I spend a fair bit of time traveling. At least, under normal circumstances I do. Sometimes these are little more than overnight trips to conferences across the U.S. border and sometimes these are extended journeys to the far corners of the earth. Wherever I go, and for however long I’m away, I am sure to keep in touch with my family, and especially with Aileen. Through the marvels of modern technologies, I usually have the ability to not only hear her voice, but even to see her face. I’ve been to many spots in the world where there is no access to clean water, but full access to 4G internet—access plenty strong enough to allow us to FaceTime.
Yet Aileen never worries that I won’t come home. She is never concerned that I’ll conclude FaceTime is good enough and decide to only ever stay in touch virtually. She knows that while FaceTime may be a blessing, it’s not a substitute for face-to-face time. She knows that while it may be good for what it is, it’s not an adequate substitute for the real thing. She knows that before long I’ll do everything in my power to get home, to get back to where she is, to once again be physically present with her.
Why is this? It’s because physical presence matters. There are certain things we can only do as a husband and wife, certain things we can only be as spouses, when we share the same space. There are certain things we cannot do, certain things we cannot be, when we are connected only through ethereal cyberspace. In fact, the greatest blessings of marriage are the very elements that are most obviously lacking through cameras and screens. So while FaceTime provides a kind of togetherness, a kind of presence, it is only ever that—kind of.
We might go even further to say that the pseudo-presence of FaceTime actually serves to increase the longing to be truly together. When we see each other, we want to be with each other. In its own way, the technology serves to highlight the distance between us. Its shortcomings accentuate the joys and benefits of true presence. It is only ever a poor substitute. Hence even while we look at each other on these screens, our conversations are full of expressions of longing and of the deep desire to be together.
We are in a strange period right now when for a matter of weeks, or perhaps even months, many of us are not able to meet as local churches. Due to the prevalence and risk of a deadly disease, and due to our desire to submit to the directives of our governments, we cannot gather together in the same space. Many churches have taken to broadcasting services through the internet. There are some Christians who are concerned that this sudden swell in online services presages a coming decline in actual church attendance. There are some who are concerned that when our churches once again open their doors, many people will be content to remain at home, having now experienced a virtual equivalent.
I am not concerned. I am not concerned that committed Christians will reject actual church for cyber-church anymore than I’m concerned that committed spouses will reject face-to-face time in favor of FaceTime. Just as healthy marriage calls for physical proximity, so does healthy church membership. Just as a husband and wife need to be together to carry out the purpose and meaning of marriage, Christians need to be together to carry out the purpose and meaning of church membership. Just as a husband and wife long to share space, church members long to share space. A camera and screen will do when necessary, but they are at best a shadow of the real thing. They may provoke gratitude in those times they are the only option, but they will also provoke longing.
I am convinced there is a case to be made that in these unique circumstances it is acceptable, and perhaps even prudent, for churches to broadcast a kind of worship service to their members. Just because something is irregular does not make it wrong. But at the same time, I’m sure we will see that online church can’t and won’t satisfy the true Christian’s desire for true worship and true fellowship. It can’t and won’t satisfy our deep longing to be together as a congregation any more than a video chat will satisfy a husband and wife’s deep longing for presence, for proximity, for touch. To the contrary, to use these tools is to be forced to see their most glaring inadequacies. To use them is to experience how insufficient they are. They may be good, but they can’t and won’t be good enough.