Preserving Our Body and Bodies for Worship

Has online worship acclimated us to our screens, or can we get physical again?
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Preserving Our Body and Bodies for Worship
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source images: Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash / Aaron Menken / Prixel Creative / Lightstock

Last summer I baptized my friend’s daughter. Though small and wiggly, the baptizand remained calm in the arms of her father as I gently poured water over her head. Her godparents and older brother crowded around the font, and another priest held the liturgy for me as I prayed and blessed this newest member of the church.

In my Anglican tradition, the congregation participates in this blessing and vows to help raise the newly baptized as a member of God’s family. That morning they proclaimed, “We receive you into the fellowship of the Church. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in the royal priesthood of all his people.” As I heard the voices beside, behind, and before me, I was struck by how many bodies necessarily participate in the baptism of one person.

The rite of baptism is corporeal and communal. It is the initiation of a physical body, a human being, into the social and spiritual body of Christ, the church. Baptism signifies the nature and shape of the whole Christian life: to follow Jesus is to be bodily assumed into his body (1 Cor. 12:12). As Christians, we submit our individual bodies to God as instruments of righteousness (Rom. 6:12–13). We humbly offer our individual strengths to other members of God’s family, for we are members of one another (Rom. 12:3–5).

Corporate worship demonstrates this reality weekly. We gather as bodies, presenting our whole selves to God in praise and thanksgiving. We sing and lift our hands, we kneel to confess and to pray, we take the bread in our hands and eat. But we also gather as a body of bodies, embedding our individual faith within a larger, corporate reality. Christianity is never merely personal and private, but interpersonal and familial. Our communion with God is the fellowship of a family.

The pandemic has obscured these realities from our view. Foregoing public worship forced necessary isolation as an expression of love for neighbor, but as time goes on, our acclimation to digital connection—or, in some cases, no connection with the gathered church—risks our forgetting who we are. Streaming or podcasting church services seduces us into believing we are souls on a stick, our worship merely a matter of downloading Christian content. We lose touch (pun intended) with our bodily participation in worship as we “catch church” on our headphones, or while driving, or while folding laundry on the sofa.

Such individualized, on-demand worship also puts us in danger of forgetting the larger body of worship, the church. We don’t see the other members of our congregation or hear their voices when we sing. We aren’t confronted with their tears or reminded of their particular struggles. Due to the widespread availability of streamed services, we easily “church hop” over to a different congregation’s Zoom worship or skip worship altogether, exchanging it for other Christian media consumption.

This is not new. In 2000, Rodney Clapp wrote prophetically in his book Border Crossings about what he called the “double disembodiment” of modern Christianity:

Disciples … are separated from the social body of the church, and their faith, as belief, is separated from their own physical bodies and the social, material world they inhabit. Corporate worship is subordinated to individual worship, made an adjunct or ancillary practice of the worship private persons undertake on their own. … Such worship and spirituality is, of course, eminently agreeable to capitalism’s ethos, which favors the endless multiplication of individual choice.

American Christianity has been detrimentally influenced by consumerism. Capitalism prizes the individual and teaches us to engage everything, including church, through the lens of customer satisfaction. This makes it hard for us to embrace the church as a family to which we belong, to whom we have responsibility.

Our forced separation in the pandemic is a disembodiment that none of us has chosen. But it has created the conditions that exacerbate consumerism’s impact on the church.

Our forced separation in the pandemic is a disembodiment that none of us has chosen. But it has created the conditions that exacerbate consumerism’s impact on the church: Our physical dispersion and increased reliance on privatized, digitized worship reinforce the lie that we are anonymous consumers of Christian content rather than interdependent members of a Christian community. This lie disembodies our worship and dismembers our fellowship.

What is the solution? While the pandemic rages, online worship remains a necessity. But we can “discern the body” even as we remain apart physically.

First, as much as possible, we can engage our bodies in worship. We can sing along in our living rooms. We can kneel or lift our hands or take notes during the sermon or physically participate in other ways available to us.

Bodily worship can also help engage children. My toddlers struggle to sit through an entire online service but they love to dance during the songs. Families can recruit older children to cultivate a sacred space in their home for Sunday mornings, decorating with candles or crosses or Bibles or other tangible reminders that we enter into God’s presence as physical beings rooted in time and space. Worship is more than content consumption; it is embodied response.

Second, we can creatively re-member the social body with which we worship and to which we belong. Some churches incorporate videos or prayer requests from members into their Sunday services. A few families in my church formed a small watching group so that they could still worship together. Research suggests that live services foster greater connection than pre-recorded worship, but even those who must watch recorded services can discuss the sermon and pray with church friends over the phone during the week. Livestream chat windows, “virtual coffee hours” before or after the service, and virtual choir anthems are all ways to facilitate engagement and interaction. Seeing faces and naming names reminds us that the church is a community, not a consumable.

Third, we can pray that God will use the pandemic to heal our “double disembodiment.” Social distancing and quarantine have already led to a resurgence of appreciation for embodied connection. What we once took for granted—handshakes, dinners with friends, singing together—we now cherish and long for. Perhaps this season of isolation and social recession will lead to renewal in the church as well.

We can pray that our loneliness will reveal our need for true belonging, exposing the insufficiency of digital intimacy and anonymous consumption. We can pray for an increased commitment to the body of bodies that is the church—sometimes separated by time and space but held together by the risen Christ. We can pray for the grace to remember our baptism and the vows inherent in them. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body … for the body does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Cor. 12:13–14, ESV).

Hannah King is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and associate rector at Village Church in Greenville, SC.

[ This article is also available in Português 简体中文and 繁体中文. ]

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