I can use the term “virtually” to qualify nearly any statement. Virtually is nearly. It is almost. It is close to or approaching. But it is not equal to. Virtually gets close but not close enough. If I tell my wife that I virtually love her, I will find myself in reality sleeping on the couch. When we use the term “virtual” we need to understand the limits and uses of it. Our experience with this COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated the church to wrestle with what it means to meet, fellowship, and worship “virtually.” Virtual worship approaches worship, but it is important that we understand that it is not the same.
Perhaps it is a tautology to say that virtual church is not real church. We have acutely felt the difference over the last several weeks as all our church activities have moved online. Bible Studies, kids’ story time, Sunday School, and worship have been taking place on YouTube, Zoom, or other virtual meeting and broadcasting platforms. Our physical presence has been replaced with a series of pixels and sound files. We can see each other (most of the time). We can speak with one another (except when we forget to unmute ourselves). There is real connection happening. And yet, it is only MOSTLY real. It’s like how Miracle Max explains the difference between “mostly dead” and “all dead” in the Princess Bride. “It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do…. Go through his clothes and look for loose change.” While the technology we have is remarkable, it clearly has limitations.
So what are we to make of this strange period in our history? How do we redeem this moment? I think there are two tensions we need to manage in order to best utilize this experience of the virtual. The first is that we should keep hold of what is good. The second is that we should foster the longing created by that which is lacking. Keeping these two in tension will help us to best navigate a virtual world that has been thrust upon us for a moment.
Keep hold of what is good. At the end of his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul gives a quick burst of final instructions. He encourages them to test every prophecy and to hold fast to what is good (1 Thess 5:21). He tells the Ephesians to try and discern what is pleasing to the Lord (Eph 5:10). John writes that we are to test every spirit (1 Jn 4:1). We need to use discernment and to hold fast to what is good. There is good and bad. Discernment uses Scripture as a filter to draw out the good and discard the bad. There is good in our virtual worship and online church.
So what is good about this time of “virtual” church? It allows us some manner of fellowship with the body of Christ, which informs and facilitates our prayers for one another. It helps us to continue to keep the Sabbath day. It encourages us to stay in God’s Word. We are able to maintain, in some degree, a sense of the corporate nature of the Church. This is good. Hold fast to what is good.
But not all is 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 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:
In the entire law we do not read one syllable that lays a rule upon man as regards those things which he may or may not do, for the advantage of his own flesh. And obviously, since men were born in such a state that they are all too much inclined to self-love – and, however much they deviate from truth, they still keep self-love – there was no need of a law that would increase or rather enkindle this already excessive love. Hence it is very clear that we keep the commandments not by loving ourselves but by loving God and neighbor; that he lives the best and holiest life who lives and strives for himself as little as he can, and that 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 (Institutes, II.viii.54).
Technology gives us a sense of greater control in some of our circumstances. We can determine time and place, as well as our appearance and attention. 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. You are no longer at the mercy of some other person, but you are in control. Do we think about how that sense of control affects your 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 have greater ability to manipulate the image I put forward. 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 all the stronger in our virtual setting. We need to discern between the good and the bad. Hold fast to what is good.
Secondly, we need to foster a longing for that which is lacking. What is lacking? For one, we are. If things feel off in our virtual meetings, accept that. It should feel off. Allow that sense of missing to create a longing for what is meant to be. We live in time when we see the Kingdom of God as “already but not yet.” Jesus is already victorious and reigning now, but we do not yet experience the consummation of that Kingdom. So, as we live in the tension between the two, it should create a longing in our hearts for what is to come. We should long for heaven and the consummated presence of God among his covenant people. In a smaller sense, our absence in person should create a longer for when we will be together in person. We are missing the sacraments while we are apart, because the sacraments are necessarily only done when we are together. Allow the sense of missing to create a longing for what is not there. Let your hunger for it build.
Let our distance create greater longing for better fellowship when we are together. 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, Letters of St. Augustine to Zenobius)
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 Jn 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 Jn 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.”
Right now, the joy of our meeting together is incomplete. It is not totally lacking. In this, technology is a wonderful blessing for which we ought to give thanks. But our joy is incomplete while we are quarantined. We long to meet face to face. That longing is good. Do not try to simply get rid of that longing with some virtual substitute, because the virtual will never quite satisfy. It might approach it or come near to it. But it never fully quenches what is lacking. Instead, let that hunger build, so that when we meet face to face, our joy may be complete.