COVID-19 Pandemic and the Digitalization of the Church

This article is very insightful, but something is off—the truly Lutheran element is missing. The author emphasizes “divine service” as if it were a human work, instead of divine faith in the Word. The Word is not bound or limited—because neither is Christ, who fills all things. In faith, all spiritual gifts are had in Christ.

“Two or three gathered” has to do with His name, not whether we have a public, formal gathering or receive Communion. All families living together are at least two people, if not more. The home can be a concrete and particular place Christ works, indeed, it should be. Christ is our gracious God in public and in private.

Communion is central to the public service, but not in a legalistic way or in the sense it is required to have Christ. Nothing spiritually is missing if Communion cannot be received, as is the case for young children in the Lutheran Church. The Supper Christ instituted does not make or transform a group into the Church as a magic act. Paul could not often be with all the congregations he founded in person. He used the internet of his day: the written letter. It was not public worship, but Scriptures are the inspired Word of God. The same Scriptures give the same Holy Spirit today. The Word is the primary and original sacrament. It alone grants faith and comfort in the power of our Lord’s resurrection. Yes, the church is not digital or virtual, but neither is it confined to public meetings or human actions—though the Christian will desire to meet to hear the Word publicly, even if it is not physically possible.

For shut-ins of congregations, nothing has really changed for them with a lock-down—they were already separated from public worship—and completely dependent on people to come to them—but not from Christ. We may not redefine the importance of public worship or make it non-essential, but it is not always possible—though we can always want it. No one who watched a sporting event on TV says they were there live to experience it. They were not really participating, though the emotion and joy can be just as strong. The sights and the sounds of games are recorded in a very narrow and limited way. Even if the audio and picture is clearer than it would be in person—it is an observation, just like with internet church. You still are not there in person and nothing is required of you to watch. No real sacrifice or confession or attention is mandatory to consume a video feed. There is no accountability either.

No one would say that watching the Superbowl on a screen is the same as being there live. But yet, the Word of God is not bound by space or time. The Word is effective for salvation when transmitted by any means, whether in a formal service or not. Any expression of the true Gospel works faith and can be comforting, no matter how it comes. No “priest,” pastor, service, or external action is truly needed or required by God—all is fulfilled in Christ for us. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3). No works are necessary, even public services, because faith is not a work or something we do for God. It receives righteousness as a gift in Christ.

Of course, Communion is a public act, it cannot be done without the public gathering or a public minister performing this official act on behalf of the congregation, but what about the divine significance of prayer, reading the Word, and family devotions? Can two or three gathered, or a single person, have the Word and the fullness of Christ’s Spirit at home without a pastor? Certainly. Christ is not less present or justifying when the Word is received and heard alone by reading or hearing. No, it is not a public service, but if the Word is presented, it gives all the gifts of Christ by forgiving sins and strengthening the conscience against doubt and Satan.

God is not limited by this pandemic. Watching a service is not actual public participation—it is not the same as going to church, but attending a service is a work we do—that can be done in the flesh without the Spirit. We need not spiritually hunger for anything, if we have the Word itself which gives all of Christ’s righteousness for our justification. We may emotionally and intellectually want Communion and to be at a public service, but we do not need it. The Spirit is given personally, via the Word: “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills” for our peace, comfort, and life, blessing with power over death in Christ (1 Cor. 12:11). Our comfort is not ultimately about what man does in public, private, or services—it depends solely on what Christ has already done! No act of man may be put on the level of our Lord’s cross, tomb, and throne.

Most of the so-called “divine-service” is not actually of divine origin and command: “human traditions are not acts of worship necessary for righteousness before God” (Ap VII, 34). While the Supper should not be despised, the fullness of grace is in the Gospel itself—it is not confined to eating and drinking—which can be done to one’s judgment. True worship is faith. “Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb 11:6).

While some people are limited by the present circumstances, we must not limit the power of the Word or faith in Jesus. Only a performance-oriented church thinks performing public services (even Communion) is necessary for salvation or to prepare for death and receive the assurance of being in God’s kingdom. Christ has done all that is necessary. The outward work of Communion is indeed divine and not in our power to redefine, but it also is not in competition with faith or some kind of necessary sacrifice. The Church is primarily people in Scripture and the Creed, not a location or human action. The only “divine service” we must have is faith in Christ who is risen for us.

The Word alone, and faith the Spirit works by it, makes true worship—not any particular structure, formality, place, or public aspect: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:24). True worship only refers to what God, Father, Son, and Spirit, does for and in the believer—not what we do, no matter how holy and reverent it may look. Our gracious God does not need a pastor present or a performed service to be our God. We might rightly crave these, but He has not bound Himself to a particular place now like He did in the Old Testament. Luther teaches: “The very highest worship of God is this that we ascribe to Him truthfulness, righteousness, and whatever else should be ascribed to one who is trusted” (The Freedom of a Christian, LW 31:350). This is internal and entirely of the Spirit—not external, depending on efforts of the body.

Worship has to do with faith in the heart, first and last, not ceremonies. Worship as Luther defines it is faith in God’s Word—that’s it, or else works must creep in. And even Communion can be observed sinfully as a cursed work or sacrifice for God, contrary to the Gospel. “You see that the First Commandment, which says, ‘You shall worship one God,’ is fulfilled by faith alone. Though you were nothing but good works from the soles of your feet to the crown of your head, you would still not be righteous or worship God or fulfill the First Commandment, since God cannot be worshiped unless you ascribe to him the glory of truthfulness and all goodness which is due him. This cannot be done by works but only by faith of the heart” (The Freedom of a Christian, LW 31:353).

Either one is justified in faith by God the Father, or under the wrath of the law. There is no middle ground—ceremonies do not enter the salvation equation. The deprivation of public worship is challenging for sinners and should not be self-imposed needlessly—but it cannot negate the all-powerful work of Christ who died for us. His reconciliation and forgiveness is complete—nothing we do publicly completes or adds to it.

God’s Word remains firm and saving for you. The church properly, as His people, is not limited or promoted by anything man does. Yet, as Luther reminds us, “human nature tends so easily to emphasize its own works and to neglect God’s work, and the sacrament will not admit of that” (Adoration of the Sacrament, LW 36:296-97). Know the Word is not bound. Our comfort is not diminished, no matter how physically we are restrained or incapacitated. So also our faith and the response of love to the neighbor the Spirit works in us is not to be bound either by any circumstances we must face. “We are obligated to do nothing at all for God, except to believe and love” (Luther, Against the Heavenly Prophets, LW 40:127). Amen. —ed.