I am concerned that our increase in virtual activity is affecting us more than we realize. There is a theology of place that needs to be considered. I hesitate to use that phrase because it is often used by those who claim to be Christians but deny the faith’s core doctrines—those who try to dress their liberal agenda in theological terms. Before you write it off, however, let me give you a couple examples of how place is vital in faithful living; then, I will explain my concern about the virtual world related to worship.
On Sunday afternoons, I often lay down for a short nap when I return home from church. It is perfectly acceptable. Some might even say it is a virtuous part of honoring the Lord’s day, provided my Sunday also entails turning my focus to the things of God for a good portion of the day. However, that virtuous nap becomes a vice if I were to do it in my office at work—place matters.
Let me take it up a notch. If I were sitting alone at my kitchen table and took a small piece of bread and gave it to my dog, it would be a caring act. But, if I were at church participating in the Lord’s supper and did the same thing, it would be blasphemy. Context is critical in our attempts to live lives that glorify God, and we cannot understand context without understanding the importance of place.
I believe the more we go virtual, the more we might find ourselves displaced. Please do not get me wrong; some things work perfectly in a virtual world. The passing of intellectual information is one example. It is what we are doing right now. Whether you read this on a screen or in a book makes little difference. The only thing that could have a more significant impact is if I communicated this to you in a handwritten letter. Then it would carry a little more of me with it partly because you would know that I and the stationary had been in the same place at one time, but I digress. Virtual options even provide some benefit relationally, but show me a married couple who thinks spending time together online is sufficient, and I will show you a couple who are not truly in love.
Though virtual reality is sufficient for some things, it is terrible for others. At best, it is a stopgap when the alternative is not possible; at worst, it severs the connection to the situation’s significance. Let me apply this to church. Due to COVID-19 and other factors, many people find themselves “attending” church online. Virtual attendance means more and more people are now comfortable wearing pj’s, eating breakfast, and even trimming their toenails in the middle of the worship service. This disregard for reverence during worship shows us how much we lose in the virtual environment. The sermon’s information still comes through, but the spiritual discipline required in church attendance, relationships, and the respect corporate worship deserves is lost in translation.
The problems of virtual reality are not new to the internet age. The invention of the radio and TV where no better than the internet when it comes to things like church. All that the internet has done is to make the problems ubiquitous. We must realize that a virtual setting displaces the church, and we must not become accustomed to it. If we do, it will also affect us when we finally do attempt to gather together.
Just think for a moment about how people often treat each other in the virtual world of social media. The anonymity of the internet tempts many to say things they would never say in person. In the virtual world, the lack of place gives us a heightened sense of authority because there is no face to face vulnerability to keep us in check. The problem is, once we grow accustomed to it, this heightened sense of authority begins to follow us when we go into public. Because we have so much power over our virtual world, we begin to expect it in the real world. This is why we are beginning to see the same lack of civility on the street as we do on Twitter. When the real world cannot live up to our expectations, we begin to prefer our virtual world.
Virtual gatherings are always easier for us to manage, but easier is not always better. Going to church can be hard work. There are frustrations with people who have rough edges that rub us the wrong way, and we must leave our comfortable couch behind. The gathering of the saints for worship, which includes the preaching of the word and the ordinances, is one of God’s primary means of grace for his children. Though others have rough edges, so do we, and it is by close contact with each other in the context of worship and the word that God files us down to form us to the image of the Son. Scripture calls us to gather together, and in extreme situations, we should be thankful if we can worship remotely with our church body, but we must never forget that remote gatherings are not actually gatherings.