The Struggle Between (Forced) Virtual Worship And (Longing For) Embodied Worship

If we ask ourselves: “Do you like living under the current condition (in the midst of a pandemic and prohibited to roam freely to different places), or, do you prefer the situation a year ago (where everybody is free to do whatever they want including traveling overseas)?  By all means, certainly, we will answer: “Yes, of course, I like to go to that ‘old normal’ like what we had last year.”  I think if you—along with the majority of people on planet earth—think in such a way, that would be reasonable because that forced transition from all bodily activities that are real (going to work, stores and factories, schools, campuses, malls, groceries, movies, gym, traveling, picnic, and of course, church) to the virtual world or the online platform has somewhat eliminated an important aspect in our experience: the real, embodied aspect.

            It is hard to deny that we all long for that pre-pandemic life settings.  We can hang out and meet up with our friends from work, give a handshake to our guests and acquaintances, dining with our colleagues in our favorite places while conversing with them warmly, and worshiping together in our local congregations; all in all, they are considered as much more wholesome experiences instead of the seemingly endless Zooming.  Along that line, we also realize that even though Zoom (and other online platforms) have been such helpful communication channels, these softwares only enable us to be “present” with bodies that are “real yet non-organic,” which obviously leads to a kind of mediated presence that is technological and “corporeal,” but actually a rather pseudo- or an incomplete reality.

            If the above question is replaced and diverted to our current worship context as Christians: “Do you prefer to worship virtually (where all church activities, especially our Sunday worship is being live-streamed or pre-recorded), or, to worship in-person in a church building (where our bodies or physical existences are present, aligned with the presence of our souls or hearts in singing, praying, and listening to the Word of God proclaimed by pastors with whom we can greet and shake hands after the service)?  For those who have been faithful members of any “traditional church” for many years (i.e., those who have been accustomed to worshiping weekly in a local congregation), they will answer that to worship in-person in a church building would be much better, much more reverent, much more meaningful, and also much more real instead of just doing it online.

Notwithstanding, a survey from the Pew Research Center done in July 2020 shows a complete opposite finding where nine out of ten Christians in America who have regularly “watched” online services said that they are very satisfied (54%), somewhat satisfied (37%), and only 8% of the respondents who said that they are dissatisfied (see https://www.pewforum.org/2020/08/07/americans-oppose-religious-exemptions-from-coronavirus-related-restrictions/).  What does this tell us?  It shows how in the midst of this major health crisis there are many people who are “enjoying” their getaway or absence from the spiritual duty of worship or in-person services in their churches, and now most of them are often “traveling” from one church to the other (including accidentally, unbeknownst to them, attending services or webinars from churches with false teachings or religious extremists).  The bottom line is this: virtual worship has become so convenient and is not bounded to certain time and space.  I have personally heard with my own ears from Christians here—whether they are serious or joking—who said this: “It’s much convenient to worship online now; so, we don’t have to go to church on Sundays.”  What an irony if they meant these words seriously!

LONGING FOR THE PRESENCE OF REAL BODIES IN WORSHIP

            Throughout 2020 up until now when COVID-19 first appeared and grew rampantly (beginning in China on January 2020 and in Indonesia on March), we all agree that digital technology has become a major blessing for churches and ministries.  Yet at the same time, we also need to admit that something is missing in this digitalization and virtualization of almost every aspect of church ministries, which is the absence of bodily aspects in real time (especially if our worship services have been pre-recorded).  When we are singing, listening to the sermon, or even witnessing baptism and observing the Lord’s Supper, we have felt what is called “disembodiment” or the disappearance of real bodies that can touch, feel, commune, and meet in-person, although we are essentially embodied persons!

            So, our existing and present body is an important aspect to fellowship and glorify God (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 6:20: “So glorify God in your body”; ESV).  If in our worship services we are seeing just a virtual preacher, writings, music, images, or messages in voice and videos, we will eventually feel pointless, dry, which then may lead to a disconnection from the fellowship of believers.  This kind of detachment among believers when it happens in a long period of time will then lead to detachment, alienation, and for some people, it will eventually grow into a kind of desensitized communities where people care less about others, about how they are doing or their needs.  Perhaps this is why fear has become a rationale for many people who chose not to be present, for instance, in memorial or funeral services, even when the person who has deceased (though clearly not because of COVID-19) is their own family members or even parents.  Imagine when last year such thing often happened.  Could it be that this pandemic has cause a kind of global reality where “the love of most will grow cold” (Matt. 24:12; NIV)?

            This is where the danger of how relation and communication that rely upon disembodiment: people slowly but surely becomes accustomed to living in an illusory world or quasi-reality, which is not that reality in itself.  As an example, we should have realized that what we called “friends” in the media (such as) Facebook are not the same with real friends in the physical world.  The same thing can be said with our weekly travel or “spiritual culinaire” on Sunday mornings (and other days as well) where we worship from one church to the other via YouTube or Instagram that indeed increases our wealth of knowledge on certain themes or topics that are overabundant, yet, if I may ask here, “Have our spiritual travels done virtually strengthen our embodied fellowship, or, on the contrary, brought many souls to isolation or even loneliness?”

            As a result, many online church channels during this pandemic have been flooded with newcomers or online visitors who joined their worship (or even falsely admit as Christians), but they do not really feel spiritually connected (because they only watched for a short while before moving to other channels), and most likely do not feel compelled to support the virtual church that they visited.  Perhaps this is the kind of environment that Grace Davie had long foretold where traditional churches in England whose congregants often take the posture of “believing without belonging,” which is basically seeing themselves as believers but do not necessarily feel belong or connected to any particular church (Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing without Belonging [Oxford: Blackwell, 1994] 94).  Haven’t we forget that in this age of globalization, technological advancement, and all the more so when coronavirus plagued many places, we can see the sharp decrease in participation in worship (especially among the youth or millennials) and the downward spiral of financial support for churches?  May it be so that this “believing without belonging” symptom will not last for long and will not waver the burning spirit of ministry among churches in many places.

LONGING FOR THE INCARNATIONAL WORSHIP

            It appears that the inclination for this disembodied worship in today’s age has been indirectly anticipated by Charles Taylor many years ago, and he named it as a tendency toward excarnation in the church.  What he means by “excarnation” is “the transfer of our religious life out of bodily forms of ritual, worship, practice, so that it comes more and more to reside ‘in the head’” (A Secular Age [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007] 613).  Therefore, excarnation is essentially not only a transition from the aspect of embodiment to the aspect of disembodiment, but also a sort of “escape” from the fellowship of the saints to the realm of mere rationalistic knowledge.  It will not be long until God is no longer needed because rationally, He has been marginalized or fringed to a realm where there is no relation to our personality (and He was verged into a depersonalized God).

            This kind of circumstance then evolved into a peculiar scene: on the one hand, we are fully aware that Christians ought to stay away from worldliness and things that go against God and His Word (“Stop loving the world and the things that are in the world.  If anyone persists in loving the world, the Father’s love is not in him”; 1 John 2:15; ISV).  But then, why do people nowadays who said they are Christians yet they got absorbed into, promoted, and seemingly collaborating with secularism in the cyberworld when they supposed to deal with it critically and selectively?

            Let us then watch how the Lord encountered and provided a pathway to the people on this earth.  At one point in time, the Scripture proclaimed that “And the Word [Logos] became flesh [Gr. sarx]” (John 1:14; NRSV).  This is a clear-cut declaration about the coming of the Messiah in embodied aspect that are not virtual or vague.  So, Jesus Christ did incarnate (Lt. carnis, flesh), to become real human in real flesh, to suffer and offer the grace of salvation that can only be fulfilled through the Cross, which is the redeeming death of His body.  The purpose of Christ became human in the incarnation is so that people can come to know God and that people, after coming to know the Son of Man, can live this life in righteousness and practice the love of God incarnationally to their neighbors.

            Therefore, churches or believers need to return back to incarnational worship and ministry—just as Jesus emphasized face-to-face interaction—we can also see the ministries of the church in the New Testament that emphasized physical presence that far exceeded the existing media at that time (“I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink.  Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete”; 2 John 12; NIV).  This would mean that embodied presence has much better capacity to communicate the love of God to our neighbors.

            A question that we need to answer is: “Are we longing for a virtual worship or a real physical worship?”  More importantly, are we longing for our connectivity to the social media apparatus to the internet, or conversely, are we longing for the connection of our faith to our Creator who has also been incarnated?  If we realize that virtual worship in the cyberchurch only gives us a quasi-reality and brings us to a superficial community, why don’t we pray, long for, and intercede for the restoration of that incarnational worship?  For those who have already been plagued with addiction to the Zoom media, or even compulsive in social media that they keep on checking updates, likes, subscribers, or retweets (to the point that they got caught with Carpal tunnel because of overusing their gadgets), return to the spirit of incarnation of Christ and the early church that prioritized “flesh and blood” relation that are real and meaningful!

            Then, what should churches do if this pandemic is long-stretched and virtual worship continues to be inevitable in the long run?  I believe that the church needs to collectively pray, struggle, and hope for the return of embodied worship, while at the same time staying committed to their incarnational ministry where they can witness and continue their mission and evangelism through deeds and actions as God’s channel of blessing.  In this struggle, the church needs to continue to have a kind of commitment like the remnants in the Old Testament who remained faithful and stayed in their exile in Babel (“But now, for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage”; Ezr. 9:8; NIV).  These are the people who long for embodied worship or physical presence to be able to worship in-person back in their motherland in Jerusalem (Ezr. 1:2-5).  Therefore the question is here to stay: “Do we have such profound longing?”