The allure of shortcuts is an ever-present temptation, in matters of faith just as in other spheres of life. Friendship is hard. Church life is difficult. To cultivate a rich and meaningful life with God takes time and effort. We won’t grow in holiness and righteousness by racing to supplements designed to help us bypass the difficult labors of church life. It’s precisely in and through those labors that spiritual growth takes place.
When the COVID-19 lockdowns went into effect across the world in March 2020, pastors and church leaders pivoted quickly to live streaming and video as a way of keeping the lines of communication and connection open. Twenty-two percent of churches did a live stream before the pandemic; within weeks, the number had jumped to 66 percent, with 92 percent of Protestant pastors providing some kind of video sermon or worship service during the stay-at-home season.
On the other side of the pandemic, the number of churches live streaming their worship services has grown, and even though there have been some thoughtful calls to stop doing so, I suspect the practice is here to stay. (A new Pew Research survey offers an interesting look at churchgoer perspectives on live streaming.)
Larger churches have gotten especially good at presenting a cohesive and engaging broadcast of their services, rivaling the shiny Sunday morning television broadcasts from a generation ago. As any church with a television or radio ministry will tell you, a professionally packaged experience can extend the reach of a local congregation and the influence of Bible preachers and teachers.
The Supplement Is Not a Substitute
But there’s a downside to this boom in online worship services. We’re vulnerable to a cultural malady ailing Americans today: “substitutism.” That’s a term from Joshua Mitchell’s American Awakening. It’s a label that describes our perpetual quest for easy alternatives and shortcuts. It refers to our tendency to make a supplement a substitute.
In his book, Mitchell never discusses online church or live streaming worship services. He sees “substitutism” at work in other areas, such as social media and friendship. Take a look at his diagnosis of substitutism in these areas, and then I’ll apply these insights to worship.
At its best, social media enhances real-life relationships. Mitchell writes,
Social media can supplement our existing friendships; it can be a stimulant, which helps us keep in touch with old friends when we are not able to confirm through a handshake, a pat on the back, or an embrace, that we are indeed friends. We feel the presence of our friends through this supplement; but the supplement by itself, without the preexisting competence of friendship, cannot produce the feeling of presence. (xxiii)