Published: Monday, Apr. 19th, 2021
by Jessica Levey 04/19/21
Only two short years ago, lawmakers in Tennessee passed a bill forbidding ministers who’d been ordained by online churches from solemnizing marriage in the state. Online churches, they claimed, simply weren’t as valid as their brick-and-mortar counterparts. (Luckily, that law was suspended and is not currently enforceable.)
Then, a pandemic hit, forcing everyone out of shared public spaces, into their homes, and onto the internet. Within weeks, entire industries and communities shifted the majority of their in-person interactions to online platforms.
The jobs that could do so, went remote. Families had dinner and game nights over Zoom. First dates, fifth dates, and weddings moved to Skype, and sexting went even more mainstream. Kindergartens joined colleges in offering online education, online grocery shopping picked up, and telehealth became the norm for everything from routine medical checkups to therapy appointments.
And those brick-and-mortar churches went remote, too. Religious congregations and faith communities began gathering online, along with recovery groups, special interest groups, and countless support groups.
While not a perfect solution to the separation many felt, communication technologies like Zoom and Skype (and even the swirling vortex of social media) provided a lifeline, a much needed source of connection to friends and family, to hope, and to the more certain days ahead.
And yet, after a year of living online, some folks still won’t see online churches -- and their online ordinations -- as being as valid as their brick-and-mortar counterparts.
These are the folks that have for years insisted that online churches lack sincerity. That when we practice our affairs online -- be it prayer or meditation, conversation, grieving or celebration -- that what we’re doing isn’t a viable way to practice faith, because it isn’t happening face to face, in the traditional way.
Communing with others online, they claim, simply doesn’t carry the same weight.
After a long year (and counting) of learning to form deep connections and conduct our daily lives online, how well do these arguments hold up? Not very well.
If anything, the past year has shown us quite the opposite. It’s shown us that the use of these technologies can reduce barriers and bring us closer when we need it the most. Though sometimes clumsy, glitchy, and accidentally muted, our virtual conversations have evolved to suit our needs. Screen-to-screen became living room-to-living room, and dinner table-to-dinner table. These virtual hangouts became personal. Meaningful.
Churches that meet online do this, too -- they eliminate physical distance, fostering and supporting communities that are strong, intentional, and flexible enough to withstand crises. Just like our families and friendships, faith communities shouldn’t have to be limited by zip codes and geography. Common ideas and ideologies can and do transcend borders, and the limitations of a single physical location.
So what does it even mean to be an ‘online church’ anymore? Do those old distinctions really matter anymore? Of course not. Almost everything’s accessible online now! And it should be.
Look, we don’t for a second claim that online communities should replace in-person gatherings -- we love hugs and potlucks and school plays and live music and travel way too much for that. And we know that not everyone has equal access to technology (and that’s something that deserves a lot more national focus in the coming years). But we do believe that online communities provide a vital service. A service that supplements and enriches our daily lives, and that shouldn’t be taken for granted, or underestimated.
This has been true since the internet first became a household ‘thing’...
Before the pandemic, social media and online forums already provided needed networks for marginalized and niche communities across the country: Members of LGBTQ+ communities living in small towns could connect with friends and mentors in other areas. Newly arrived refugees and immigrants could seek out established communities to share stories, insights, legal help, laughs and friendship. Political groups, student unions, and environmental groups could discuss ideology and plan community events. Singles searching for love could head online to find any kind of relationship, many leading to long term commitments, friendship, and families. And the list goes on!
These communities have sought connection online for years, out of necessity. But for many Americans, 2020 was the first time they were forced to think outside the box, past their usual means of gathering. It forced many people to see the world differently, and to feel gratitude for online access, rather than skepticism.
So, in the wake of the pandemic, maybe those folks who look askance at online churches and online ordinations will change their tune. Maybe they’ll see that by making information, ordination, education, and community available online, we’re reducing barriers to basic human rights. Maybe they’ll see that what we do -- providing a necessary service to communities across the country -- is deeply sincere. And maybe they’ll start to see the world as a little more interconnected than they originally thought.
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