Can We Worship “Virtually”?

by Steve Kindle

The [Samaritan] woman said to [Jesus], ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ John 4:19-24

A new adjective has been added to our religious vocabulary: virtual. It is generally meant to mean “not actual but imitative of.” So, I ask the question, can we worship virtually?

It’s understandable that many people are anxious to return to “unvirtual” worship. It is, after all, a comfortable place. It is where so many good memories are located, and where we feel at home. But I would caution against seeing “virtual” worship as somehow inferior to normal worship. It is not of a different kind, but of a different place.

I find this conversation Jesus had with the Samaritan woman quite helpful. The issue for the unnamed woman was “where” is worship properly done. For Jesus, the “where” wasn’t the issue. For him, it was “how.” In ancient Israel, worship began in the “high places.” Why? Because it was felt one was closer to God who lived just above the mountains. When worship was eventually banned there, it moved to one place, the Temple in Jerusalem. Why? Because God was located there in the Holy of Holies.

The issue with “where” is always one of control. Scholars note that the consolidation of worship only in Jerusalem was an effort by the priestly elite to consolidate control of Israelite worship in their hands. Whoever controls the “where” of worship, controls the people who gather there. Jesus would have none of that. The only “controller” of worship is the Spirit of God. The Spirit is not limited to any time or place, but “blows where it wills.”

So, when we gather for a worship service through the “where” of Zoom or other online presence, our worship becomes as valid as within a building. For the building does not make it worship, the Spirit does. I suggest we take full advantage of our time away from our building to examine what true worship entails and if we are meeting up to it in or out of our building. When we are able to return to our familiar setting, we will bring with us an even richer worship. Indeed, absence makes the heart grow fonder. It makes us appreciate what we miss even more. Count this as a blessing.

Our God, whether we come to you individually or as a group, we seek your face. We seek your presence in our lives. We seek your strength we find in one another. Though we may be apart, one from another, we are together in your embrace. Hold us together in this period of absence, for we have learned to pray to you as “OUR Father.” AMEN

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