Let’s shed the harmful habits online worship has enabled

Written by Andrea Nwabuike

It’s been over a year since I’ve walked into a church building for Sunday worship. Instead of settling into a pew after the usual round of good morning hugs and handshakes, my Sabbath begins by logging into a Zoom meeting, making sure to turn off my mic and, on especially groggy mornings, my camera. 

Unlike a hard wooden pew, my couch is a comfortable front row seat in the at-home sanctuary. Grabbing a cup of coffee or running to the bathroom no longer draws the attention of half the congregation. I don’t miss the awkward pre-service small talk or getting stuck in traffic on the drive home. Online church has made my Sundays far more comfortable and convenient.

There is much to applaud about the adaptations churches made in the face of Covid-19 restrictions. The creativity of online services has expanded the Church’s reach. Some of the barriers that kept individuals and families from attending Sunday worship (such as child care and transportation) are no longer relevant. 

Online services have proven the resilience and endurance of the Church as a community that is unrestrained by even the most challenging of conditions.

But as we shift back to some of our pre-pandemic ways of life, I wonder what consequences this year of virtual church will have on the way we experience in-person worship. Will our church families feel a deeper sense of belonging and unity or will there be some growing pains and a new set of unprecedented challenges? 

Throughout the pandemic, my longing to go back to in-person worship has intensified. I have struggled to articulate the specific reasons behind my discontentment with virtual services, but I’m certain my experience of worship is far more vibrant and meaningful when I am in the presence of my brothers and sisters in Christ. As churches gradually return to in-person worship, my thoughts have centred around two consequences of online church that have impacted the quality of my own worship and that pose a challenge to the church as a whole.  

Firstly, by nature of their design, virtual church gatherings make it far easier to approach worship from the position of a passive observer. We log in to our services, consume the content prepared for us, and then log out. Unless we are involved in running the online service, there is little need for the congregation to participate in worship beyond simply being present. 

Part of what draws us to engage with and participate in our weekly worship gatherings is the encouragement of being alongside our brothers and sisters. We are moved to join in congregational singing as we hear the voices of those around us united in truth.

Standing with the congregation for Scripture reading and bowing our heads in prayer ushers us into a collective posture of reverence. Perhaps for the more disciplined among us, the lack of physical church presence has done little to affect participation in worship. But for believers like myself, we have spent a number of Sundays sitting stone-faced before a screen, concealed behind the safety of a black Zoom square. 

The lack of participation required of online worship services feeds into a second obstacle: the development of a consumerist approach to worship.

The job of the consumer is to determine what products are worthy of their investment, whether that be time or money. When a consumerist mentality is applied to church engagement, the choice of where and how to invest our Sunday mornings becomes dependent on which church’s worship service satisfies our preferences. 

If one church’s music or preaching style doesn’t suit our taste, there are countless other options. Technology has also given us the power to control and edit our worship experience according to personal preferences. We can speed up the playtime of pre-recorded messages to get through the service faster, skip through portions of the service that don’t capture our attention, or even jump between multiple services. 

Both the passive observer and consumerist mentality are deeply problematic when adopted by believers because they stand against God’s intended design and mission for church community. The pandemic has helped to solidify our understanding that the Church is not a building. But we may have forgotten that Sunday worship is not a performance to be watched or a product to be consumed. 

Sunday worship is an opportunity to step mindfully into the presence of God and to intentionally commune with Him in the context of community. Sunday worship is a place of sacrifice and service. The Spirit of God draws us to give of our time and talents, laying aside our preferences and comforts to prioritize the needs of other saints. 

In Romans 12:1 Paul writes, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” According to Paul, worship that pleases God requires us to offer every aspect of our lives, withholding nothing and sacrificing much. 

Worship is not limited to Sunday mornings. Instead, Paul goes on to explain what this sacrificial worship looks like, focusing significantly on the relational life of the believer. He exhorts Christians to put aside our egos and prioritize the needs of others (v. 3), to give of our talents for the benefit of the Body (vs. 4-8), to love genuinely and wholeheartedly (vs. 9-1), to be hospitable (v. 13), to forgive and seek the good of others (vs. 14, 17, 19-20), and to pursue peace in our relationships (v. 18). 

Weekly church gatherings are a training ground for developing the Christ-like character Paul prescribed for the church in Rome. We are given opportunities to practise hospitality when we welcome visitors and to demonstrate familial love by checking in and praying with church members before and after the service. I have walked into the sanctuary some Sundays feeling tired or discouraged, only to be encouraged or prayed for by a church member who had picked up on my demeanour. 

Online church didn’t impede our ability to embody the character of Christ in the context of our church communities, but it has limited our opportunities to do so. The isolation and strain of the pandemic has drained our reserves of patience, consideration, and tolerance. Like an unused muscle, these skills can deteriorate. So we can expect some soreness and discomfort as we head back to in-person worship and begin to put those muscles to use once again. 

The collective trauma of the pandemic has been an experience unlike any other for our generation. Going back to “normal” will not erase the consequences of this season of suffering. We will need to reflect on this experience individually and in community in order to heal and move forward in health. 

The same can be said for the church. Transitioning back to in-person gatherings will not be sufficient in itself to address the ways the pandemic has changed our communities. Whether we run into our churches as soon as their doors open or we choose to continue worshipping from home, we need to reflect on our attitude toward worship. 

Some questions we can each consider: Have I become passive in my approach to worship? Do my personal desires and preferences impact my church engagement? Am I ready and willing to serve and sacrifice for my community? 

Answering these questions can prompt us to pursue the type of active and holistic worship Paul encourages us to adopt, using our Sunday worship gatherings as a place of practice and growth. Instead of comfort and convenience, may our Sundays be marked by service and sacrificial love.