What's Tony Thinking

To Be Or Not To Be On-Line


I’m following up on my blog earlier this week, “B. Y. O. B., Is It Time to Drop On-Line Church?” In that piece, I drafted on an essay I liked from Tish Harrison Warren, where she argued that it was time to let go of “on-line” church.

While my blog got some hearty affirmations it also got some heart-felt, thoughtful push-back. I thought I’d share some of the latter with you and then respond to those comments.

One began with the true and insightful observation that our personal situation/ circumstances has a lot to do with how we respond to what we read.

“It is interesting how personal context shapes how I read your essays.  I very much agree with what Tish is saying, but I am reading it on a day where my third chemo infusion is hitting me hard – harder than the first two rounds – and my primary oncologist is cautioning me that my immune system is so compromised that even a common cold would be a serious matter – for me the term ‘reasonable precaution’ is not a possibility . . . Cancer and chemo are of course a specific and, fortunately, uncommon barrier to personal participation in worship, but at the moment it is mine!”

Another person wrote, “Tony, to reply briefly; this seems to be short-sighted, hard-core and hard hearted. My wife and I discovered the ‘First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York’ online and found a true church-home after being believers that were not members of any local church for the last 17 years!

“Our reasons for searching online were we found local churches that spent too much of their ministry looking in-ward and often not very welcoming towards possible new members.”

Another person wondered if dropping on-line might prove a mortal blow to already struggling congregations. “My gut tells me that if BYOB is the only option, many congregations will find even after things are relatively ‘safe’ again that they are 20 – 40% or more smaller than they were before the pandemic.”

Another correspondent was paying attention to the controversy over the original article on line by Warren, writing, “I agree with Warren and you. Surprisingly, I got into an unexpected argument about this on Twitter (which I not on very often.) I was stunned by the number of people who accused her of something called ‘ableism’ which, apparently, is equal to being a racist. When I simply declared my own desire for in-person worship, I was immediately suspect of the same ignorance, especially when I said my experience of Zoom worship is for me like watching church on TV which I despise.”

Elsewhere the ableism and accessibility of on-line church for people with disabilities is explored at length, under the heading, “Quitting On-Line Church Is Abandoning the One for the Ninety-Nine,” referring to Jesus’ parable of the shepherd who does just the opposite, abandoning the 99 to seek the one lost sheep.

My response: first off, I really appreciate people taking the time and making the effort to comment. This sample skews to the negative responses, there were as many positives. I will admit that I got up a bit on my theological high-horse in the original, riding hard after the bad-guys of consumerism and various gnostic (anti-body) heresies.

I have the luxury of doing that because I am not serving an actual congregation! So, if I were serving an actual congregation where people had found an on-line church home during the pandemic, how might I handle this?

One of the things I appreciated about Warren’s original piece was that she approached the issue theologically. I would try to do that. In other words, I would try to talk about the theology of incarnation, of an embodied faith and community. I would say this is the norm and try to say why. Then I would probably keep on-line going, at least for several years, post-pandemic (should we ever get there), for the reasons many of you have cited.

So, in the end, it would probably be a both/ and for me, but I would treat the on-line as an important, though not first choice. Some, I imagine, would accuse me of making either the distant or differently abled into “second-class citizens.” While that would not be the intent, I can see the point.

All of this makes me even more empathetic for church leaders and congregations negotiating these issues and the constant adjustments during the pandemic. Bless you and thank you.

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