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Christian Union: The Magazine
October 19, 2021

Do Believers Need to Meet in Person?

Though most churches have resumed some form of in-person worship, a year and a half of zoom church forced many churchgoers to ask the question, "If we can do church online, do we need to do church in person?" The question has less to do with what we are capable of in our current technological era and more to do with what we believe about the nature and reality of the church. And for many Christians, they can’t tell you why zoom church isn’t the same as the real thing.

a online church

The pandemic and our digital age provided a revealing glimpse at our theology of the church. Though theologians for centuries have taught us about the embodied reality of our faith and our subsequent worship, popular writer James KA Smith has helpfully articulated a modern problem arguing that humans are not merely “brains on a stick” but “embodied agents of love and desire.” 

What Smith means is that humans are not made to simply absorb ideas, rather we are embodied creatures who are transformed and renewed through physical experiences. For Christians, who believe in the incarnated Christ who ate, drank, and lived with others, who spoke words to hear and touched bodies to restore life, church can never truly be church when it is on a screen in isolation.

As Joshua Pauling writes in his article for Public Discourse, “While there is a role for digital technologies in the overall work of the Church, it is my contention that Christian worship cannot be duplicated on screen. Thus, it should remain as pristine, low-tech, and embodied as possible, untouched by what Byung-Chul Han calls the digital dismantling of the real. The primary work of the Church in the ministry of Word and Sacrament requires physicality and presence. I say this first because of the primacy of the body in the human experience, and second, because of the sacramental nature of the Church. These two realities draw us toward gathering as the one Body.”

For many young people, church can feel like something they ought to do but don’t want to do, making the option of online church whenever and wherever they have time in their schedule particularly attractive. But this kind of spiritual practice is missing the whole point of worship—church is an embodied reality that must take place in the context of other believers. As Pauling says, “This is the Church’s confession: that in the Word proclaimed and the Eucharist celebrated, Christ delivers himself, in his very person—for you.”

In this era of online church and continued isolation from the pandemic, college students, young professionals, and people everywhere need to be reminded of what the body of Christ truly is. Christian Union works to teach biblical and systematic theology to students, professionals, and people across the nation so that they might know and believe in the ongoing and ever-present work of Christ in our world today.

Read the full article here.