Worship Online: Digital and Embodied
By Lisa Hancock
The church is not a building,
the church is not a steeple.
The church is not a resting-place,
the church is a people!
I am the church! You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus, all around the world,
yes, we’re the church together!
The first verse and refrain of Richard K. Avery and Donald S. Marsh’s hymn “We Are the Church” offer a simple yet significant statement about what makes the church—the people. Written in 1972, the context out of which this hymn originated is quite different from today. During a time when local churches were often identified by their physical footprint in a community, Avery and Marsh invited Christians to recognize that the core identity of the church is as a people, not a structure. And not only that— but a gathered people. The capital “C” Church is not a collection of buildings, but a connection of Christ followers across time, space, and place. Today, many of us have a very different experience of church. For the last twenty-plus years, local church expressions have become increasingly digital and, subsequently, global. In some ways, we are more aware than ever that “the church is a people” because, with a few clicks of a mouse, we can encounter Christians all over the world without leaving our homes. The internet allows us to listen to sermons, sing songs, and pray with other Christians in different languages and locales. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the internet even made it possible for us to remain connected with church members down the street and across town while physically separate. The notion that the church exists outside of local church buildings is fairly clear. Nevertheless, Avery and Marsh’s words remain relevant to us in 2022. As churches continue to gather in online and hybrid modes, we must wrestle with the false assumption that online participation is disembodied and anonymous, as well as the impacts this assumption has on the ways we craft and curate online space for worship. We too must begin with the simple theological statement: “the church is a people!”
The capital “C” Church is not a collection of buildings, but a connection of Christ followers across time, space, and place.
Liturgical scholar Teresa Berger identifies “the assumption that…[online worship] amounts to a disembodied, virtual, and therefore unreal practice” as one of the significant misgivings people have about exploring online worship. Certainly, the concern regarding online worship as potentially disembodied is not merely about participation in worship, but also about the harmful online interactions that we can tie to people’s perception of disembodied anonymity in online spaces. Professor Michael Lynch speaks to this concern while reflecting on increasing group polarization in the online world. He writes, “the Internet allows us to get what we want—or what we think we want—faster,” but it allows us to do so “without leaving our protective bubble, without sullying ourselves with the messy and inconvenient physical lives of others; it offers anonymity and friends we’ve never met.”
Lest we assume Lynch’s statement is wholly negative, the anonymity and connectedness of the internet can also be incredible assets. Interacting online from the safety of home empowers some people to use their voice in ways they can’t out in public without fear of harm or retribution. The internet also facilitates human connection for individuals with disabilities who find it difficult to navigate often inaccessible public spaces and attitudes. For the church, greater interaction and connectedness within the family of Christ—be it down the street or around the world—is an enormous asset. Yet, to use this asset to its greatest advantage, we have to recognize the difference between the internet as a tool and the ways we use that tool in online platforms. This brings us back to the assumption that participation in online spaces—including online worship—is anonymous and disembodied.
When we approach online worship, much less any other online interaction, as anonymous and disembodied, we immediately remove a critical aspect of what it means to be the church—our gathered presence as the messy, embodied people that we are. In the first “Worship Online” article, we explored John 1:14, noting how Jesus the Word came to dwell or “tabernacle” among us. But to fully grasp what it means for Jesus to tabernacle among us, we can’t ignore the first five words of John 1:14—“And the Word became flesh…” (NRSVUE). In the Incarnation, the Son of God became flesh and blood humanity—fully human and fully divine—so that we might know, receive, and follow the ways of divine love. As a people saved by God Incarnate who became flesh so that we would know God’s presence among us, we severely inhibit our life as the church when we resist our own embodiment or the embodiment of our neighbors, whether in online or offline spaces.
When we approach online worship, much less any other online interaction, as anonymous and disembodied, we immediately remove a critical aspect of what it means to be the church—our gathered presence as the messy, embodied people that we are.
When we pull back and consider that everything from our wireless routers to our computers to our recording equipment and beyond requires humans to operate, we realize that online participation is far from anonymous and disembodied. When I was in elementary school, my dad got my brother and me our first computer. At the time, the most we could do on the machine was play a few games and, eventually, type a few papers. Inevitably, something would happen in the middle of a game or when I was using the word processor, and I would go crying to my dad, “This computer won’t work for me! It doesn’t like me, and it keeps breaking!” Every time, my dad would listen to the problem and then look me right in the eye, and say, “Lisa, this machine does not have a brain of its own. It is only as smart as its user.” While my dad’s goal was to help me slow down and learn to troubleshoot my problem, I often hear his lesson in my head as a reminder that on the other side of the computer, the phone, the Facebook post, the Instagram reel, or the email is another human being. In that same vein, online worship is far from disembodied. When we worship online, we worship with other people located physically apart but no less in their bodies and in a physical space operating their devices than you are right now as you read this.
Thus, as disciples of the Incarnate Christ, we must let go of notions that online participation in worship is not “real” participation, and instead curate online and hybrid worship that encourages embodied participation that is digitally mediated. As we start considering what this means in our different contexts, it is natural to reflect on how we can translate in-person rituals to online spaces. This is a good and right thing to do. Part of how we create sacred space online is through reference to sacred spaces and experiences we encounter offline. Yet this raises another important question: “Do our offline worship services encourage embodied participation beyond gathering physically in a room?” If we employ limited avenues for embodied participation in offline worship, then we limit our imagination for embodied participation in online and hybrid worship as well. To be present to God and one another in worship is an active endeavor that requires intentionality and engagement. Perhaps wrestling with how to do online and hybrid worship well will also have a positive impact on offline worship.
At the same time, online and hybrid worship may require us to try a new thing, to experiment with modes of participation that might not work as well in offline settings, and to stretch our understanding of time in relation to worship.
At the same time, online and hybrid worship may require us to try a new thing, to experiment with modes of participation that might not work as well in offline settings, and to stretch our understanding of time in relation to worship. What might it look like to create worship spaces that encourage asynchronous participation? How might the liturgy shift to accommodate simultaneous online/offline participation? Perhaps we will need to create more space within the liturgy for online participants to type while offline participants offer prayers out loud. Or, perhaps we will find ways for online and offline spaces to bleed into one another, to create a more permeable exchange between online and offline presence and participation. Or maybe we will figure out ways to extend Sunday morning worship into online rhythms for the whole congregation to join throughout the week. The possibilities are myriad!
The key is to not allow the internet as a tool to control the direction and growth of our worshiping life. We are not the tool—we are the Church together. As a tool, the internet can help us be and act as the church in our globalized and digitized world when directed by our identity and mission as the Body of Christ. Thus, in our third “Worship Online” article, we will explore how to create sacred space where our embodied selves can gather online when we don’t have physical walls to help us delineate space for worship. As you contemplate how to approach online worship as digital and embodied, reflect on the following question:
What practice(s) in sacred spaces help me be present and participate in my body?
“We Are the Church,” The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 558. Words & Music: Richard K. Avery & Donald Marsh © 1972 Hope Publishing Company www.hopepublishing.com. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Teresa Berger, @Worship: Liturgical Practices in Digital Worlds, (New York: Routledge, 2018), 16.
Michael Patrick Lynch, The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in The Age of Big Data (New York: Liveright, 2017), 41-42.
Dr. Lisa Hancock, Director of Worship Arts Ministries, served as an organist and music minister in United Methodist congregations in the Northwest Texas and North Texas Annual Conferences, as well as the New Day Amani/Upendo house churches in Dallas. After receiving her Master of Sacred Music and Master of Theological Studies from Perkins School of Theology, Lisa earned her PhD in Religious Studies from Southern Methodist University wherein she researched and wrote on the doctrine of Christ, disability, and atonement.