Why Churches Should Not Drop Their Online Services

So Liturgy of the Ordinary author and Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren wrote a column for the NY Times titled, “Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services.” I know I am biased, but I think it is safe to say that it hasn’t been her most popular op-ed. In it, she makes a case that she is very over online services and that everybody else should be too.

Now I think it’s time to drop the virtual option. And I think this for the same reason I believed churches should go online back in March 2020: This is the way to love God and our neighbors.

Ms. Warren believes the pandemic is waning and the risks of Omicron are about like the flu.

We are not in 2020 anymore. Even for vulnerable groups such as those over age 65, Covid has a roughly similar risk of death as the flu for those who are fully vaccinated, and the Omicron variant seems to pose even less risk than the flu.

I don’t know where she is reading, but today’s 7-day moving average of COVID deaths is just over 2500 souls per day. There were 27 deaths from the flu last week.

While she is correct that vaccination provides protection from serious illness and death, vaccination rates among white evangelical Christians remain low. Any objective look at differences between the vaccinated and unvaccinated finds that unvaccinated people are at greater risk for severe outcomes if they get COVID.

Why not have both in-person and online? Apparently, Warren doesn’t trust her people to come to church.

One might ask, why not have both? Why not meet in person (with Covid precautions in place) but also continue to offer the option of a live-streamed service? Because offering church online implicitly makes embodiment elective. It presents in-person gatherings as something we can opt in or out of with little consequence. It assumes that embodiment is more of a consumer preference, like whether or not you buy hardwood floors, than a necessity, like whether or not you have shelter.

In fact, people do have a choice. People can go to her church or another one. If I am disabled or in quarantine and my church rejected an easy tech solution for me to join the group, I might have to find another group.

The attitude toward people who can’t make in-person church is probably what has triggered the most pain among disability advocates on social media. Warren writes:

[N]o longer offering a streaming option will unfortunately mean that those who are homebound or sick will not be able to participate in a service. This, however, is not a new problem for the church. For centuries, churches have handled this inevitability by visiting these people at home in person. A small team of “lay eucharistic ministers” at our former church volunteered to go to the home of anyone who could not make it to church and wanted a visit.

For centuries, churches haven’t had an easy technical solution to bring church services into our homes. We have been able to get video recordings of big name preachers for a long time. However, the pandemic brought this tech to almost every local church. Now, people can look in on their church and hear their singers and preacher. Even if the sound is sketchy and the preaching isn’t polished, it is local and familiar. This has meant a lot to people. I am very surprised that Warren shrugs that off.

Furthermore, there are numerous reasons why people might need to have access to services via broadcast. Churches looking for ways to multiply their reach have had this dropped in their laps. I can’t see anything positive that will come from just giving it up. I hope Warren will rethink her stance and use her platform to modify her position.

Twitter reaction has been intense.

26 thoughts on “Why Churches Should Not Drop Their Online Services”

  1. Churchgoers are increasingly turning to online services to participate in religious ceremonies, and this is raising questions about the future of physical churches. While some people believe that this trend spells doom for brick-and-mortar houses of worship, others maintain that they offer a unique experience that cannot be replaced by virtual gatherings. What do you think?

  2. I’m cynical and sarcastic enough to think it’s all about the money. I KNOW giving is down over the pandemic, and I suspect that even in the quasi-liturgical space Ms. Harrison-Warren occupies, they rely on the collection just as much as oh, say, Hillsong two miles down the road from me.

    I’d also note that the NYTimes has apparently given out Sunday Op-Ed real estate to Ms. Harrison-Warren. She has had two articles posted on the last two Sundays and she has an email address at the bottom of last Sunday’s article. So I sent her an email with questions and criticisms about the two articles she’s posted so far. I suggested that she might take some of that valuable real estate and address the criticisms. Oh, and I also suggested that she use her bully pulpit to hammer on churches covering up sexual abuse.

    I don’t expect EITHER thing to happen.

  3. This whole discussion is weird to me. Or maybe my experience is weird? I have attended a large church that has for 10-15 years had the sermons at least posted online – because OF COURSE some people need to be working on Sunday (shout out to the health care profession, for instance!), or are sick or otherwise unable to come.

    Why would you possibly cut this off in the middle of a deadly pandemic? None of those groups have gotten smaller; they have only enlarged.

  4. N]o longer offering a streaming option will unfortunately mean that those who are homebound or sick will not be able to participate in a service. This, however, is not a new problem for the church

    Episcopalian here. Nice of her to have some slight concern for those of us who are homebound, and unable to participate, but want some form of fellowship on a regular basis. Yes, I have pastoral visits, for which I am thankful, but it doesn’t happen every week. There aren’t enough deacons and lay Eucharistic ministers to provide that service every week – and there never have been. I’m speaking as a former LEM. I am very grateful that the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, known as Washington National Cathedral, streams Sunday services every week, as well as other services like Evensong.

    The parish to which I am connected has participated in virtual services, and also offers services to people who wish to stay in their cars in the parking lot on Sundays. They tune their radios, and the Deacon, or LEM brings the Sacrament to them. We do not have to discontinue all technology because this particular priest has her own ideas about virology and misunderstands statistics. We are fortunate now in the 21st century to have the ability to do both in person worship (preferable) and streaming (also a Good Thing).

  5. I think there’s a theological component to more liturgical churches viewing the physical gathering as more essential. My wife and I lead a Zoom small group for our evangelical church and watch services online due to particular vulnerability she has, which is interesting since our congregation is largely conservative/libertarian-oriented and opposes most COVID-related mandates. Regardless, they have been very loving and flexible with us, which I would think has to be pretty common, especially in smaller congregations like ours.

  6. Dee just ironically posted up an Echurch promoting this celebrity at Wartburg Watch. I have followed the data carefully coming out of various places all over the world on this pandemic. The best source I have found for that is a Dr. John Campbell who makes videos everyday going over the raw data. He was a college teacher for nurses and has become popular since COVID started because he does not represent any stupid politicized view. He is from the north UK. And he reminds me of this Dr. here as he was recently smeared on the B.B.C. who misrepresented what he said in a video. He says things to contradict any political view held any where in the world as reality is more complicated than political talking points. That video where he addresses the BBC smear is right here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bza1gAc8sOA

    1. Someone else I have been watching is Sabine Hossenfelder, the most skeptical scientist I have come across. She always has interesting views and makes you think deeper about topics and the human element and what is really true and what is hype. In this episode she goes over the statistics about COVID deaths. One common quoted is 1.5 years off of life expectancy in the US. The other is 1.5 days. She explains where those come from in this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVLR3jIoNdo

  7. My church is continuing our live stream service forever. We learned that we have people tuning from all over the country. People who moved away and family members of our members. We got a letter from a 90 year old women in LA (we are in WA ). She said our service is very clear and only one she can hear well. I’ve taken advantage of it when I was fearful that I might have COVID-19 (I didn’t). Also people can listen at later times and dates. Also we can listen to a sermon again. There are many reasons. For us this is a big positive outcome from something we wouldn’t have done without COVID-19.

  8. I love the suggestion that churches that drop their online services should also drop their online giving.

    Ms. Warren’s comparison with the flu is bad on at least three counts. First, Covid at the moment is at a very high level in the population in most places. If we are lucky, in a few months it will drop to a reasonable background level where all but the most vulnerable should be able to attend in person, but we are a long way from that. Second, people who are contagious with the flu know they are sick, and don’t show up at church. Transmission of Covid by those who don’t know they have it makes crowds much riskier. Third, risks would be relatively low if everybody at the church was vaccinated, but we know that is far from the case at many churches.

    The church I attend is not dropping the streaming of their services yet, but it is starting to feel like they don’t care about that part of the congregation. Things like not bothering to fix persistent sound problems in the online service, and requiring people to come to meetings in person if they want to learn about our building program. Not good for those who are not comfortable right now being in a room full of people with unknown vaccination status (at least we require masks), or for our shut-ins.

    1. I hope those who rely on streaming services speak up, and let their needs be known.

    2. It is simply inexcusable for anyone with an ounce of commonsense to equate the Omicron variant with the flu, regardless of vaccination status, for the three reasons you cite — far greater transmissibility and prevalence than a typical flu season, and people who are infectious and asymptomatic.

      My vulnerable 90 year old parents haven’t had the flu in decades and other than getting the vaccine every year, took no special precautions to avoid catching it while at church. They didn’t have to. But the odds are very high that if they went to church in person in the middle of the Omicron wave, they would have caught Covid despite being fully boosted.

      Despite being careful, there have been several cases of Omicron in our extended family. While none has been serious, we have all been extremely careful not to expose our elderly parents to the virus. I wore a mask for three whole days after flying across the Atlantic to help look after my mom. “It’s just the flu” is a kick in the teeth of those who have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep the vulnerable safe from the worse Covid-19 has to throw at them.

      If churches are scared they’re not going to be able to get their full congregations back if they continue to offer online services, then something else is wrong.

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