Turn On The News: Ending Zoom Church is a Great Idea for a Column — Provided You Completely Ignore the Disability Perspective

Image of Zoom church service courtesy of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Seattle, WA (https://www.northminsterpres.org/).

In a New York Times opinion piece released over the weekend, Tish Harrison Warren argues that it’s time for churches to give up on virtual options and resume gathering for worship solely in person. She predicates this argument on the physical nature of Christians, writing: “Bodies, with all the risk, danger, limits, mortality and vulnerability that they bring, are part of our deepest humanity, not obstacles to be transcended through digitization.” “Online church,” says Warren, “diminishes worship and us as people.”

Because she sees embodiment as “an irreducible part” of the wholeness of worship, Warren is unwilling to entertain alternatives. She dismisses the idea of offering alternatives as making embodiment optional, and argues that being together in person is in fact central to Christian worship.

There’s a lot that could be said about this line of thought—and I’m afraid we must.

Warren is certainly not alone in wondering if it’s not time for churches to get back to familiar ways of being, and it’s an idea worth debating. (Full disclosure: the organization I work for recently took the opposite side of the argument, recommending in a press release that I drafted that churches return to physically-distanced ministry until the Omicron wave passes.) But while it’s a worthy conversation in theory, in reality the way Warren approaches it creates so many problems it’s difficult to know where to begin.

Samir Knego, a disability/accessibility advocate who has written for Religion Dispatches, names one issue that has gotten a lot of attention. “There’s something deeply condescending and ableist about the idea that proponents of online church options don’t believe or understand that ‘bodies…are part of our deepest humanity, not obstacles to be transcended through digitization,'” Knego told me in an email interview.

“Bodies that require assistance are still bodies, and accepting assistance comes from a place of understanding one’s body and its limits—not a belief in transcending/rejecting/abandoning embodiment,” Knego continued. “I am human over Zoom and human in my wheelchair—these pieces of technology enable me to engage with the world around me physically and socially. To deny me, then, would not make me more human, just more isolated.”

For many people facing physical challenges, routinely attending worship in person is impractical. For such individuals, online worship offers a lifeline. One pastor told me on Twitter of a parishioner who’s rarely missed Zoom church over the past two years and keeps communion elements at the ready so he can participate in the sacrament. “It’s important, vital, to him to connect virtually with us in worship,” the pastor says.

Warren responds to such objections by pointing to the ancient practice of sending eucharistic ministers to bring communion to those who could not be present in worship. “This asks more from a congregation in terms of time and commitment than streaming a service online,” she says. “But it gives the gifts of personal, embodied presence, and even friendship and love.” 

While I, as a former pastor, would ordinarily not want to discourage lay ministry, it shouldn’t have to be said that we don’t live in ordinary times these days. Visits carry a non-negligible risk of infection, particularly in congregate settings such as hospitals or nursing homes. Again, as a former pastor, I can’t think of much worse than the church being responsible for causing serious illness or even death among its vulnerable members.

Knego is also not impressed with the idea of eucharistic visits. “I’m not surprised by the willingness to relegate [individuals with disabilities] to an apparently inferior level of engagement with worship,” he says, pointing out that many such people are still sheltering away from contact with the wider world. The idea “also frames disabled parishioners as the objects of charity rather than allowing us to attend church on our own terms,” says Knego.

Indeed, there are ecclesiological problems in how Warren’s argument is framed, which is to say, problems in how that argument understands the nature and purpose of the church. “Our worship is centered not on simply thinking about certain ideas,” Warren writes, “but on eating and drinking bread and wine during communion.”

The issues here are manifold. For one thing, it’s not at all universally accepted among Christians that worship is about more than “simply thinking about certain ideas.” There are many Christian communities who put word far above sacrament. Baptists and Anabaptists, such as Mennonites or the Amish, go so far as to do away with sacraments altogether, replacing them with what they call “memorials” in which God is not physically present in the eucharistic bread and wine but in the memory of Jesus being rehearsed. 

And although it’s been hotly debated among Episcopalians and Anglicans, many other Protestant denominations who do observe sacraments have readily accepted their validity when practiced in a virtual context. Warren, in short, claims to speak for all Christians, when in reality she speaks only from her own branch of the family tree.

Likewise, Warren fails to contemplate the bewildering diversity of experiences people bring to church. For those who’ve been hurt in a church building, a virtual option may be a safer way to engage and build intimate relationships. For others, such as the Kenyan man who now joins a colleague’s American congregation for worship online, or the parishioner of another pastor who worshiped by Zoom while confined in a locked inpatient psychiatric ward, it can provide a way to connect that was previously unthinkable.

It might be properly cautioned that this risks making worshipers just another form of atomized consumer in a global society already fanatically devoted to individual preference and gratification.

But at the same time, these aren’t edge cases, and this piece gives them only the breeziest of consideration. Warren apparently can’t, or won’t, be bothered to take up the idea that Christians might be something other than able-bodied, mobile, emotionally whole, nuclear families.

Nor is she willing or able to contemplate in any depth that there might be upsides to embracing new forms of worship, or that the church is moving in new ways, some of which could turn out to be quite beautiful, and many of which none of its members have any control over. You can stand athwart current events and cry enough! in other words, but that doesn’t mean they’ll stop for you. (Of course, if those events don’t stop, say, moving forward with LGBTQ equality you could always just break from those you disagree with and start your own thing.)

At a certain point in considering the work of the church, one has to ponder how Christians continue the ministry of Jesus himself. How is it that Christians serve the world? Worship is one answer, and not one that needs further justification. But as good as that answer is, I think it depends on a humble act of service that we seldom notice: keeping one another alive, because of course dead bodies gathered in pews does no one any good.

For that reason, the most damnable part of this essay may be how it misrepresents the science around Covid. The Omicron variant may pose roughly the same risk of death as the flu to vaccinated individuals, but there are still many people who are not fully vaccinated, including millions of children under the age of 5. There’s also a reason public health officials watch flu variants very carefully each year: there’s always a risk that a new variant could escape vaccine safeguards, wreaking all sorts of damage. The global community is ripe for just such a variant of Covid to arise, which is why most experts caution that we’ll likely see several more waves before the disease begins to look anything like endemic. In the meantime, health systems around the nation are breaking, which is why my organization recommended churches go back online while ICU beds remain at or near capacity.

And I have to ask: since when is it a Christian attitude to say “I got mine, Jack”? The obligation to protect vulnerable members of the community doesn’t stop at getting vaccinated. It feels weird to declare “We are not in 2020 anymore,” and gross to argue that the cost of not being together outweighs the risk of gathering in person, when we’ve just been through two huge surges of the disease practically back-to-back, and without considering the burden that places on the unvaccinated and immune compromised.

All of what I’ve said so far may seem like an aside from the subject of media criticism. But in fact, it’s necessary to lay out all of the details to understand just how far off the rails Warren’s piece goes. Just a day before it came out, Slate published an essay by Damien Williams on climate change and disability in which Williams argued that:

Heeding disabled people’s recommendations about social and physical infrastructures can also provide us with the tools to survive what is already happening, right now. Everyday choices disabled people have to make can, in fact, be the difference between life and death. Disabled people know how to strategize to share scarce supplies of medication and resources. Disabled people have had to learn how to do maintenance and repair on the technologies they need to survive. Disabled people know the value of community organizing and community care.

When editors don’t know about disability perspectives and don’t engage them, the articles they run won’t do so either. “If you don’t think—or care—that disabled people are part of your community, then perhaps it’s not surprising that you won’t feel the need to include or consider us,” observes Knego. 

Had this piece been given proper feedback from anyone even casually familiar with the issues faced by the disabled during the Covid pandemic—say, a reporter from a paper that ran articles on that very subject—it might’ve been much improved. Or perhaps it wouldn’t have seen the light of day at all.

As it stands, Warren’s essay misses completely the wisdom that Damien Williams speaks of. What would this piece have looked like if it had incorporated the insight of disabled people on the nature of the pandemic and what it might mean for the future of the church? “Disabled people are so rarely believed to have spiritual insight in our own right; at best, we’re an example for nondisabled people to learn from, or feel happy that they aren’t like us,” says Knego.

When editors don’t know about religion and don’t engage religious perspectives, the articles they run will be shallow and one-sided. As Mary Davenport Davis noted sarcastically on Twitter,

i’m shocked, shocked that the priest in a denomination created for the purposes of excluding differently embodied creatures of God is advocating a theology of worship that erases differently embodied creatures of God!

It’s not an accident, in other words, that Warren’s denomination, the Anglican Church in North America, was formed in large part in reaction to the Episcopal church’s growing embrace of the queer community. Yet as Chrissy Stroop notes, this is precisely the kind of religious perspective the Times has gone out of its way to cultivate on its opinion pages. Apparently, contrarian takes are in fashion, and for the Times, contrarian means conservative when it comes to religion.

And when editors mistake trolling for engagement, the results are pretty much exactly what we see here: painfully narrow, blithely dismissive of other perspectives and the people who hold them, incurious about what could be learned, and deeply indifferent to the potential misery sponsored by the author’s ideas. 

Tish Harrison Warren might be entirely right that the world would be a better place if churches returned to entirely in-person worship. I think the world would be better off if New York Times opinion editors concentrated less on what might spark conversation and more on what needs to be said at the present moment. This isn’t it.


The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of his employer. 

Send articles and other tips for future Turn On The News columns to: [email protected]