“New technology should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.” (Wendell Berry)
Exiled in cyberspace. That’s how I feel. It has been but a couple of weeks for us, in Kentucky, but to be honest, it feels like a couple of years already! The COVID-19 pandemic inhibits the church physically from gathering weekly in our buildings and outdoor fellowship, and causes us to find ways to remain socially connected, while distanced, in cyberspace.
The term “cyberspace” was invented by the science-fiction writer William Gibson (1984) who defines it as “a space in which computer-mediated communication occurs; a space referring to the interference between digital bits and human consciousness—or between silicon and the soul.” For the first time in human history, the church has been pushed to meet in such a space—not at all the substitute of the permanent, physical church, but a virtual, temporal intermediary.
To many Christian moms like myself, the cyberspace keeps us connected to the outside world. I’m very grateful for the technological advancements that keep my eyes peeking into global villages from the comforts of my own couch. This self-isolation and nationwide “social distancing” certainly upgraded the cyberspace to be more than a “space” and less of a “cyber.” Our lit screen is multi-tasking—out of one, many—serving for church webcasts on Sundays, small groups on Wednesdays, in homeschool classrooms during the week, for movie nights on weekends, for world-wide news in the evenings, with texts and e-mail notifications constantly. The cyber seems less mechanic and more humanized as it was invaded overnight by an exiled world made to find its sense of living online.
But in all its glory of revolutionary global connectivity, I’m realizing that this electronic connection will never be a substitute for the natural interactions. Going digital in today’s pandemic may shave off the peak of the ardent need to meet face-to-face, but it can’t replace it. Cyberspace church is never going to be the next phase of the real church. Simply for the fact that the online, disembodied church can’t convey the embodied nature of our Christian faith. We serve a God who did not send images of Jesus to earth (though they would have been magnificent, no doubt), but rather embodied his Son in flesh and blood to be near, as he faced humanity’s sin physically. The church is made of real people who gather together as one body—the in-flesh description of the oneness in Christ. In Christianity, geography matters. Church gatherings are bound to physical locations, not to megabytes. The ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper can never be done “virtually”. At the end of this pandemic, we will still affirm that we are embodied believers, who need embodied worship, in embodied churches, doing embodied evangelism, sharing embodied lives all the while serving an embodied Savior.
There is nothing natural about virtual spaces. Media communication serves its basic purpose to transfer words and information from one person to another. But it can never fully replace the physical presence of a face-to-face interaction. “No computer can teach what a walk through a pine forest is like. Sensation has no substitute” (Clifford Stoll). In other words, emotional depth that comes from hearing someone’s voice, touching someone’s hand, seeing someone’s appearance, smelling someone’s perfume—cannot be re-created through mechanical wavelengths. As Stoll points out, to sense what an embodied gathering does, one must gather physically. Mechanical interactions—more like a letter from the loved one in a war—should keep us longing for an in-person fellowship, not replace the person. They should hold us over until face-to-face presence.
We gather our four children around the computer every Sunday morning for church service. Displaced in our living room just the 6 of us, we sing the songs and hear our pastor teach the Bible via the computer. But this electronic worship experience will never rise to the level of intimate connection we’ve had when we worshiped surrounded by God’s people in our local church. All the electronic spaces aren’t capable of fully conveying what bodily location creates. The clatter of fingers typing cannot replace the warmth of arms hugging. The emojis can’t link us emotionally to one another. The Zoom-ships are not nearly as hospitable as the open-house fellow-ships.
The challenge for churches now is figuring out how to love well in tweets, video, texts, and on-line ‘gatherings.’ It turns out, cyberspace love and evangelism are supposed to be hard because they are not the natural, biblical way of doing church. Truth is, I don’t want my family to get used to “electronic church.” The more Christians are asked to meet online, the more we discover that cyberspace evangelism leaves us begging for face-to-face human fellowship. Paul closes his third letter in John with these words, “I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.” While certain things can be communicated via technology, there are many aspects of our messages that only a face-to-face interaction can accomplish.
What we once took for granted—physical gatherings in churches and homes—we grow to cherish and appreciate in our trying times. We pray and wait with anticipation the day when we will worship together, one body next to another, in our churches. Meanwhile, we also acknowledge the tremendous online gospel opportunities handed to Christians when the church was moved out of the building and onto people’s social media. Today, like never before, the gospel has the largest cyberspace platform. We may be socially quarantined and distanced, but the work of God hasn’t slowed down one bit. The fingers are tapping where legs cannot go and the videos preach where only 2 or 3 are gathered. We may be kept at home, but God is taking the gospel exactly where the world’s deep hunger has moved—across every phone screen and media app opened to receive it.
As we wait for church gatherings to resume and embodied worship to continue, let’s not miss the life-changing evangelistic work God is doing through lit screens and homebound bodies. The pandemic may have scattered the church and limited the physical fellowship. But like any other season in human history, we rest assured that, after all is typed and done, God meant it for good.