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Why Churches Should NOT Drop Online Services

So, Tish Harrison Warren has a regular column now in the New York Times. And I subscribed, because I generally like her work. Plus, I love that the Times has a regular columnist who shamelessly adheres to the Apostle’s Creed. But this week, I had serious issues with her words. The title says it all: Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services

That felt super ableist to me. And the article itself didn’t get any better.

Before I go further, let me back up and remind my readers that an entire section of my web site is devoted to life in the body. I’m all about embodied living. The five senses. In-person gatherings and long conversations over food. True face time over FaceBook FaceTime. So given the choice, I usually opt for real embodied presence vs. Zoom. And yet, I still had serious issues with the piece—so much so that after reading, I wondered, “Am I over-reacting?”

I shot a link to the article with a message to my friend Lacie, who describes herself in this post as an amputee. And I asked her, “Does this feel ableist to you?” 

Here’s her reply: 

“Of the most egregious kind. It hurt my stomach to read. It’s wrapped in language that exalts the importance of embodiment…but only the needs of the healthy body matter. 

“I can see where she’s coming from. Getting people back into pews after they’ve felt the comfort of learning/connecting from home must feel daunting for pastors. But disconnecting disabled people to motivate the able-bodied is not the way to do it. 

“She outright says it’s fine to cut us out, then adds that someone should be visiting us. Come on. Looking back to how things were done before the internet and not seeing the beauty of how the internet has connected those of us who were previously disenfranchised feels like a stone-age thought process. 

“The church has adapted and changed how we connect with one another in a myriad of ways throughout historical events and varying cultures. COVID has given us the impetus to broaden the way we do church. It’s given us the gift of worshipping across cities and states and global lines. My kids attended their grandparents’ Sunday school lessons for the past year. What a gift! 

“Disabled people know the feeling of being cut off from society. We face it with the phone calls we make to venues before going out to eat to see if the Google recommendation that says it’s ADA friendly is actually true or if there is a four-inch ledge at the front door. We face it when we’re unseen entirely in a store needing assistance or told by someone with a big cart to simply get out of the way. We face it when the sign outside our church says “Have children? Park in the west lot. Need handicapped entrance?  Park in the east lot.” [Lacie has two kids.] My car was broken into two weeks ago, and the only thing stolen was my “handicapped” placard. All these things have happened to me. 

“Warren’s proposal to remedy poor church attendance by cutting off virtual attendance says we don’t matter. Again. And to use embodiment as the reason is so tone deaf. The number of people already disabled or traumatized or homebound added to the increasing number of people dealing with the effects of long-COVID should tell us that now is definitely not the time to disconnect them from the body of Christ.”

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Sherene Joseph says:

    I have not yet opened the NYT for the day, but I plan to go read this. I would argue that churches have really struggled getting people back into their seats after the Pandemic. Now, I am not saying churches should not take away Virtual/Online services – but I do think there needs to be a better way to implement it. Our church has a program called Arise – focused exclusively for families who have disabled children/special needs of any kind. In fact, it is such a popular program in this area of Irving, that members come from far away just so their students can be cared for while the parents attend church. There are also a number of members who are in wheelchairs who attend the 9am service which has less crowd. I have also noticed a huge number of families who do not have any health challenges that just stay home and attend church on the couch before heading out to club sports because it is easier. There is no way to get these people back in the pews. They do not miss the body of Christ or corporate worship. There does not seem to be a way to convince them either.My heart goes out to pastors and the staff who sit and make phone calls to get people back into the pews when people repeatedly refuse. Everyone seems to want an easy option. There needs to be a better way to stream Sunday services and other church events onto Zoom, Youtube etc where the people who truly have the need ( disabled, long covid, other health concerns etc) are able to access them. It might be more challenging to tech teams and communication teams but if we do not start somewhere, churches are going to turn into a cold buffet where people can pick and choose when/where they want to attend or skip altogether. I am sorry for your friend Lacie who absolutely has the need for online church, but I have seen people in wheelchairs coming to church more than those who can walk, run and skip. Something needs to be done.

  • Emily Furda says:

    I read this with tears of thankfulness in my eyes. I feel seen. It’s also rather timely. February is Rare Disease Month. To Lacie, thank you & to you, Sandra, thank you!

    To me, the church has one of its biggest opportunities in history to reach people in the palm of their hands (sometimes literally in a phone or tablet), but many are too concerned about the bottom line or legalistic definitions of meeting together. What if this is part of taking the gospel to the ends of the earth?

    Because of my health needs, I couldn’t attend pre pandemic. A global pandemic gave me a gift. Suddenly, I could stream church services, big and small, from down the street to other parts of the world. While many other places were inaccessible, church was finally accessible.

    I’m so thankful for those who stayed online. Although, those on stage often forget us. “Isn’t is so good to be here today?” “Aren’t you so glad we can celebrate in person again?” Statements like those remind me the Christian church is still, at large, for able bodied people, and I am not able bodied. Welcoming those live streaming is often an afterthought, if a thought at all.

    What good is it to have a church filled with bodies and a full offering plate when people are broken and forgotten? We see people looking the part but not the draining struggle it takes to simply make it in the building. We don’t get to decide who is worthy of a virtual service.
    We don’t get to ask if they’re still connecting with other believers so we can shame their body into a pew. Instead, the church could ask how can they meet their needs in a way that works for them, not a way that is convenient for the church.

    Matthew 26:35 says it well “… I was sick and you looked after Me…”

    My faith has grown in the years since I’ve been unable to attend. I no longer have a weekly sermon, so I have to dive in deep for myself. I had to find community. There’s a small Bible study I attend on Zoom. The sustained vulnerability and community there is unmatched. If I were to guess, we wouldn’t be grouped in the same Sunday School class or small group in person, but we fit well because we’re different.

    I was a 3 services a week, plus activities attendee for my entire life until my body wouldn’t let me. What do I miss? Hugs. What have I gained? People in my life who feel it’s okay to be honest about their pain and joy, about every aspect of their lives. They make it safe for me to do the same. The pressure to be Sunday best, or Sunday’s best actor, is gone.

    • Sandra Glahn says:

      That must be so hard. Hugs.

      • Emily Furda says:

        Somehow I just saw this. I do miss the hugs the most.
        I just realized something. Our high strung “guard cat” liked to be hugged. I mean lay her across my chest & squeeze hard. God knew I’d need that. Her page at the shelter said adopted, but it was a mistake. I don’t think it was a mistake.

  • Daniel McIntosh says:

    I believe the challenge presented by Lacie in the article is very legitimate. How do churches think about members or potential members who are unable to attend because of a physical or other limitations? Often churches are slow to adopt new formats, and in the current tides of culture and tech, change comes at a speed beyond imagination. Being aware and caring for non-able bodied persons and how their experiences is a great call.

    As a pastor, I do find some challenges with the assumptions about the wholesale benefit of online church that are not wrestled with in this post. And felt like in fairness they should at least be identified. One is the idea online participation in a body of believers who have never met the participant, geographically would be unable to do so even if desired, counts as now attending or virtually becoming part of a church. Paul tells Titus to appoint elders in every town in Crete for the purpose of overseeing those individuals’ spiritual needs. Can this be done by a local elder to a person across state or national lines? Is said pastor/elder now responsible for these virtual attendees before the Lord? Churches all share the truth of the Gospel, but each have a context into which God has put them for Gospel application – the variance of issues addressed in the epistles is witness to contextual challenges. Does an online church transition to be sensitive to a wider audience not experiencing local pressures? Does a speaker now have to hold the reality of preaching to person X or family Y on the Northwest coast when the family in front of him is from a small town in the Southeast. The new realities of the web have congregants coming to me with the latest news about famous churches or famous pastors and what is said at their church. Often, when I slow down to think about their context or current pressures I realize what they are addressing makes little sense to those on the outside including myself. As long as it isn’t a Gospel issue, what right do I have to make comment?

    More could be said about the enablement of skipping worship gatherings due to the temptation of convenience of a screen and pajamas or the danger of equating virtual presence with that of body life for those who are able. Also, equating sharing of the Gospel message online with the broadcast of worship gatherings. I really do feel challenged by Lacie’s words and her realities and want to bring them to the table. Yet, I also believe reverse blanket assertions are not helpful either.

  • Phil W. says:

    This is written beautifully, thanks for sharing! The more access we have from different sources is important to grow our faith. Like 1 Chronicles 16:23 says; Sing unto the LORD, no matter where you are! God bless!

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