Learning that: The virtual is real
As Christians, it should be a given that many of the most important aspects of the reality exceed what can physically be seen. In practice, however, we quickly lose track of this insight. Too often if we cannot see something we dismiss it or are completely unaware of it. This is true of a wide range of issues, but this month I wish to focus on online participation in worship. So far this calendar year, our online participation numbers have been roughly equal to our in-person participation numbers. In other words, the people you see assembled in worship have been roughly half of the congregation gathered for worship. The rest of the assembly is online. Some participate simultaneously with the in-person gathering, but most participate within the next 24 hours after in-person worship happens. While I am writing this before the end of the summer, it is tracking that an even higher percentage is participating online this summer. In fact, accounting for both in-person and online views it may be that worship attendance this summer will be at its highest in about two decades, with numbers similar to those of 2002. Given this level of worship participation, we need to understand being online is a real form of worship.
The word “virtual” can have for some people the connotation of being artificial or less real than an original. Lutheran theologian Deanna Thompson, however, suggests that we think of the “virtual” as a framework we can use to make sense of reality. It is more an addition to our physical ways of experiencing the world than an attempt to replace it. Personally I prefer to speak of “online participation” in regard to worship to emphasize that as we participate in worship online we are truly worshipping, just as it is our participation when we are in-person that transforms our actions into true worship. When we think of worship as participation we can then ask what ways we have to enhance participation in the in-person experience of worship as well as what approaches might help enhance the online participation in worship. The two are slightly different approaches or frameworks for experiencing worship and so may need some slightly different tactics, but the participation is equally real in both cases.