I miss in person worship. Let’s be honest, watching a bad stream in underwear got old by the beginning of July. There’s no substitute for warm bodies, loud coughs, kids whining about being bored (usually mine), the consumption of bread and juice. To be more honest, I miss singing. It’s the saliva flung from mouths belting at the top of their lungs. The beauty, mundanity, and hope of human community laid bare. Singing is an act of communion where the voices of the gathered are unified to express what can't be expressed by spoken word alone. This is God’s love made auditory through harmonies and melodies and instrument. Now, of course, it’s singing that is one of COVID’s most deadly weapons, especially hazardous to those of us who sing that bridge for eight times in a row.
I know you miss it. I do, too.
But COVID-19 is pressing me to think more critically about our worship—what is it to accomplish, or it’s end, and what makes it truthful? Does the worship actually honor God, transform lives, and break chains? It's all a way of thinking through what it means to experience God. The church is comfortable debating trinitarian and christological heresies, our beliefs, or what we call orthodoxy. We’re even good at debating the ways our beliefs shape our actions, our social justice and works of mercy, or what the church calls orthopraxy. We’re less comfortable thinking critically about our experiences, particularly those in worship. I rarely see good, deep theological reflection about how to evaluate what makes a right worship of God. Did you get the bumpies? Yes! Good enough.
Can a right experience of God be birthed out of harmful theology or social negligence? Here's a pressing question for our historical moment: is our negligent worship in the midst of a pandemic actually an experience of God?
The church is being pressed to think about our worship as we reckon with our history. Lauren Winner has wonderfully drawn attention to the ways our worship has been shaped by damaged gifts. The practices and instruments of the church aren't guaranteed to magically create disciples. They're holy, yet fallen, just like us. We are a church that baptized African American slaves in worship, but kept them in chains. How about a people who can spend the hour of prayer asking God to keep slaves obedient? Walter White, of the NAACP, said that the acrobatic, fanatical preachers of hell-fire created orgies of emotion that laid the groundwork for the passionate, emotive ritual of lynching. How can one exit the doors of the church after worship, go into the streets, and lynch a human being as the benediction?
Now we’re beginning to face the answer: the same way people can gather, and sing, and touch in the midst of a pandemic without any regard for the material health of a brother or sister. Hey, as long as hands are lifted and hearts are warmed, then bodily harm doesn’t quite matter as much. We’ve long been pressed to come to terms with how our dualistic theologies, and gnostic tendencies, have led to a disregard for the material station of our brothers and sisters. Now we’re being pressed to think more deeply about our worship. Do we worship the worship? Has worship become the golden calf that distracts us from taking the long trek up the mountain to meet our God?
Peter Rollins has delightfully called church a crack house. It’s a civil version of getting drunk on a Saturday night. The world is full of pain and suffering and we use the church as an escape, but then we get addicted to the high. The withdrawals are so bad that we have to get back in the doors no matter what physical harm it causes oneself or another person. What a shallow version of church.
Many pastors feel powerless in the face of such an addiction. How do you convince one that God might actually be found outside the walls of the church, in small groups, or safe worship services? It might be the case that God is giving us the room to develop an ecclesiology and mission for today’s world, to dream about creative ways that we can be an authentic community when all of this clears up. It might be the case that God is calling us to enter into the pain of the world, the pain of humanity, during this season and not escape it with a catchy chorus. God is, after all, known best for calling people into the dark.
My Methodist forbearer, John Wesley, noted that a right experience of God would be transformative, social in nature, always pressing on toward the transformation of the cosmos. If bodies are harmed or if sickness is being spread, then we should question the experience. In right worship, hearts are opened for God. The problem is that when God comes, God brings all of God’s friends. It’s a package deal. There is no worship of God that excludes concern for God’s children.
Unfortunately, I’m still trying to lean into technology to make safe worship spaces. I used to be one to decry technology. After all, But the church has always used technology to spread God’s love to the masses when physical presence was unavailable or inexpedient. Paul writes to his friends, “I miss you a lot and I look forward to a joy-packed reunion.” The Spirit of God becomes absorbed into the papyrus and he presses the send button. It’s technology—the best they had—and God is on the move. Today, the Spirit comes to a family or a group of friends through a screen, at least for a season. But our hearts can still be warmed when two or three are gathered, loving God and loving neighbor.