7 Thoughtful Reader Responses on Ending Online Church

There was a huge response to last week’s newsletter, where I argued that churches should phase out their livestream services. I received thousands of emails and other replies online, many of which were beautiful and profound. You’ve given me a lot to think about!

Readers raised important concerns and questions, so I decided to use this week’s newsletter to highlight excerpts from some of the thoughtful and helpful replies that I received.

Some readers responded enthusiastically to the piece and found motivation in it to return to in-person services.

A reader from Connecticut said: “I think the worst part of online services is that on a busy weekend I can have an excuse to stay at home. … Watching an online service while cooking dinners for the week or doing the laundry provides none of the benefits of physically being present in church. I pray that your newsletter will provide me with the motivation to get back to church!”

A physician in Delaware wrote: “I have enjoyed your column and agree that the emphasis on video connection falls short of the touch, smell, direct three-dimensional vision of churchgoers.

“I also miss the connection with the homeless in our church and particularly the absence of children and young people who are being seduced by the internet and away from the raw and pleasant smell of life in the pews. For me, church is community, and the Covid fear, although real, is overplayed. It can be done safely with masks and appropriate distancing. The older people in the church resist return from this fear and are probably the ones who most need it. I am 76 years old, work in a children’s hospital and with appropriate caution still am active in my community and not frightened by Covid, whose main harm is that it causes increasing community isolation.”

A friend in Pennsylvania whose daughter is immunocompromised reflected on why she still thinks in-person church is essential:

“I am the mother of three children, one who is immune-suppressed in order to protect her transplanted heart, and two healthy boys. We are a vaccinated family. I could not agree more with the need (and desire) for in-person worship at this time.

“My daughter’s life has been a process of measuring risk with benefit. When the doctors told us at the beginning of her life that she would not be able to beat the cold or flu or R.S.V. (normal childhood viruses) like other children, we knew that we needed to take the concern of transmitting these viruses with great caution.

“In the 12 years since, this has been weighed, however, with a deep conviction that we need to cultivate a life in which she can be carefree and joyful at the same time. I believe that human connection is necessary for a life of joy. And joy is necessary for our health; physical, emotional and spiritual.

“This is why we chose in-person learning AND in-person worship when they became options for our family. Though the necessity of being homebound was clear at the beginning, we knew that it was temporary and that a return to human connection was vital for our holistic health. This was not a decision made in spite of our daughter’s risk, but for her benefit.

“She needs to feel as close to normal as possible, when her monthly (sometimes weekly) doctor appointments tell her she’s not. She needs to participate in worship with the broken body that she has and take in the blood and body of our Lord broken for her. She needs to sing for joy with the congregation after we’ve received the Eucharist and declare hope for a time when transplants (and Covid) will be no more. We all do.

“Online church was a gift to us when we had no other option, but it could never replace the in-person fellowship of the saints and, in my opinion, can’t be seen as an equal alternative.”

There were readers who agree with the importance of in-person church but who have found that in practice it is difficult to attend church where they live because of a lack of Covid-19 precautions.

One friend in rural Virginia commented: “We cannot find a safe place to worship in our community because people won’t mask and most of them aren’t vaccinated. We tried once in the past two years to go to church in person and were so discouraged we just haven’t gone back again.”

The most weighty objections I received were from people with disabilities or compromised immune systems. They often expressed feeling overlooked even before the pandemic began and felt that online church allowed for more involvement in their church.

Here is an insightful response from one such reader: “I live with incurable lymphoma, a primary immune deficiency, life-threatening asthma and tracheobronchomalacia, and have to take immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of my life. Prior to the pandemic, I often refrained from attending services during the winter because of the high flu risk, but almost never missed anything during the rest of the year. I was deeply involved in our congregational life.

“You say that churches have been dealing with the problem of the homebound and the sick for centuries — that’s a very romantic notion. Maybe some churches genuinely care for the sick. Here, in south Louisiana, that has not been the case when it comes to the chronically ill. That is what I’ve observed both as a caregiver and as a patient. The chronically ill are an afterthought, if thought of at all.

“When I asked our leadership, during the rare congregational meeting in which they included a videoconferencing component, what they were planning to do to make it possible for those of us who are immunocompromised to participate in church activities, a church leader replied in an annoyed, flippant tone of voice, that they were following all the C.D.C. guidelines. And no, our church’s leadership doesn’t care enough about the homebound to have anyone come visit us in person. If anyone needs help, they have to beg for it. It’s not offered.

“I hope you’ll consider publishing something that would encourage church leadership to take seriously the spiritual and equally deep social needs of the chronically ill and immunocompromised, and begin treating us like we matter just as much as the healthy members of their congregations.”

Here are excerpts from a Twitter thread by Tanya Marlow, a writer in Britain, who is homebound: “I want to push back on two areas I think you confuse: embodiment and interaction. I am embodied. I am always embodied because I have a body, albeit a disabled one. When I am in bed, watching a service, I am worshiping with my body. Please don’t confuse geographically less proximate with disembodied.

“Having an online option allows me to serve. I have shared testimony via video link and even preached sermons that way. Neither does it exclude community: Having a Zoom chat and prayer after the service is fab, and can be integrated with those in church, too.

“As well as pastoral considerations, there are missional ones: disabled people are a massively underreached people group and have often experienced abuse and rejection by churches.”

There were also those who sought a creative way to limit churches’ use of livestreaming while also reaching out to and supporting people who are disabled or have compromised immune systems.

A reader in Texas wrote: “Even as someone who’s super pro-disability rights, I don’t think that in-person and online experiences are wholly equivalent. And I agree that church members visiting homebound members is essential. (And online services likely permit churches to cop-out of these kinds of ministries.) But how do ministries to homebound members find disabled Christians who are not yet members? (Unlike many elderly churchgoers, a young disabled adult who moves to a new area likely didn’t develop the disability while at a church, and thus it would be difficult for the church to learn about him/her.)

“Why should homebound disabled Christians not have access to the preaching and exposition of the word that they receive from watching a sermon online? Perhaps a middle line should be drawn: Churches need to do better at their homebound ministries, they need to preach that — when churchgoers are able — they should attend services in person because embodiment is significant, but they also should leave services online for the disabled to access.”

I agree that offering livestreaming services to those with unique accessibility needs could play a helpful role as one part of more comprehensive, holistic and ongoing support. I am sorry not to have included this caveat in my original piece.

Each of these responses offers vital and needed insight as we seek to come back from Covid as a church and a society. I am grateful for you, readers, and for your interaction with these important ideas and difficult questions.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”

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