Losing our traditions: Online religion in the time of COVID-19

Time and again and for years on end, I have heard these two passages from the psalter: “This is the day that the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118.24). “I will bless the Lord at all times; God’s praises will continually be in my mouth” (Psalm 34.1).  But in light of this global pandemic and hundreds of thousands now dead, I ask this question reflectively and respectfully, “Are these the only psalms we know?  Are we only called to worship?”

In a meeting with another denominational leader, he lamented at the fact that the Church in North America only used 46 percent of the Psalms.  An Old Testament hymnbook, we have our favorite songs, classics if you will.  Psalm 23 is the most popular, on the Billboard Chart’s Top Ten for one million consecutive weeks it seems.  Believers and non- believers alike know the tune.

But I wonder if we could clear our throats and make room for other passages, scriptures holy though perhaps not as upbeat, that don’t guilt persons into praising God or make persons feel bad because they are not able to “put on a happy face” or “fake it until they make it.”  Turn with me to psalm 4 which begins, “Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress.  Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer” (4.1, NRSV).  Or, psalm 5, which opens, “Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing” (5.1, NRSV). Or psalm 10, “Why, O Lord, do you stand afar off?  Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble” (10.1, NRSV)?

The psalms cover a wide range of emotions so why don’t our worship services?  Why does it seem that we have one hymn stuck in our heads?  To be sure, this pandemic has changed a lot of things, including those that we claimed we could not live without.  Forced to worship behind screens, we have to reconsider what we really need in order to worship God, what is essential to our faith and its practice, what can we leave out of the worship service, what is no longer appropriate: no passing around the offering plate, no meet and greet, no fellowship hour.

We are cutting back on more than budgets.  We are slimming down our liturgy, our order of service has been reordered by this virus.  This online religion is inviting us to lose our traditions, some of them at least.  And this is not a bad thing as believers around the world are thinking deeply and more intentionally about what they want from their faith.  They are asking questions not unlike the one posed by Howard Thurman, “Does religious experience, as defined, make a difference in the outward life of the individual, including in the outward life the very context in which such a person lives and functions?”  In short, “Does going to church make a difference in my life and in my surroundings?”

Church leaders will need to think long and hard to ensure that they respond not merely with programs or points of practical application.  Instead, people want to see real change, in real time responses that match the mood of the country and of the world—not a traditional response.  They are asking, “Is there any word from the Lord?”  Giving them a bulletin and pointing to an open seat with less than six feet between them and their neighbor just won’t work.  But an online option may though it will require that we lose our traditions.

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Seeking to lead words and people to their highest and most authentic expression, I am the principal architect of a race/less world.

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