While concerns about religious liberty violations are filling up the headlines, theologian N.T. Wright is concerned about the “danger with e-worship,” as it pertains to the importance of the church having a public presence in society.
In his forthcoming book, “God and the Pandemic,” Wright addresses the societal shift toward believing religion — Christianity — is a “private” movement that “should have no place in public life.”
“Thus I can still go shopping in the crowded little [liquor store] on the corner; but I cannot go and sit in the ancient, prayer-soaked chapel across the street,” he writes. “Worship becomes invisible. Shutting churches will appear to collude with this. By saying that we will temporarily abolish corporate worship and join with others only on live-streamed services from the vicar’s living room, we may seem to be agreeing that really we are just a group of like-minded individuals pursuing our rather arcane private hobby.”
Over time, Wright explains, there is “danger” in virtual church gatherings, because it gives the false impression that church is a private club only for the like-minded and cordons it off from the rest of society.
There is great value in the physical presence of the church in the public square, and when it’s safe to do so, it’s critical congregations begin to meet again.
“Our churches have been for centuries physical and often audible reminders, on high streets and in city squares, on village greens and in suburban developments, of the vital dimension to life which Western modernity has tried to crowd out,” the theologian writes. “We will no doubt learn many things in this time of enforced ‘exile’ — which is what it is — but we should be praying towards the day when our buildings will function within our society as they were designed to do.”
Wright went on to explain he is “concerned” with the ways in which the church has “meekly followed” secular society’s lead during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Public worship of the Triune God,” he continues, “in a public place — observing whatever security measures are appropriate — has always been a major part of sending out that signal to the watching world.”
So while there are instances of religious liberty violation, many are worried more about the importance of gathering together physically, as is mandated by Scripture, and ensuring the church is playing a vital role in society.
Among many other things, this pandemic has revealed why it’s critical — when it’s safe — for the church to have a very physical presence in the public square. Zoom calls and Facebook Live events are good on a temporary basis, but ultimately, it’s for hobbyists and long-distance relationships, not the body of Christ.