Virtual Worship: What Have We Learned?
By now, it is likely that we’ve all been exposed to and become experienced in virtual worship. What have we learned from this? Among the many lessons, I have learned to hold onto what is good and essential and to long for what is not yet. The tension between these two lessons has been difficult, but I believe the fruit born of this struggle will be sweet.
Many of us moved to virtual worship services for at least some period of time. Some of us, like my church in the shadow of the NYC pandemic hot zone, are still meeting virtually. Virtual worship is, at best, a mixed bag. Virtual gets close but not quite. If I tell my wife that I virtually love her, I will find myself in reality sleeping on the couch. Virtual worship approaches worship, but I trust that we have learned it is not the same.
So what has been good about this time of “virtual” church? It allowed us some manner of fellowship with the body of Christ, which informed and facilitated our prayers for one another. It helped us to continue to keep the Sabbath day. It encouraged us to stay in God’s Word. We were able to maintain, in some degree, a sense of the corporate nature of the Church. This was good. Hold fast to what is good (1 Thess. 5:21).
But not all was good. The use of technology can allow us to tailor an experience suited to ourselves. While often seen as a benefit of technology, this can be a problem. You were never meant to be the center of gravity for the church. I’m sorry to break this to you, but you’re just not that important. John Calvin makes an important comment about our proclivity to self-centeredness in his exposition of the second table of the Law:
He lives the best and holiest life who lives and strives for himself as little as he can, and no one lives in a worse or more evil manner than he who lives and strives for himself alone, and thinks about and seeks his own advantage.
Technology gives us a sense of greater control in some circumstances. In real-life, the time and location of worship is determined. You show up at the particular time at the particular place. But with virtual worship, you could be anywhere with a connection and (if it is recorded) at any time at your convenience. Those changes, while subtle, have implications. Do we think about how that sense of control affects our worship? Might it move the emphasis, even if just by degrees, away from God and toward yourself? In the same vein, we can control our appearance and attention. If I control the camera, then I control what people can see of me. I might mute the video so that I don’t have to get dressed. I might check Twitter or Facebook in another window while on a Zoom call. I can make it appear a particular way when, in reality, I am tailoring my experience to make it more about me. This is a dangerous temptation with our virtual church. In truth, we can do this in real-life too, but the temptation is stronger in our virtual setting. We need to discern between the good and the bad. Hold fast to what is good. What have you learned about the good and essential during this time?
Second, I learned to embrace the longing for what is not yet. We live in this eschatological time of “already, but not yet.” This pandemic has given us a concrete example of longing for the “not yet.” We long for what is missing. What is it that’s lacking? For one, we are. If things felt off in your virtual meetings, you learned to accept that it should feel off. We must allow that sense of missing to create a longing for what is meant to be. We should long for heaven and the consummated presence of God among His covenant people. In a smaller sense, our absence in person should have created a longing for when we would be together in person. We missed the sacraments while we were apart, because the sacraments are necessarily only done when we are together. Did the sense of missing create a longing for what wasn’t there? Did your hunger for the sacraments grow? Did your distance create greater longing for deeper fellowship as you begin to gather again?
Augustine wrote to his friend Zenobius about this desire for being together in person:
Although this is all true, and although my mind, without the aid of the senses, sees you as you really are, and as an object which may be loved without disquietude, nevertheless I must own that when you are absent in body, and separated by distance, the pleasure of meeting and seeing you is one which I miss, and which, therefore, while it is attainable, I earnestly covet.
Augustine is saying that even though he can picture his friend in his mind, he misses and covets the joy of his friend in real life. The Apostle John writes with the same intention as he closes both his second and third epistles. “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) and “I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face” (3 John 13, 14). Though pen and ink was the latest technology for communication, John acknowledged the limitations and longed for face to face interaction. The reason for his longing? “That our joy may be complete.”
Some of you are beginning to gather again for in-person corporate worship, and some are still worshiping virtually. We don’t know when, if ever, things will return to normal. But as we strain to see the end of this crisis, we should ask, “What have we learned?” I have learned that virtual is adequate, but incomplete. It will never fully suffice. But that longing for what is missing is not bad. We long for a day that is not yet. We long for a day when our joy may be complete.
 Institutes, II.viii.54.
 Augustine, Letters of St. Augustine to Zenobius