In this time of COVID-19 physical isolation, most churches are meeting virtually instead of physically, an appropriate and necessary step to protect our communities from harm. An inevitable question has accompanied this move: are virtual worship meetings “real” in the same way physical ones are?
It’s time to put that to rest. They are. Or at least, they’d better be! Here are a couple of important reasons why.
Saying that virtual meetings are not as valid as in-person meetings presumes that there’s a single, universal definition of reality we can perceive and control. News flash: reality doesn’t show up when we walk in the door and depart with us when we leave. It’s not contained in our heads. Reality exists beyond us, beyond our ability to perceive or understand. The first confession of having a God is that we are not it.
We experience important things when we’re in person together. We can see, touch, and feel close to each other. God does not reside in our sight, nor is God limited to the things we can touch. God is present even when our feelings go wonky, or just aren’t there.
If we say God only works through the gatherings we’re familiar with, we exclude people who can’t be a part of those gatherings in the same way. If physical, in-person contact is the metric, what about people who are homebound? How about people whose reality doesn’t include being able to see or for whom touch is not safe? What about any random person on a Sunday when they’re just not “feeling it”? Is God less real for these folks because their engagement is different?
An entire generation has grown up learning how to communicate online. This generation is not yet the center of the church hierarchy, but that doesn’t make them less valuable or less children of God. Dare we say that their connections—and the relationships that stem from them--are less valid, or “real”, than those we’ve traditionally experienced? I know few people, even among the most virtually connected, who think that online communication is the only desirable form of interaction. Physical presence is valued by virtual communicators. Why isn’t virtual communication valued by physical communicators the same way?
Implying that God only operates in the way the dominant, empowered majority perceives as “normal” eliminates compassion for the neighbor. Without that, faith becomes profoundly selfish and unrecognizable, a seat of judgment rather than a fountain of growth and praise.
Every measure we try to use to invalidate virtual gatherings as unreal or “lesser than” boils down to a single claim: reality only works the way the speaker defines it. No human being, not even God, weighs more than the speaker’s personal convictions and perceptions.
Oddly enough, Jesus dealt with a situation just like this in the gospel reading for this past week. John 20: 19-31 contains the famous story of “Doubting Thomas”. Even though other disciples saw God, Thomas refused to believe until he had seen on his own terms, in the exact way he determined was real.
Jesus did not condemn Thomas for this. Instead, he showed himself to Thomas patiently, in Thomas’ own way, while also showing himself to everyone else in their way and time. This was not an either-or situation. Wherever and however the disciples showed up, Jesus was there.
Jesus took it a step farther, even. At the end of the Gospel, he told Thomas that it was fine to believe because he had seen Jesus in physical proximity, but blessed also were those who would not exist in physical proximity to Jesus, yet still believe.
Stop and think a moment. How would that ongoing belief be perpetuated down through the ages? Jesus would not be physically present, visible in human form. Instead, his story would be conveyed to people who were not in proximity to him. They did not have the internet, Facebook Live, or Zoom meetings back then. You know what they did instead? They told the story to each other, then they wrote it down. Those testimonies were collected into what we now know as the Bible.
Our physical, in-person worship meetings center around scripture to this day. For us, the Word IS proximity to Jesus.
We accept this because it’s the only reality we know, but it is not the only reality that’s ever existed. To Thomas and the actual disciples from those first, post-resurrection, Jesus-in-person gatherings, WE are the virtual participants. We are not there with Jesus in person, yet we’re connected via the “technology” of written and spoken word, just as if we were.
From the perspective of those who were there, ALL of us experience God remotely. If we say the only “real” community is a physical community rather than a virtual one, then none of us are in a real community of faith.
Instead of claiming that God only appears or acts in accordance with our perceptions and biases…instead of claiming that God’s circle extends exactly far enough to encompass us but not farther to our friends and neighbors…we should do what we’re called to do: trust, follow, and celebrate God’s presence with all God’s people.
If Jesus could get past the walls of that locked room in Jerusalem to reach his people, he can get past our virtual firewalls too. Let’s put this question to bed and get on with being the community we’re supposed to be: together with each other and God in ALL the wonderful ways that help share the story.