. We may be the most anxiety-ridden, addiction-riddled, lonely, and distracted culture to ever have walked the planet. But, we crave more time online. We should listen to our technological anxieties even if we haven’t pinpointed their source.
For my last cultural curiosity, consider the illustration of telemedicine. If you are ill, you can meet with a doctor online who can both diagnose you and prescribe to you a pharmaceutical remedy without ever having physically examined you. Take a minute to consider the oddity here. And take a minute to recognize where you may draw the line for what can be treated by telemedicine and what cannot. Pink eye can be treated by telemedicine; cancer cannot. The flu can be treated by telemedicine; a Chiari malformation cannot. To these contrasts you may say, “Of course, that is obvious.” But that is the point. Do we have the same “of course” reflexes when it comes to what is appropriate for a church to do online and what is not? The content of a sermon can be posted online; a sacrament cannot. Our lack of “of course” scenarios for what is appropriate for a church to do online is disconcerting.
where does this leave us?
Our brief survey of biblical principles and cultural curiosities overwhelmingly leaves us with one thesis: the in-person gathering of God’s people for worship and fellowship takes a significant priority over anything digital technology can or will ever produce. And this is a part of God’s original design. The human created, redeemed, and placed in the community of the church is the masterpiece of technological innovation. Apple will never come close to approximating what God has done with a Christian. The Bible encourages us to pursue fellowship and worship in ways that maximize our humanity rather than highlight the more efficient or convenient aspects of a person. A simple prayer meeting in a dingy and poorly lit basement with four elderly women takes a higher priority than a livestreamed event by a megachurch.
This should encourage us as Christians to prioritize in-person gatherings over any other alternative. It is important to attend the live preaching and teaching of God’s Word. We need to “feel” brothers and sisters around us, attending to an open Bible and a ready elder. We need to hear the faint fuss of infants, enjoying one of their first worship services in the arms of their parents, surrounded by their church family. The fastest fiber-optic cable, the most high-definition screen cannot provide the medium to rightly participate in the Lord’s Supper. It takes whole people, situated in time and place, with the people to whom they have covenanted, before the face of their living God, to enjoy and participate in the sacrament, much less the rest of Christian worship.
Can digital technology serve the church in needed and helpful ways? Absolutely. You likely would not be reading this article without some help from digital technology. But we must prioritize digital technology correctly. It cannot take the place of or get near to the in-person fellowship and worship of God’s people.