Online Spiritual Gatherings Challenges and Remedies
Dr. C. T. Luiskutty
Many practices that we have been accustomed to in our life have changed during the past few months because of Covid 19. One of them is the spiritual gatherings. Almost all places of worship have been closed or entry strictly restricted. As a result, worship and fellowship meetings could not be conducted as usual. The alternative that has been adopted by churches is online gatherings using media as Zoom, Google Chats, You Tube or Facebook Live. This is not a good solution to the problem we are facing; still, something is better than nothing.
In this article we will consider some of the spiritual, social, emotional, moral and financial limitations of online church services. I am a regular participant of the Zoom services of our local church. We have three services every week–the Sunday morning worship service, the midweek service on Wednesday nights and the Friday morning fasting prayer. The thoughts presented here are from my observations and experience in these meetings and similar ones I have participated in; I assume that they are representative in nature of what is happening elsewhere. Absenteeism is a major problem in these church services. Only about twenty-five percent of the regular members attend any of the three services. There are many people who have never attended a service in more than six months. The reasons may be many and justifiable, such as, technophobia, lack of proper equipment such as a computer or smart phone, unavailability of internet connection, etc. Regardless of the reason, they are absent from the available church service of their local church, thus missing the preaching, teaching and correction of their shepherd and the fellowship of their brothers and sisters in the church. Maybe, they find spiritual services on television or other media more attractive and meaningful; still they miss the benefits of a local church.
There are some practical difficulties in using a digital medium for church gatherings and other spiritual assemblies. The main one is the lack of interaction. TV programs and You Tube are intended for one-directional communication. Even on platforms like Zoom, where interactive communication is possible, often it is not feasible. If the audio is not muted, there will be interference of sound from different participants and the meeting will be disrupted. Most participants have limited availability of data. Because of this and of weak signals often the participants are forced to turn off their videos. Thus the pastor, music leader or the preacher does not see the audience. A young person (or an adult, for that matter) can connect to the meeting giving an impression that he or she is participating but, with the audio and video turned off, could be doing anything else. Often a sense of concentration and piety is lost in online services.
What are the things we accomplish in our regular church service? Firstly, it is an opportunity for corporate worship.The Jews of the Old Testament and the early adherents of Jesus Christ assembled together for worshipping God. New Testament worship is primarily a personal expression of gratitude, allegiance, love and reverence to Almighty God and His Son Jesus Christ under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that true worshippers would worship the Father in spirit and truth. Our spirit which is our faculty that can communicate with the Spirit of God should be fully engaged in our worship. Also our worship is not mere outward conformity to some external prodding or imitation of what others do. It should be a genuine expression of our relationship and commitment to God. Therefore one can argue that a gathering is not required for true worship. Yet worship in an assembly has its advantages. Good music along with singing has the ability to create an atmosphere of worship and lift our spirit so that it can come in harmony with the Holy Spirit. In the online services, we lose that advantage. Even though true worship is not the result of external compulsion, one cannot deny that being in a group has synergic effect in lifting our hearts towards God. We are not talking about exhibitionism but of a freedom to voluntarily raise our voices, lift our hands and tune our hearts to God when we are in the company of others who are doing the same. We miss this opportunity in a Zoom worship.
A vital component of Christian worship is the Lord’s Table. Until the present pandemic many churches observed this ordinance every week; some at least once a month. Now this has not been conducted at all and the pastors and church members are really missing it. Some might have come up with some alternate ways of doing it, such as each family breaking the bread and passing the cup at their own home as the pastor is doing the same online; however, most pastors and churches do not use this method because of theological difficulties. In churches that conduct the Lord’s Supper occasionally, they conduct a few days’ special services before this event. Whether they are called fasting prayers, tarrying meetings or sanctification services, the objective is the same–to prepare for the Lord’s Supper by personal sanctification and spiritual renewal. Now there are no Communion services and hence no personal preparation. The idea of such special services is good, but the believers should bear in mind that they should always be prepared for the return of the Lord, whether there is a Lord’s Supper the following Sunday or not.
Pentecostal preaching is different from delivering a homily with some moral or theological contents. It is an interaction between the preacher and the audience. In online preaching, the audience is invisible and unresponsive and most preachers are unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with this method. Even though the message has been received from God and he has prepared well, his inspiration and energy come from the response of the audience. During the preaching, he feels the pulse of his congregation and is enabled to fine tune his message to meet their need and apply the lesson to their situation in such a manner that they will respond not only emotionally but also with commitment to the Lord. This opportunity for interaction is missing in online services.
An important group that is affected in the new arrangement is the young people. The youth and children are rarely taken into account even when they are physically present in a church service. Now they are completely forgotten. Those who had come to churches because of external coercion have abandoned the online services. Some churches try to solve this problem by giving children the opportunity to recite their memory verses online. Somehow the church leadership needs to change their thinking and give meaningful role for children and youth in weekly worship services, whether they are online or in person.
Participating in online services or watching television church programmes, even when they are telecast live, is more like a spectator event than a participatory event. These days sports events are telecast from stadia which are empty; they attempt to produce a live experience by presenting sound clips of an audience cheering or applauding when a goal is scored, a ball is hit outside the field or a wicket is taken. But the experience is not the same as being there in the stadium in person. In the same way online worships and gatherings do not make us a part of the action.
For most Christians the only place of social interaction is the church setting. They appreciated a smile or a handshake from their fellow believers, a visit from the pastor or a church member, or an occasional fellowship dinner or snacks at a home. Now all these are missing and many people feel isolated and lonely. Such a state can have very detrimental psychological effect. Men and women are social beings and they need periodic interactions with one another. Online services may meet, at least partially, the need for fellowship with God, but they cannot satisfy the urge for social interaction.
This aspect is more important for the youth and children. Since schools are closed they do not get to interact with other children of their age. Usually families encourage children to have friends among the church families–children who have the same spiritual and moral values. Covid 19 isolation has deprived them of this facility.
Loneliness can lead to self pity, anger, depression and even to mental illness. Coming together for a church service at least once a week was an opportunity to vent the negative feelings of the mind before they become dangerous. Now as the lockdown periods become longer and demands for social isolation increase because of our concern for physical health, churches and social agencies need to propose ways of maintaining good mental health of the whole community. Mental health is as important as physical health.
A generation ago many of our leaders and pastors derided the use of television, may be for good reason at that time. Now that has become a non-issue. Recently the focus has been on internet and smart phones. They can be carriers of unwanted information and tools for temptations. However, to participate in online worship services and Bible teaching these gadgets have become essential tools, and therefore, church leaders, pastors and members encourage their use and we all have become very dependent on them. The availability and widespread use of such with no control may be very tempting not only to children and youth, but even to adults to access unwholesome movies and pornographic material. Extreme caution is to be exercised in the use of the internet and phones.
Financial support for the pastors, missionaries, and social service and maintenance of the church is collected in church gatherings. Since there are no assemblies, many people do not see the need to do their part in this matter. It is true that the economic downturn and lack of employment have affected many members and they find it difficult to have fellowship in the matter of giving. However, it is to be borne in mind that God’s work should continue and He is not looking for your leftovers. As we budget to meet other expenses, the needs of the church and ministry also should be considered.
REMEDIES AND PRECAUTIONS
The only remedy I see for the problem at hand is an end of this epidemic and return to normalcy. Even though many governments are spending enormous amount of money and researchers and doctors are trying hard, it may be a while before the present trend is reversed. In the meantime, Christians should pray earnestly for God’s providing a solution. We need to believe that our God is miracle working God and He gives wisdom and insight to leaders and scientists to come up with the proper solutions even though they may not readily acknowledge Him. Our God is One who “makes His sun rise on both evil and good people, and lets rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Let us pray that God will turn things around so that all people everywhere will receive the benefit of divine provision. When that happens, we will be able to return to worship services and fellowship gatherings the way we have been used to.
As we wait for such a turn of events, let us make the best use of what is available to us.
* Self-discipline is essential. Since others may not be able to monitor what each person is doing during an online service, we must realize that what is offered is for our spiritual enrichment. We cannot grow without spiritual nourishment through the Word and fellowship of other believers. Our participation should not be to please others but out of a need and desire for worship, fellowship and nourishment.
* Even with the limitation on internet accessibility, we should participate in the meetings with preparation. Many people do not want to turn the video on because we may not be in our Sunday attire or in a very pious posture. We should not hold such things as barriers for our sincere worship and loving fellowship.
* Sharing of prayer requests and praying for one another could be properly handled in these meetings. Nobody should be allowed to monopolize the opportunity for public prayers.
* At least 25 per cent of time should be set apart for the youth and children. With advance planning and proper encouragement, that time will not be merely for entertainment or talent show but for worship and spiritual exhortation that will benefit not only the youth and
children but also the adults.
* At the end of the session, all people should be encouraged to turn their videos and audios on and engage in fellowship with one another.
* Online meetings should be supplemented with home visits of pastors and elders. Small teams should be formed and they should visit members’ home after making arrangements in advance.
* Pastors and leaders must be available for personal counseling and prayer for those who need such help.
Another word of caution is about overuse of available technology. Because of the present need church members have become rather proficient in using many applications such as You tube, Whatsapp, Facebook and various news and sports outlets from far and near. While they may be beneficial to some, indulging in such things can be very time consuming and a hindrance to our spiritual growth.
One advantage of online worships is that the church members in far away places can participate in the worship and fellowship of their home churches. This facility should be provided, at least occasionally, even after the churches are open for in person services.