Online worship. Zoom church. Streaming services on Facebook Live (if you can get it to actually work). We’re all used to this strange new world by now. But it can get stranger: how about entirely virtual churches in the Metaverse? This latest development should remind us that even though we’ve become used to digital versions of Christian community over the last couple of years, we should still find it all strange (if no longer quite so new). Now that there is sufficient distance from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time for more intentional theological thinking about these matters. We can now ask—or revisit—some important questions: How are our experiences of the past few years to be understood in light of God’s word and Christian teaching? And what should we do moving forward? I want to begin this process of theological reflection by going upstream from online worship to explore its headwaters. What we find there is more complex than the strategic pros and cons or potential uses and abuses of worshiping via streamed or recorded media. Instead, at the wellspring, we discover age-old dilemmas: questions of human autonomy and embodied limitations, questions of the relationship of mind to body and of man’s nature in relation to God.
These are not new questions, but in the digital age, the church’s practices are mixing with new cultural and technological accelerants, which makes for an especially volatile combination—and makes clear theological thinking even more crucial. Once we explore the environment upstream, then we can more clearly navigate the downstream challenges the digital revolution has brought to the church, to bodily life, and specifically to the worship life of local congregations.
In Transhumanism and the Image of God, Jacob Shatzer suggests that technologies “train and disciple us in certain ways . . . drawing us further into a technological liturgy of control.” Byung-Chul Han similarly notes how constant technological engagement functions as a “liturgical gesture” that catechizes us to conclude that “I have the world firmly in my grip. The world has to accord with my desires.” My phone stands always at the ready, to serve my every whim. My fingers effortlessly control the world. I click, I get; I swipe, I see. Both Shatzer and Han put their finger on the connection between our East-of-Eden desire for autonomy and the nonstop nudges in that direction from our technological surroundings. What results is a self-reinforcing loop: our disordered desire for control fed by the technological prowess at our fingertips, which in turn feeds our technological mastery.
I don’t mean to suggest that we should consider digital technology to be categorically different from previous forms of technology. All technologies—from a plow to a pencil, from a calculator to a computer—impact our perception of ourselves and our world. Rather, we need to see that our deep impulse toward autonomy, which first arose in that primordial garden in response to the Serpent’s temptation that “ye shall be as gods,” is now intensified by advanced technologies that enable the effortless expression of such desires with the swipe of a finger or push of a button—or even, like God, by simply speaking. Screen-based and internet-connected devices easily morph from capable tools with specific purposes to all-encompassing reality-mediating mechanisms through which we encounter one another and the world. They are seamless habitats in ways that technologies like shovels, excavators, or electric toasters are not. You cannot be immersed in a toaster in the same way you can be immersed in an online world or a social media platform—unless, perhaps, you are a piece of bread.
To be clear, my argument here is not that each activity of, say, scrolling a news feed, posting on social media, checking a weather app, or taking a selfie are theologically suspect or harmful to our spiritual health in and of themselves. My point is that these undeniably convenient aspects of modern life are not neutral. Today’s digital milieu is filled with technological accelerants that excite our pre-existing tendency toward the illusion of self-sufficiency. The accumulation of such practices and habits—reinforced in countless small daily rituals—makes it seem as if everything that really matters is under our direct control, consumed, constructed, and curated when and how we choose. As Han says, “Through all my swiping, I submit the world to my needs. The world appears to me under the digital illusion of total availability.” Humanity’s essence is no longer one of being a creature dependent on God and others, but one of self-creation and autonomy—what Carl Trueman describes as “a world in which it is increasingly easy to imagine that reality is something we can manipulate according to our own wills and desires, and not something that we necessarily conform ourselves to or passively accept.” Seeing myself and so many others breaking our backs hunched over our screens, I can’t help but think of Augustine’s understanding of fallen humanity being curved in on ourselves: incurvatus in se smartphone style.
Running in stride with this increasing sense of technologically fueled autonomy is an intensified sense of digital disembodiment, what Charles Taylor calls “excarnation.” This is a wordplay on incarnation: while the Son of God purposefully took on our flesh, we often try our best to escape it. In the process, we become “alienated from our anchoring in the world, in fleshy reality; which we can only recover access to through the lived body, whose testimony is being distortively shaped or even denied by ‘virtual’ reality.” By treating “the body as extrinsic to the person,” Nancy Pearcey explains, the inner self can impose its own interpretations and desires on the physical body, resulting in a form of person-body dualism: the person is defined as the authentic self, constituted in the mind or heart, while the body is relegated to a secondary position with significance but no inherent meaning. Today’s cultural and technological conditions make it more possible, plausible, and palatable to reject the limits of bodily life in favor of such self-constructed identity and reality.
Such temptations toward disembodiment cluster around two main trajectories. For one, in the digital world we are nudged toward being thinking things, or as James K. A. Smith puts it, “brains on a stick.” We send messages and hot takes, consume endless information and images, perform our cultivated online identities, but all at a distance, seemingly without bodily involvement with the real world and in-person engagement with real people. Second, behind the screen, we are nudged toward being feeling things, or hearts on a stick. In a “race to the bottom of the brain stem,” digital and especially social media easily feed our basest instincts. In consuming, we are in turn consumed by sentiment, fed by algorithms through the frictionless allure of the swipe and the click. In both trajectories, disembodiment reigns. Screen and phone win out over skin and bone.
How Disembodied Autonomy Influences Christian Worship
The upstream currents explored above are increasingly infiltrating the church’s downstream worship life. We frequently treat worship not as a communal set of practices but as an intellectual activity for God in our individual heads or an emotional activity for God in our individual hearts. In Disruptive Witness, Alan Noble warns of the consequences of a brain-on-a-stick approach to worship: “The weekly gathering together of saints is only justified if attending church is about much more than intellectual growth. In this sense, excarnation is not only a deviation from historical Christianity. It also renders regular church attendance obsolete.” The heart-on-a-stick outlook fares no better. In it, “we experience worship much like we experience a concert. It becomes an individual, emotional, and spiritual exercise wherein I try my best to think about the words and praise God. But even though I am surrounded by the saints, I remain comfortably in my own head.”
Mind you, Noble offered these warnings before COVID-19. Such trends have only accelerated since the pandemic and the online turn. Digital technology disembodies: Why bother coming to church when online sermons and songs enable mind and heart work to be done anywhere, and with better musicians and preachers, and while in your pajamas to boot? And this technology accelerates our pursuit of personal autonomy: The church becomes just another content provider offering its product to consume or ignore. I choose which sermons and songs to listen to. I can turn them on or off at will.
Certainly, listening to sermons or songs online can be educational and edifying. But virtual presence cannot be confused with real presence, and the church’s use of digital technologies must not unintentionally undercut the very message of Christ made flesh, Christ crucified, and Christ risen from the dead—an embodied message delivered through God-ordained means. We turn now to the natural embodied limits of creaturely reality and how they should inform our understanding of Christian worship in the digital age.
Lovely Limits, Intensely Embodied
We are meant to touch, smell, taste, see, and hear the physical world with our actual physical bodies. The inbuilt limits of bodily life are purposeful and for our good. As modern life becomes increasingly digitized and mediated by technological layers, however, L. M. Sacasas wonders at what point humans will cross “a threshold of artificiality” beyond which our “capacity to flourish as human beings is diminished.” In an environment teeming with accelerants toward disembodiment and autonomy, we do well to recover the role of bodily limits in human flourishing. The body binds us to one physical location at a time, placing us within humanely scaled and manageable frameworks that direct our attention toward its proper ends. Such boundaries are what make the world navigable and meaningful.
Limits are part of God’s good design for human creatures. Kelly Kapic encourages us to “celebrate the goodness of being a creature of the God who loves what he made. God delights in our finitude: he is not embarrassed or shocked by our creatureliness.” Bodily limits are lovely to God and should also be to us. Recognizing the God-given limits of your body, according to Alan Noble, helps you also embrace “that you belong to your family . . . to the church . . . [and] to the place where you live.” Physical limits are a feature, not a bug, of the human experience.
Embracing our embodiment helps us overcome our sinful tendencies toward autonomy, whether of the heart- or brain-on-a-stick variety, and in the process helps us to understand the whole scope of the gospel. In Wonderfully Made, John Kleinig explains, “We human beings are not just spirits, like the angels, nor animated bodies, like the animals, but are embodied spirits, or if you will, spiritual bodies. We do not just have bodies; we are bodies.” To claim that we are bodies sounds jarring to many of us, but that is the point. Such direct claims are needed to counteract the reductionistic mind-body dualism that pits our minds and hearts against our bodies, privileging the former so much that “the human body ends up being viewed as a nonpersonal instrument of the self.”
Again, this is a gospel issue. Since its earliest days, the church has faced challenges to the centrality of embodiment, whether from the Docetists claiming Christ only seemed to have a body, or from the gnostics seeking liberation from the body. The Christian confession has always been in Jesus Christ “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary” and in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Bodily life is so central to our nature and our relation to God that Kleinig calls the body “theophanic,” meaning a visible manifestation of God. God made man and woman “so that he could give himself and his gifts bodily to people on earth and work with them in caring bodily for others and the world.” The human body “was made to bridge two realms: the invisible, eternal realm of God and the visible, temporal realm of his creation.” This communion lost in the fall is restored by Christ, who took “on a human body to reclaim us bodily for fellowship with God the Father [so that] our bodies once again become what they were meant to be.” This is God’s design from the beginning: To “show himself bodily to other embodied people and give them bodily access to himself by his theophany, his physical appearance to them in Jesus.”
How Embodied Limits Shape Christian Worship
The God-revealing nature of the human body, and specifically Christ’s body, has significant implications for how the church approaches technology and worship. For starters, worship is not the gathering of mere minds offering their intellectual efforts to God in a lecture hall. Nor is it the assembly of mere hearts expressing deep feelings to God in a concert hall. Church is about more than information exchange or warm fuzzies—these aspects of worship are important, but worship cannot be reduced to either of them. You are not a plug-and-play device downloading information from your pastor or experiences from your worship team. You are not a disembodied spirit hovering online, clicking your way to God. You are not a bundle of feelings to be manipulated algorithmically. Instead, you are meant to engage fully in worship—body and soul, together in person with God’s people—receiving from him as the primary actor giving, loving, and serving us through the spoken and sacramental word, while responding in confession and praise. Worship is a feast of forgiveness and life for all the senses.
The fact that so many churches have gone fully online is evidence of the digital revolution’s impact, leading to a faulty grasp of human nature and of worship seeping into the church. I hope at this point it has become obvious that the question of online worship is more than just a matter of preference or pragmatism. Going all-in online clashes with Christianity’s core theological and anthropological claims. I’ll mention just a couple of these clashes.
Online worship mutes the proclamatory power of preaching. The arresting summons of the law’s accusations against you and the liberating comforts of the gospel for you are obscured and depersonalized in online isolation and anonymity. The pastor cannot look at you; you cannot look at the pastor. The unified focus of the church as ekklesia (the called-out ones) is splintered between every viewer’s personal screen.
Online worship also renders baptism and Communion impossible as there is no sacramental union between spoken word, physical element, and believing reception within the context of a communal rite. Without this union, there is no sacrament. The means of grace engender intimate, participatory worship, which requires mutual presence around font, pulpit, and table. Here we are known and loved by God and one another. Christ the bridegroom gives himself to his bride the church, and the bride receives life from him. Acts of divine self-giving are intimate, deeply real, and fully embodied. The marital intimacy of body inside of body; the family bonds of blood with blood: these are images of the mystical yet physical unity of Christ and his church. Such is the embodied setting for the potency of God’s word as living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.
Can God use any means to achieve his purposes? Yes, certainly; but the real question is what he has chosen to use, where he has promised to be, and where we can be assured that he is present to save and to guide. And that is in the means of grace.
Just how these rich theological currents flowing through digital media and embodiment should inform our worship and other downstream areas of the Christian life will require much wise reflection in the years to come. For now, I want to leave you with five sets of questions to contemplate in light of the upstream realities we’ve been considering together.
1. Should “online worship” be called that? If Christian worship and especially sacramental administration cannot be fully enacted online, should we—can we—call it online worship without being self-contradictory or at least misleading? Perhaps call it Sunday devotions or sabbath meditations?
2. What message does streaming or recording the whole service send? Does live-streaming, or else recording the complete church service for later consumption, suggest that these media are a direct and sufficient replacement for in-person worship? What if we just record the sermon or the liturgy related to the preaching of the word and prayer? Does streaming or recording Communion, in particular, encourage misuse and send an “excarnational” message about an incarnational reality?
3. Has in-person worship already become too digital? Is stepping into a typical church sanctuary today like stepping into a holy place—a sacred world on sacred time? Or has the technological chatter of everyday life intruded too deeply into the inner sanctum? What if we remove as many layers of modern technological mediation as possible and encounter God through the timeless media he has chosen: a book read, words proclaimed, water poured, bread and wine received? Our sacred spaces and liturgical practices should retain the transcendence and physicality, the grandeur and simplicity, that make Christian worship as relevant and compelling in the first century as in the twenty-first century. How do we guard our communal worship from what Byung-Chul Han calls the digital dismantling of the real?
4. How can we strengthen extraordinary care and ministry? Something that still haunts me from the pandemic is when a homebound member said that “the only time I see my church family is when I watch the service online.” Providing some kind of online participation has a place in unusual or emergency situations in the life of the church and its members, especially for those who are homebound. But the only time such members see their pastor or church family should not be through a backlit slab of glass. How can we fortify in-person ministry with members truly unable to gather in person?
5. What does church membership mean when endless Christian content and connections are available online? The proliferation of doctrinal, practical, and devotional content available online makes it easier than ever not only to pick and choose our personal flavor of the faith but to graze whenever and however we like. And there are online forums and groups for every flavor. What does this do to the local church as an “organic community into which one [is] received” and a “spiritual authority to which one [is] submitted”? The church’s inimitable role as a locally embedded but universally embodied communion united to Christ reminds us that the church plays an entirely different game than online communities or content providers. It is in the local church where Christ gives himself to us. There the embodied riches and mysteries of the gospel anchor us to a place and a people, as our lives are together and forever marked by the rhythms and milestones of God’s work in word and sacrament.
As the digital revolution marches on, Christianity remains committed to celebrating the reality of being truly human, embracing the grounding beauty and purpose of embodied limits in a fractured age of disembodied autonomy. We must not waver from the earth-shaking paradox of apostolic faith that continues to turn the world upside down: The confession that the God of the universe has taken on flesh—not just temporarily, but permanently. Christ will always have his body. Not only that, but the glorified body of God the Son is a wounded body. In Charles Wesley’s hymn “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending,” we read:
Those dear tokens of his passion
still his dazzling body bears,
cause of endless exultation
to his ransomed worshipers.
With what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture
gaze we on those glorious scars!
Christ, the Word made flesh, the One who is preeminent over all things, has wounds in his hands and in his feet and in his side, and that is what makes his body most glorious—dazzling as Wesley rhapsodizes. His body, with his scars, is truly him, truly Jesus. That very body—incarnate, scarred, dead, buried, raised—is united with our bodies, redeeming us along with our scars in a mysterious and mystical union through very real words and sacraments. This is what it means to be fully human, an identity that claims our full presence and deepest praise. No screens or apps required.
2. Jacob Shatzer, Transhumanism and the Image of God: Today’s Technology and the Future of Christian Discipleship (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 88. Shatzer is not alone in contending that technology is not neutral and that it shapes humanity toward certain sets of habits, ideas, and certain visions of life and world. This is an ancient human concern, but one that has taken on new gravitas in the last century as many see in the industrial and digital revolutions harbingers of dehumanization. See, for example, Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”; Neil Postman, Technopoly; Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization; Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society; and one of the freshest contemporary philosophers on the subject, Byung-Chul Han, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects and Non-Things: Upheaval in the Lifeworld (Boston: Polity Press, 2022).
3. Han, Non-Things, 19.
4. Jacob Shatzer acknowledges that technologies have always formed us, but he thinks digital technology is “a very different game” for three main reasons: “First, the type of access that we have to digital technology is different from previous tools. Second, studies on addiction demonstrate that digital technology is a game changer. And third, I’m convinced that technology does an excellent job of recruiting disciples into its way of viewing the world.” Shatzer, Transhumanism and the Image of God, 21.
5. For more on how digital technologies become habitat-like, see Roberta Katz et al., Gen Z Explained: The Art of Living in a Digital Age; and Samuel James’ forthcoming book, Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age.
6. Han, Non-Things, 19.
7. Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to the Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 41.
8. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 741.
9. Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019), 64.
10. James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016), 3.
11. “Former Google Ethicist on Tech’s ‘Race to the Bottom of the Brain Stem,’” CBS News, https://www.cbsnews.com/video/ for-mer-google-ethicist-on-how-tech-companies-are-downgrading-humans/.
12. Taylor, A Secular Age, 613, 771.
13. Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2018), 130–31.
14. Noble, Disruptive Witness, 137–38.
15. L. M. Sacasas, “Thresholds of Artificiality,” The Convivial Society, https://theconvivialsociety.substack.com/p/thresholds-of-artificiality.
16. Kelly Kapic, You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2022), 16.
17. Alan Noble, You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2021), 156.
18. John Kleinig, Wonderfully Made: A Protestant Theology of the Body (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2021), 4. See also Gregg Allison, Embodied: Living as Whole People in a Fractured World (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2021), 17: “I am my body.”
19. Edmund Fong, “Gender Dysphoria and the Body-Soul Relationship,” Themelios 47, no. 2 (2022): 361.
20. Apostles’ Creed, Lutheran Service Book (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 2006), 175.
21. Kleinig, Wonderfully Made, 14.
22. Kleinig, Wonderfully Made, 14–15.
23. Kapic asks, “Have you ever noticed how much of the biblical material that is associated with the gathering of God’s people emphasizes our physicality: eat the bread . . . drink the wine . . . clap your hands . . . lift them in prayer . . . bow down and kneel . . . anoint with oil . . . and baptize with water? Worship in the Bible engages all five senses: see, touch, smell, taste, hear.” You’re Only Human, 61.
24. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Art. 13: Of the Number and Use of the Sacraments; The Belgic Confession, Art. 33: The Sacraments.
25. Byung-Chul Han, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017), 22.
26. Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 279.
27. Charles Wesley, “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending,” Lutheran Service Book (St. Louis, MO: Concordia , 2006), 336.