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Worship Online: Is Online Space Sacred?

By Lisa Hancock

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On April 12, 2020, I found myself in the same place I had been for a month of Sundays, juggling between feeding my toddler and attending online services from our living room. It was Easter Sunday, and I felt anything but joy. The world felt precarious; constant news updates kept anxieties high, and some days hope felt too dangerous. Nevertheless, trying to maintain some sense of routine and a tether to pre-pandemic life, I dressed my child up for Easter, and our family gathered in the living room. As the liturgist proclaimed, “Christ is risen,” we responded, “Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!” And then, my eighteen-month-old looked up at me and said, “Alleluia!” and suddenly we were on sacred ground. On the floor of our living room, the weight of early pandemic days lifted for just a moment, and I felt the nearness of God.

Recently, I was cleaning out a closet and found the shirt my now-preschooler wore on that Easter Sunday, and I found myself again in a brush with the sacred as I remembered the breath of life that moment gave me during a season of near-constant crisis. (Needless to say, that shirt didn’t get thrown out!) I also started to reflect on how the landscape of online—and now, hybrid—worship has changed from pre-pandemic to early pandemic to now. We have moved past the adrenaline high of steep learning curves, on-our-toes problem solving, and pivot after pivot to make sure worship happened somehow and some way when gathering in our buildings was unsafe. While it is now safe for some—though not all—to gather in person again, it seems that online or hybrid worship has now been folded into many churches’ modus operandi. Now that we have moved out of the intense crisis of the early pandemic, it is perhaps time to stop and consider:

Is online space sacred?

Perhaps you too had brushes with the sacred as we moved to an almost completely online church in the spring of 2020. You may have also experienced challenging and painful encounters online. In October 2020, sixty-four percent of Americans said that social media has a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the United States today. Among the negative issues they listed were the sharing of misinformation and the spread of hate and harassment. Add to these concerns around the rise of hacking and cybercrime in our increasingly digitized and connected world, and the internet can feel like a hazardous and distinctly not sacred place.

While it is now safe for some—though not all—to gather in person again, it seems that online or hybrid worship has now been folded into many churches’ modus operandi.

In addition to these perils, much of our ordinary lives have become inextricably linked to online space. Physical maps have been replaced with GPS phone apps; bills are paid through a website or app instead of mailing in a check; students use iPads to access learning materials in school, and a good deal of our personal and professional communication happens over email or Zoom rather than over the phone or in person. While these were already realities pre-pandemic, a rapid escalation in the digitizing of our daily lives has occurred over the last two years. While there are certainly times the internet feels dangerous, for many of us, the internet also feels quite ordinary. Online space holds the stress of work, the joy of scrolling through pictures of kids and grandkids, and the daily routines of our lives.

In his attempts to identify the sacred, nineteenth-century scholar Émile Durkheim offered a name for the ordinary spaces and rhythms of life: the profane. For Durkheim, the profane is the direct opposite of the sacred—it is all the mundane things of life that are not set apart as sacred or as relating to the sacred. In fact, he boldly claimed that “since the idea of the sacred is always and everywhere separated from the idea of the profane…the mind irresistibly refuses to allow the two…even to be merely put in contact with each other.”[1] This is not to say that the profane and the sacred are completely unrelated. Rather, much like a marshmallow risks being set aflame the closer it comes to a fire, Durkheim says that the closer the sacred and profane come to one another, the more they risk becoming like the other. Importantly, Durkheim’s distinction between the sacred and profane is not a value judgment. Today, “profane” might imply something morally wrong as distinct from the sacred, which implies the morally upright. For Durkheim, the sacred and the profane are meanings that we give to objects, spaces, and actions that describe our experience of them as either ordinary or holy. Yet, what Durkheim doesn’t always account for is that we experience the sacred and the profane as distinct because we encounter them in close proximity to each other.

We find an example of this in Exodus 25 when God first tells Moses to take up an offering from the Israelites and then instructs him to make a sanctuary for God. The list of materials that God requests as an offering is quite ordinary. From precious metals to yarns and fine linens to tanned skins and leather to wood, oil, and spices, these are all materials the Israelites have on hand, even while wandering in the desert. The transition from ordinary or profane to sacred happens as they follow God’s instructions for creating the sanctuary, a Tabernacle in which God will dwell among them. For the next fifteen chapters, Exodus details God’s instructions for making every part of the Tabernacle, concluding in Exodus 40 with its erection and installation. After setting up the structure and putting the furnishings in place, including the Ark of the Covenant, Moses is instructed by God to anoint every part of the Tabernacle and its furniture, as well as Aaron and his sons. Thus, Moses consecrates—that is, sets apart—the otherwise mundane structure, furnishings, and priests for service to God. When Moses accomplishes all of this,

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey, but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey. Exodus 40:34-38 (NRSVUE)

After Moses consecrates the ordinary materials of the Tabernacle for sacred purposes, God’s presence comes to dwell in the middle of the Israelites. The sacred comes to neighbor the ordinary. God does this again in John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (NRSVUE). The Greek skēnoō, often translated as “lived” or “made his dwelling,” literally means “pitched his tent” or “tabernacled.” So, another way of reading John 1:14a is “And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us…” The work God began of bringing the sacred close to the everyday lives of God’s people in Exodus 25-40 finds ultimate expression in the Incarnation when Jesus, the Word made flesh, moves into the neighborhood of ordinary humanity.

In many ways, the church today faces challenges similar to those of the Israelites in Exodus 40. We have had a long season of wandering, doing our best to navigate new environments thrust upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic. The world we knew in March 2020 is no longer the world we live in. Even with the return of some familiarity in the past year, going back to pre-pandemic times is not an option. We are no longer the same people, and we must follow God’s guidance and live as the Body of Christ in the world as it is now, not the world we left behind.

This brings us back to online space. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the constant presence and use of the internet in everyday life made it an ordinary, profane tool. It was knowledge of that mundane tool, no matter how limited, that enabled so many of our churches to offer weekly worship online when it was not safe for churches to gather in person. Since March 2020, online and hybrid worship have gone from a temporary solution to an ongoing reality integrated into new rhythms of life for many of our churches. Experiments in online and hybrid worship demonstrate that the internet is an ordinary tool that can be bent and shaped for any number of purposes. And, if the Tabernacle and the Incarnation teach us anything, it is that God likes to move in and become neighbors with the mundane, profane, and ordinary parts of our world.

Thus, our job as Christians—laity and clergy, pastors and worship leaders—is not to question if God can be found in online spaces. God is already there whether we are or not. Rather, our call is to recognize the gifts the internet offers, use those gifts toward sacred purposes, and anoint and set apart space online for the worship of God and the edification of the Body of Christ. Perhaps then, instead of asking “Is online space sacred?” the better question is, “Can online space become sacred?” In the spirit of the Tabernacle builders and more than two millennia of Jesus followers, our answer must be a resounding, “Yes!”

In the next two Worship Online articles, we will dig deeper into theological and pastoral considerations for consecrating online space for worship with intentionality and care. As you consider and wrestle with these questions in your own community, take some time to reflect on the question:

What is necessary to make a space sacred?

[1] Émile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religion, as quoted in Daniel Pals, Introducing Religion: Readings from Classic Theorists (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 104.

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.

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