When our congregation, Church of the Savior, moved to online services some nine months ago, our family tried to keep things normal. We had the children dress in nice Sunday clothes, though we would be watching via screen instead of entering a sanctuary. We arranged the chairs in the living room to look like pews. We tried to follow along, bowing at the right times and crossing ourselves at the right moment.
Anyone who has ever attended a religious service (or any event) with children knows it is a constant struggle to get them to sit still, pay attention and not distract those around them. Every Sunday in the pew is a battle of wills. But if in-person services were a skirmish, online church is war.
My family is a group of outliers. Just 33 percent of Americans attend religious services weekly. As for the rest of the country, about one-third make their way to a place of worship somewhere between a couple of times a month and a few times a year. The final third attend rarely, if at all. But no matter where one falls on that spectrum, the pandemic has changed the way we experience religion.
After that first Zoom church week, our family abandoned the church clothes and makeshift pews. Everyone’s attention lagged.
Maybe it was screen fatigue. My children have Zoom school. As a professor, I have Zoom teaching. With my wife deployed, we have a Zoom marriage and, now, Zoom church. Something had to give.
In July, researchers at Barna, a group dedicated to studying faith and culture, found church attendance in America had dropped significantly during the pandemic. I’m not surprised. I, too, have gone through periods where I couldn’t stomach a Zoom service. Instead, we open our Book of Common Prayer and worship as a family.
And yet this is what we’ve got — lest we simply shut down these services until the church can gather without restriction.
It is true that Zoom religious services are fundamentally inadequate. This is not a criticism of the clergy and lay leaders who have put in tremendous creative effort. In a sense it is an indictment of the very idea of what we look for in church, and a chance to realign our perspective. That is because even in-person services are, in a sense, inadequate. Everyone who has come to follow a religion knows of that initial season of zeal. People are excited and energetic about their newfound faith; the services seem transcendent. But that feeling often fades and becomes something else.
If bodies and physical spaces are really means by which we attempt to encounter God on earth, something immeasurable is lost when worship goes virtual. This loss becomes all the more acute during the holiday season, a time when churches are usually filled with candles, flowers and flowing vestments. Instead, the choir stalls and pews will be largely empty.
W.E.B. Dubois is famous for describing the Black church as “the preacher, the music and the frenzy.” That is true enough as a sociological analysis, but to members of the congregation there is a fourth element to that mix: finding God’s own presence among them.
There are few things more powerful than being in the presence of a Black gospel choir, its lead singer clapping and moving in rhythm testifying to the power of God. There are moments when the choirs and the preachers who follow can lift an entire congregation and transport it. They can fill the despairing with hope and the fearful with the courage to demand justice.
These days, instead of choirs, we mumble along trying to harmonize with a virtual worship leader.
In the months of pandemic worship, I have come to recognize that religious services, by their very nature, cannot fulfill what they promise. Services attempt to usher finite people into the presence of someone we believe is infinite. What hymn or sermon can capture that? We are chasing the wind. There are fits and starts, hints of something at the edge of our perception, but not the thing itself.
Humans disappoint, especially those we expect to share our beliefs and values. We see other believers fail to display the deep love for one another and the stranger that is commended in our sacred texts. We witness others compromise our deepest values, sacrificed for access to power. Integrity seems in short supply. We attend services where the people are unfriendly, the sermons aren’t great and the music is a struggle. Instead of encountering the transcendent, we bump against the limits of human talent.
These frustrations, large and small, cause some to check out on religion in much the same way that people have checked out on Zoom services. And yet, why did roughly a third of Americans trudge off to services week in and week out before the pandemic? Why do some of us continue to log on during it?
We stay because attendance is not about what the church gives us; it is our way of offering something to God. It is a small rebellion, a way of saying that there is more to life than simply the acquisition of more. It is an attempt to become the kind of people who live lives of charity and service.
The very inadequacy of church services, Zoom and otherwise, is a reminder we do not come into churches to encounter a life lesson on how to raise our children or to learn to be good Americans, whatever that means. Our aim is much more audacious. We are attempting to encounter God and, in so doing, find ourselves, possibly for the first time.
One recent weekend we gathered once more for Zoom church. My wife logged on from her military outpost and I logged on with the kids. I settled into my role at tech support. Two of the younger kids lingered on the couch happily coloring. As I followed along in the service, something surprised me. I looked up from the computer and saw my daughter standing in the middle of the living room. Her tender, beautiful voice resounding throughout the space. She was singing. I found myself ushered into the presence of something that defies description.