Worship and pastoral care are incarnational. That is more than simply personal. In other words, it is not simply about the personality but the pastor as an incarnation of the Word made flesh by the office he bears, the orders under which he serves, and the gifts he bestows as the reason for this ministry. Baptism cannot happen online. Neither can Holy Communion. It is questionable in my mind that private confession and absolution can happen via a screen -- at least effectively. It is a growing conclusion in my mind that preaching cannot happen online -- certainly the Word can be heard but preaching is by nature incarnational and that requires hearing and seeing the person. I am not saying that watching online or via digital means is not beneficial but it is not quite the same benefit as the in person hearing of the Word. Certainly you cannot minister to the sick and dying via a screen the same way you do it by being there at the bedside and addressing the suffering and those near death with the Word of the Lord that heals now and eternally.
When the pandemic came along, the timing was critical to the response. We found out that most of what white collar workers do could be easily done at home, online, through Zoom, and by phone. It was a far easier transition than any imagined and one that has proven hard to break -- even when the office is now accessible and the employer values in person work. Some, perhaps even many, are resisting going back to in person connections because they find it unnecessary and an intrusion to the way they have come to relate to their work and workplace. Remarkably, this shift to the screen was seen as a benefit rather than a makeshift way to adjust to the circumstances at the time. Some are now saying that the cities filled with office buildings and cubicles could be a thing of the past. Some of those predicting this shift are relieved and happy at the prospect.
Of course, there is work that cannot be done before the screen or at home. The folks who cook the food that is delivered to our door or pack the Amazon boxes shipped at a moment's notice or make the items that Amazon ships do not sit in front of a screen. They, like the nurses at the bedside, those hauling away our trash, the road workers, and the carpenters, had to actually do their work where that work required and with others who shared in their work. As pastors, even some Lutherans and others with a sacramental understanding of how God works, found themselves just as much at ease with the substitution of the screen as the office workers who ended up working through it all at home. And the people we serve, accustomed as they were to the screen for work and entertainment, seemed to find the adjustment to screens just fine.
Could it be that pastors see themselves and the churches see them in the way way as we see those who work before screens? Has worship become so passive that it no longer expects or requires a real presence? Is what we do on Sunday morning the creation of an entertainment event or the delivery of the gifts of God to the people of God? Is the music of worship primarily something people watch or is it something that calls them to join their voices with the rest of the assembly? Is prayer simply an individual activity or does the church pray -- together, Our Father who art in heaven? Is live streaming the same as in person or just about the same? Is the Church the home or in the assembly of those whom the Spirit calls by the Word, gathers to one place at one time, enlightens and sanctifies by the gifts of God that do what they promise?
Perhaps the easy transition to screens reveals something underneath that is worth our attention. How do we see ministry? How do we understand worship? How do we define the Church? What does it mean to be a sacramental communion? What does it mean to preach? If we spend some time on these things, we may discover that the pandemic only raised to the forefront things, troublesome things, that were under the surface all along.