Lutherans should know this but I am not so sure we learned it well enough or recall it. We have jumped on the same bandwagon to suggest that online worship is the equivalent of in person worship. While this is obviously not true of the Sacrament of the Altar, it should also be obvious to us that preaching online, while beneficial when it need replace or be added to in person hearing, is not the same. Physical proximity to pulpit and altar is not just best, it is essential. The online communions or at home elements with online Word or drive bys practiced by some have put the emphasis on receiving but the reception has been stripped from its appropriate context. It is sometimes rather hard to articulate why online is not the same as in person -- especially since we live in a digital age in which we seemingly do everything online -- but that does not mean there are no reasons. If you cannot afford the tickets or be present for the live performance, watching it online or on TV is good but not the same.
The online sex that has replaced personal love and commitment lacks love and commitment and replaces the erotic for the intimate. Porn can deliver an imagined sexual experience but it is a corrupt one in which the very gift is absent. There is no love and there is no potential for life born of this love shared. There is only the moment and what the individual does to fill it. While it might seem an unlikely comparison, it is exactly the same when churches presume that the personal gathering of the baptized people of God around the Word and Table of the Lord can be replaced by the individual watching the performance from home, office, or wherever they might be. The Word of God is a personal Word, a Word made flesh, incarnate still in the preacher preaching with his voice the Word of the Lord. While the online substitute may not be without benefit, it cannot replace preaching. In effect, the online possibilities have become religious porn in which the individual can live in isolation from others and encounter the Word on his or her terms alone. That may not be without benefit but it is not preaching. A personal word is delivered in the presence of the hearer and the preacher speaks to an assembly and not simply to a camera.
I am sure that many will disagree with me. Some will be mightily offended. After all, it was a pandemic and what choice did they have? But the time is coming and is now come when we must piece together the life of the Church again and restore what is the normal and not some shabby new normal. It may well be that a third of the people who once sat in the pews will prefer to remain at home and listen in when the Spirit moves them. They have learned to get by without the Sacrament but, and even more concerning, they have come to make what happens online the equivalent of preaching. Again, it is not without benefit but it is not the same.
The Church cannot live and the people of God cannot live with a virtual connection to a worship life of preaching and receiving the Sacrament. It may have to suffice when things prevent personal participation but it cannot become normative. It may have sufficed when things were the most fearful, but as that changes the people of God must be compelled to risk it and come together -- not for the sake of the Church but for the sake of their own lives of faith. God has given us a personal Word and it comes to us most personally in the conversation that is the sermon -- a preacher preaching, a people listening, and the inherent response that comes in the form of faith planted, nurtured, and strengthened. As good as online may be, it is not this personal Word and it cannot suffice for the good of the people of God and for the good of the Church. What might work in outreach or as a bandaid to get us through a crisis cannot become the norm for who we are and what we do as the Church.
Folks, we must come face to face with the fact that we cannot live in isolation from the Word and Table of the Lord and neither can we make normative any online substitute supplanted with occasional communion visits. The time has come. We must venture forth. Scripture says that the things of God and the gifts of His House (preaching and Holy Communion) are better than life. We need to start practicing that.