It’s March 2020. A new virus first identified in Eastern Asia is spreading rapidly, claiming lives worldwide. As there is little understanding of how the virus works and how it can be controlled or treated, political leaders are faced with a Shakespearean dilemma: to lockdown or not to lockdown. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in a public broadcast that our country would go into lockdown, meaning that shops and non-essential businesses have to close immediately, and people must stay at home. A short list of exemptions where one is allowed to leave their home is published but worshipping in a public building is not considered an essential activity, so churches must close their doors too. As church leaders, due to the short time between the announcement and the enactment of the lockdown measures, we realise that we need to focus on continuing to offer some worship experience, and we start exploring how we can use modern technology to take public worship from the four walls of the church into people’s homes.
While at the time, not all churches had the technical know-how or the hardware required to do it straight away, in the weeks following the lockdown announcement, online worship became available to all – previously regular church-goers, those who stopped attending church way before Covid19, but also to new people who had questions about life or wanted to explore their spirituality and were either completely new to it or have previously been reluctant to go in person to a place of worship. Some from the latter category have since become followers of a particular faith pathway.
We are now in 2022. Churches have reopened, and in-person worship has resumed. Most of those who used to go to church pre-lockdown(s) have come back to church because they missed the fellowship, the feeling of joining with others and being united by a common purpose, the joy of worshipping together with others under the same roof, the collective singing, the hugs, and kisses, or simply shaking someone’s hand and greeting them. The Greek word for church, Ekklēsia, refers to a called-out assembly or congregation of people, so the church is meant to be about coming together.
Some decided to continue worshipping from home for various reasons. Of those who reconsidered their position on faith during Covid19, some have returned, and some have decided not to. Even in the last category, the ones who engaged with God during Covid, maybe for the first time, have continued their journeys while others gave up. The ones from this latter category who stayed could be called Virtual Christians. They are the Digital Natives of Christianity who had little or no previous experience of in-person worship; the post-pandemic worship experience is challenging.
For two years, they could access church services from the comfort of their home, and if one day the service they liked in a church last week did not feel as good, they could switch to a different one. They accessed thousands of online sermons from various speakers when no service occurred. They identified the ones they liked most, the ones who challenged them and stirred them spiritually and could skip over the ones they considered not so great. There was no routine, set times, limitations, or having to see someone face to face.
After churches reopened, I met many such Virtual Christians. They were excited about joining a church because they thought it would be an online experience. Only it isn’t. The discussions in the Sabbath School class are not always as challenging, structured, or exciting as you could find online or on Christian TV networks. The services are not always running like clockwork, and sometimes they don’t start on time, or the people at the front don’t seem to go up and down on cue like the ones online do. Sometimes a person will go up to the mic to announce the collection of offerings and then preach another sermon. On the topic of sermons, the preachers in church most of the time are not matching the kind of preachers you can find online because of the different levels of training or energy or background and so on.
Virtual Christians often feel uncomfortable with in-person worship. Indeed, some integrated effortlessly, but it is not the case with all. Some have attended once or twice and then told me that while they adhere to the beliefs of our church, they will not come back in person. Others reluctantly attend and share with me that they sometimes feel like they wasted their time when they could have watched or listened to a “proper” Bible study discussion, worship experience, or sermon. Many probably never even attempted to go to in-person services and continue to enjoy online services from only God knows where. What is certain is that they have faith, they get their spiritual food from various sources, but they don’t feel comfortable in a traditional church setting and don’t necessarily feel incomplete if they miss out on the social element of the church.
It is easy to assume that it’s ok and we can leave each to their own. Or to think that we are all different, so we should encourage everyone to find the worship style that suits them best, the type of service or preacher that makes them feel moved spiritually, or even encourage them to stay online and browse through the many choices available at their disposal as long as they continue to search for God. While that may be true to a certain extent, there is a reason why Jesus worked with people in groups and sent them out in groups and also why the early church was organised in multiple homes. New believers were joining a congregation near them, and why churches have always been about the collective experience.
It’s about learning to love people you might not immediately feel inclined to, about adapting and sacrificing some of your likes or dislikes to allow others to feel welcome too, supporting and encouraging one another, or being accountable and receiving guidance when confused or lost. The church is about much more than worshipping once a week for a few hours. “Virtual Christians” don’t always have a good understanding of that based on their experience and way of coming to know God, so the onus is really on us, the “seasoned” Christians, to create an environment that helps them feel welcomed, helps them feel filled spiritually, and makes them want to come back again and again. That is, of course, dependent on whether or not we understand what the church is all about, are committed to being part of Jesus’ movement, and allow the Holy Spirit to work in us and through us.
Pastor Alex Mareniuc is an ordained minister currently serving Chatham, Riverway and Maidstone in South England Conference.