I wonder what exactly Christians believe they’re accomplishing when they argue about liturgical doctrine during a pandemic.
In early 2020, many of the church practices that we knew and loved couldn’t be done in the same way—not safely, anyway. I was pastoring a church at the time, and we, like most others, moved to an online format. It was our best option to continue traditions that help us make meaning and seek God’s presence in the world while also acknowledging the reality of our situation.
It’s been an imperfect adaptation in order to protect the people of God. And many ministers, worship leaders, and church members have all acknowledged that imperfection along the way.
Of course, that acknowledgment hasn’t stopped some from arguing about the limitations of online worship and fellowship, and how they pale in comparison to their in-person versions.
From an experiential standpoint, I can’t think of too many who would dispute this. Most who had a connection to a faith community pre-pandemic miss talking to their fellow members across fellowship tables rather than through Zoom screens.
But some have elevated these issues to a theological degree, arguing that we are not the true Body of Christ unless we are gathered in person. And not only that, but we have an obligation by God to do so in the proper way. The strong implication here is that anyone who practices differently is in violation of the proper God-endorsed method. A few may even go so far as to suggest that God will enact punishment on those who practice otherwise.
Take, for instance, what happened after Christian rapper Lecrae tweeted this:
The replies to this quote all manner of theological pronouncements and confessions and catechisms. Others are content to point out that Jesus making use of bread and wine constituted a formal institution of those elements alone as the only acceptable ones.
There are multiple issues at play in this particular incarnation of the online vs. in-person debate. First, the observation of communion at home is, again, an imperfect practice under imperfect yet necessary circumstances. It’s one way churches have adapted in order to keep their people safe.
Second, Jesus telling his disciples to remember him through bread and wine was his own making use of what was available during a Passover meal. At times, we just don’t have the stuff in our pantry, so we do our best with something else, trusting that the Spirit will do what She does regardless. And to suggest that She can’t make God’s love and presence known through other means such as apple juice or through the internet in general is placing limitations upon Her that I’m not sure that people have thought through completely. It’s reducing the chaotic possibilities of Pentecost to orderly and easily controlled ink and paper.
Finally, the insistence on certain expressions of church and communion end up doing the opposite of allowing for greater welcome, inclusion, and connection. The move to online worship has been a loss for some, but for others with disabilities and physical limitations, this has allowed them greater access than before. The allowance of what’s handy for communion can better accommodate those with digestive problems and those in addiction recovery, among others.
I recall a time when I took communion to an elderly shut-in. She’d been suffering for a number of months and her health was in decline. But she was open to this time of fellowship and receiving the sacrament. By this point, she had great difficulty swallowing, and told me she wouldn’t be able to eat the wafer that I had brought. So that afternoon, our communion consisted of water, still prayed over in the “proper” way, recognized as the best option for one in her state. And God was present that day.
Insisting on one correct way, especially in these pandemic times, ignores what’s currently sensible and safe. It denies some from participating. And it displays a lack of theological imagination.
Maybe that’s actually what some prefer. But the one who allowed his disciples to pluck grain on the Sabbath, who invited those considered outside the norm to dinner, and who inspires us to re-imagine what healing and resurrection can be, calls us beyond our preferences.