Part of the Embodying Biblical Rituals in a Digital Age series

All Worship Is Shared in the Body of Christ: The Limitations and Uses of Online Services

The pandemic changed our relationship with worship dramatically. At the beginning of 2020, many of us had never heard of Zoom; we certainly didn’t expect to find ourselves singing along to hymns while staring at a grid of faces. How did it feel the first time you sat down for a virtual church service? For some, there was perhaps excitement at the novelty of it all. For others, perhaps it felt like watching a program on TV: less a matter of joining with others and more a matter of watching as an observer.

Enjoying this article? Read more from The Biblical Mind.

Gathering for worship is necessarily shared. It is not something we can do by ourselves. This is an important part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Consider, for example, the Jewish practice of minyan prayer, a ritual that is performed by at least ten adults. Or, to take another example, we are told that the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). This sharedness is crucial for worship; the author of the Hebrews insists on the importance of “not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25).

For months we were unable to physically gather because of government guidelines and restrictions. But this exceptional experience of worship is, for many people, the norm. For some, illness, disability, or age prevents them from attending in person. For others, the obstacle is not that they cannot physically get to a church. Rather, for many survivors of trauma in the church context, the contents of gathered worship can be deeply triggering and set back months of recovery and therapy. Online worship provides a safe mode of participation for those who cannot gather in person.

Yet, there is clearly much lacking from online worship, whether this is the lack of physical co-presence, the ability to talk simultaneously without awkwardness, or the difficulty in fully sharing sacraments and ritual meals together. So, should we really count online worship as a form of gathered worship at all? And what does this mean for those who cannot gather in person?

We think that online worship, for all that it lacks, still allows for a certain kind of shared participation in worship. In fact, we think that all worship, whether gathered or in solitude, is in some sense shared. But what do we mean by shared?

Sharedness in Development

Psychology and philosophy offer us tools for thinking about experiences that are shared with other people. But if we are to understand these shared experiences in all their complexity, we must first understand how these experiences first originate. Developmental research has demonstrated that from the earliest months of their lives, infants participate in responsive, interactive engagements, taking turns to chat back and forth with their caregivers. Across their first year, even before they can use language, infants use facial expressions, vocalizations, and gestures to communicate about the world around them, an ability that has been termed joint attention.

These early interactions are necessarily embodied, in that they involve the bodily activity of two co-present persons. They are also emotionally charged; enjoyable for infants and caregivers alike, with frequent smiles and coos exchanged. Psychologists and philosophers have described these encounters as second person engagement: engaging others not with the third-person perspective of an observer (as “he”, “she,” or “it”), but as a you. Infants do not come to understand shared experience by solely watching others, but by actively communicating with them, and receiving interactive responses back. The foundation of shared experience is thus communicating with others, and this starts in infancy.

At the heart of a second-personal encounter is a necessary openness. You are not just seeing and attending to another but also opening yourself up to being a focus of attention. It is only through this kind of openness that a truly joint relation is achieved. Sharedness cannot occur if I secretly spy on you and you secretly spy on me, even though we’re both attending to each other.

As enjoyable as it can be to share experiences with others (indeed, psychologists have shown that people find chocolate tastier when they eat it with others1Boothby, E. J., Clark, M. S., & Bargh, J. A. (2014). Shared experiences are amplified. Psychological science, 25(12), 2209–2216.), it can at times be overwhelming. Infants can find the emotional arousal of interaction too much, smiling and averting their eyes in displays of coyness when their caregiver smiles and looks at them. The developmental psychologist Vasudevi Reddy, who studies emotional engagement and coyness in infancy, draws a connection to a passage from Song of Songs: “Turn thine eyes from me, for they have overwhelmed me” (Song of Songs 6:5).2See Reddy, V. (2005). Before the “third element”: understanding attention to self. Joint attention: Communication and other minds, 85–109. Sometimes, the intensity of second-personal engagement can be too much. Try staring into another’s eyes for as long as you can manage; you might be surprised how quickly you have to look away. Openness to another comes with an intensity, and moreover a vulnerability: I am open to you, and you are open to me.

Sharedness and Worship

Now, one of the distinctive features of gathered worship is that it allows for participants to share attention with one another. Liturgy features many opportunities to attend to the awareness of others—in the reading of Scripture in the context of gathered worship we are not just attending to the words that are read, but we are also attending to the fact that others are listening alongside us. Put differently, the words of Scripture being read provide an object to which we can jointly attend with those in the congregation. Some aspects of Christian liturgy provide more cues that we are participating together, whether this be the audible responses of our fellow congregants to a sermon, or the sound of their voices as we join in singing together. Arguably, gathered worship is all about shaping and guiding our attention.

This sharing of attention also involves a joint attentiveness to God’s presence. Take an example from the opening lines of the Church of England’s eucharistic liturgy. The priest (or minister) says, “The Lord is here,” to which they invite the response, “His Spirit is with us.” In saying these words together, the congregation is encouraged not just to notice God’s presence, but also to notice one another’s awareness of God’s presence.

The practice of jointly attending to Scripture, or to the presence of God, helps shape members of that community. For example, as Joshua Cockayne and David Efird write, “When alone, we might have the tendency to focus on certain aspects of God’s character, and thereby build up a biased picture of God. In worship, it is possible to be guided by the focus of another’s attention.”3Efird, D., & Cockayne, J. L. (2018). Common Worship. Faith and Philosophy, 299–325.. Being able to attend together matters for our worship, moving us away from an overly individualistic focus. It requires that we open ourselves up to the attention and perspective of others—even in cases that lack the intensity of sustained eye contact, it still involves an openness to others. But what about in online services? Can we still attend together and have a truly shared experience?

We think that with a sufficiently nuanced view of shared experience, it is still right to call an online service shared. Psychologists and philosophers have argued that shared experiences lie on a scale, with a variety of factors shaping the strength of sharedness.4See Siposova, B., & Carpenter, M. (2019). A new look at joint attention and common knowledge. Cognition, 189, 260–274. For example, experiencing multiple communicative cues (e.g., sustained eye contact, a smile, an utterance) can increase the sharedness of an event compared to very minimal cues (e.g., a brief flicker of eye contact). A very loud noise or otherwise salient event is more likely to be shared than a very subtle stimulus.

As we have already highlighted, church services have numerous aspects that promote joint attention. But what about online services? If we understand sharedness as lying on a continuum from minimal to maximal cases, even without being in person, online services still have ways of facilitating sharedness by creating a sense of joint attention. Details like arraying participants on a single screen foster a sense of participating together. Though synchrony is not possible, participants can still perform the same acts or sing the same songs. In the case of hybrid services, the virtual presence of those who are watching can be acknowledged as part of a service, and those watching online can be invited to take part in the prayers and readings. These efforts do not bridge the gap to the experience of physical participation, but they help remind participants that their attention is shared. Online services offer a means of creating a sense of sharedness, however minimal.

Sharedness, Trauma, and Vulnerability

But what does this minimal sense of sharedness mean for those who can’t show up—especially those who have suffered trauma in the context of the Church?

For many people, the intensity of joint attention and physical co-presence can be overwhelming in negative ways. To those suffering with the aftereffects of trauma, for example, these experiences can be debilitating. As one recent book puts it, “Trauma responses are resilient adaptations to impossible situations. Trauma responses are the mind and body’s attempt to mitigate the fall­out from horrors.”5Cockayne, J., Harrower, S., & Hill, P. (2022). Dawn of Sunday: The Trinity and Trauma-Safe Churches. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 20. Survivors of trauma are often those living with their body’s response to horrific events such as sexual abuse, physical assault, or armed conflict, to name but a few. A survivor often lives with a heightened sensitivity to threats to their safety, and responds bodily to such threats. Take one such example from the context of Christian worship:

Consider the tradition in many churches of “passing the peace.” For me, this has always been my least favorite portion of the church liturgy. . . . My heart rate is elevated, my shoulders hunch over, and I begin a mental panic of fight or flight. I know I am about to suffer through social expectations where free touch among one another is normalized. It feels like a sensory nightmare of hyperarousal and overstimulation.6Ibid., 201–202

This example is one of many potentially triggering episodes within the context of Christian worship. The sense of a lack of boundaries, of enforced openness to others, heightens vulnerability and stress to the point of panic. There are many for whom in-person worship is so triggering that gathering together physically is no longer beneficial to their immediate wellbeing; the sense of vulnerability is too overwhelming.

However, we have suggested that, to some extent, one must open oneself up—must be vulnerable—to participate in a shared experience. And for many congregants, the challenge is precisely to ask the Holy Spirit to facilitate a greater vulnerability and openness. This is a challenge both on the individual level—how might I become more willing to accept my vulnerability and open myself up to others?—but also at the communal level—how do we create a community in which individuals feel able to be open and vulnerable?

It is a matter of significant moral and pastoral sensitivity to ask a worshipper to make themselves vulnerable in this way, and this is especially pronounced for an individual who has experienced church-related trauma. Even a church that fosters an accepting, safe atmosphere cannot assume that a trauma victim would immediately be capable of worshipping physically there. Though features like the location itself may induce anxiety in the trauma sufferer, the kind of vulnerability involved in sharing experiences is especially unpredictable and potentially invasive.

What the online service offers, then, is a means of creating a sense of sharedness that is comparatively unexposed. It offers a sense of connection that does not ask the participant to reveal themselves—even to the point of not revealing their physical appearance or voice. This is not to suggest that anonymity is the solution to safe participation. Indeed, there is a delicate balance to be struck between fostering a minimal shared experience and a form of parasociality—an imagined social relationship that is not truly mutual. However, the online service can offer a first step towards fuller forms of participation. Though many of us experienced online worship for the first time during the pandemic, for others, this mode of worship has provided a spiritual lifeline and a sense of community in an otherwise debilitating life, and can continue to be so beyond the time of lockdowns.

Given the emphasis that the New Testament places on “bearing each other’s burdens” (Gal 6:2), and the interconnectedness of the suffering of each member of Christ’s body (“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Cor 12:26)), it seems crucial that we accommodate this need for community and gathered worship to those who cannot join in typical modes of participation.

Sharedness and The Body of Christ

There is also potentially a further theological dimension to these questions of participation. Are our Christian practices—our prayer, our worship—ever truly alone? Some theologians think not. For instance, the Anglican theologian, Evelyn Underhill writes that,

Both on its visible and invisible side . . . [Christian worship] has a thoroughly social and organic character. . . . The worshipping life of the Christian whilst profoundly personal, is essentially that of a person who is also a member of a group . . . [they are] part of a social and spiritual complex with a new relation to God.7Underhill, Evelyn. (1937). Worship. New York, NY: Harper, 81–83.

Underhill is here expositing those rich passages of Christian Scripture that speak of Christ’s body as a community that is ultimately mysterious. As we read in the Epistle to the Colossians:

[Christ] is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have supremacy. (Colossians 1:17–18)

Undoubtedly, Christian worship puts emphasis on embodied co-presence as God’s people gather together around word and sacrament. And yet, there is a risk of making these conditions prerequisites for participating in the life of the Church, circumventing the need for Christ to unite his church through his Spirit. If it is true that Christ is the head of the body and the only authority in it, then we need also to see that the boundaries of this body may be less easily discerned than we would like to admit. An individual is already united to the mysterious body of the church by virtue of being united with Christ. Their worship is already shared. For those who cannot show up, there is a great comfort, we think, in acknowledging their place in the body, regardless of their participation in worship (gathered or online).

Ultimately, there is a difficult tension to navigate. On the one hand, we are arguing in favor of the distinctiveness of bodily, interpersonal, emotionally charged shared experiences—of gathered worship and physically present community. On the other hand, we want to maintain that the online service does indeed function as genuine participation in the worshipping community of Christ, and that an individual’s experience of sharedness and connection through an online service is genuine. This tension remains relevant beyond the time of lockdowns, as churches consider if and how they might provide online services. However these challenges are addressed, the question of the sharedness in worship—and how all might participate in that sharedness—remains a vital issue for worshipping communities.

End Notes

1. Boothby, E. J., Clark, M. S., & Bargh, J. A. (2014). Shared experiences are amplified. Psychological science, 25(12), 2209–2216.

2. See Reddy, V. (2005). Before the “third element”: understanding attention to self. Joint attention: Communication and other minds, 85–109.

3. Efird, D., & Cockayne, J. L. (2018). Common Worship. Faith and Philosophy, 299–325.

4. See Siposova, B., & Carpenter, M. (2019). A new look at joint attention and common knowledge. Cognition, 189, 260–274.

5. Cockayne, J., Harrower, S., & Hill, P. (2022). Dawn of Sunday: The Trinity and Trauma-Safe Churches. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 20.

6. Ibid., 201–202

7. Underhill, Evelyn. (1937). Worship. New York, NY: Harper, 81–83.

Image created by Rubner Durais

Subscribe now to receive periodic updates from the CHT.