Today, there is much discussion on embodiment, what it means to show up in a space as your full self, and to be present in your body wherever you are. The topic du jour, in particular, is church attendance. Can we experience the “real” church online?
This got me thinking about how if you’re going to talk about embodied presence, you need to be aware of what it means for someone to show up in their marginalized body, whether in a physical or online space. The risks it takes and the emotional cost it demands.
There is beauty in honoring the embodied presence of those who have had their bodies made into an issue for debate, a policy point, an “area on which we agree to disagree,” a secondary concern, a matter of opinion. Who have been dehumanized into a political talking point.
Specifically, I would like to issue a reminder that if by “disabled,” you are picturing a shriveled 100-year-old bewildered by an iPad, look around. “But the main population who can’t attend church in person are too elderly to use online tools anyway! Everyone else is just lazy.” No.
First, many elderly people, including those we’d classify as homebound or “shut-in”s do use technology. Sometimes that tech does need to be modified, available as CDs or DVDs, for example, but other times it just means helping them figure out how to set it up. And who among us doesn’t need a little tech help sometimes? It can also mean engaging caregivers and families, ensuring our beloved elders have everything they need to join in the worship experience from home.
Secondly, this is too narrow a definition of those who might need online church access. If you can’t picture anyone else besides “elderly shut-ins” unable to attend in person, you’re not being trusted with stories of disability, chronic illness, neurodivergence, hard life stages, church trauma, family struggles, shift work and those whose jobs require them to be on call or at work during the service time, transportation accessibility, and more.
My home church has been broadcasting on the radio for over 30 years. They added streaming for the pandemic (thanks to my dad’s hard work). It didn’t make people lazy. It allows them to access and hear about the church, and God, who couldn’t or wouldn’t have otherwise. The beneficiaries of this extra effort include my grandmother, who listens on the radio now to the church she used to attend faithfully for nearly 60 years.
Is it work to stream services online? YES. My dad and his church wrestle with the whims of tech, and my current church has as well: Things that work one week don’t the next. It can be a hassle. But people are worth the effort. Providing a safe, accessible option for a wide variety of people is worth it.
“But what if someone abuse access to online services?” it has been asked. There is no such thing as abusing access to church. It is ridiculous to say such things. You cannot abuse that. It is free for everyone, whether in a field in John Wesley’s England or at home with a screaming kid or chronic pain or sensory needs or no car or immune deficiency.
Call it low ecclesiology if you want or Methodists gone wild or millennial entitlement, but I firmly believe every single person on this Earth who wants access to church should have it, and it is our great honor as the body of believers to bring it to them however we can.
There are also reasons many who could come to church in person simply will not any longer, and those are not signs they are lazy either, but perhaps something in our church systems and structures is unhealthy, or at least, not doing what we thought it would do. Perhaps it is our in-person experience that is not embodied the way we intended it to be, with rote ritual and obligatory attendance and faked smiles and pretending to remember someone’s name. For the lonely, the single, the newcomer, the one who tries to strike up a conversation but is overlooked for more familiar or popular faces, is church more than just a spiritual theater, a play put on by strangers that they are never personally, directly welcomed into fully experiencing and joining themselves? Where is the embodiment in being talked about but never to, or in being greeted perhaps but as a success metric rather than a unique human being with a story and gifts and wounds?
Online, however, churches can moderate chat boxes and add links, host Q&As and have the congregation submit responses to pastoral queries, flattening the barriers of entry for those who might otherwise be seen as more of an issue or diversity number than a participant.
I know there are a great many people who would consider this an argument against it, but another benefit of online church is that it allows queer people a safe way to access your service and see just how “welcoming” it really is.
I know several members of Queer Christian Twitter who have decided to give church another shot after being away for a while because they could attend online without fear and screen it for trauma triggers and queerphobia before showing up in person.
Also many queer Christians are only able to access affirming church services online because there just are not any within driving distance of them or it wouldn’t be safe for them to do so locally.
Who is missing from your services? Have you noticed? What barriers exist for them to attend, and what can your church do to change
(not change them, not convince or shame or hold a membership drive, not advertise to)
to allow better access and meet the needs of those whose welcome comes with an asterisk or a physical and emotional price tag, whose presence is a risk and a talking point or a belief statement on the church’s website, for better or worse.
To my disabled, racialized, queer (especially trans), fat, poor, immigrant, abused, and/or neurodivergent friends…
(and women, of course, because what would human history be if we weren’t making women’s bodies a matter of policy and an issue to argue about)
Your voice matters. Your body matters. Your pain and trauma and grief and joy and healing and belonging matter. We are not the whole community without you. Your body is part of the full body of Christ.