Each week after worship, I pack up my backpack and head to my car long after everyone has left the church for their homes. Usually, somewhere on that short walk to my car, I will text my wife to ask her two questions: How was the sermon, and do I need to go to McDonald’s for French fries?
At first glance, you might wonder why my wife and family are not with me in the sanctuary for worship. We might even go with some archaic assumption that the pastor’s wife and family should be inside the church anytime the door is open. Yet, more often than not, my wife and family worship from home.
The online worshiping experience is an extension of our in-person worship reality and, for families like my own, is a blessing to be able to worship freely and safely without condemnation or questioning from others. Often when my family attends worship, we are met with stares, distant relationships, and actions that make us feel unwanted and unwelcome because my oldest son is autistic.
My son is a child of God and a person of worth. Part of who he is means he cannot sit still in worship. Part of who he is means he gets overwhelmed by loud noises and large crowds. In-person worship can overwhelm him, yet he loves being in church. So, he squirms, echoes, makes noises, and reacts because the noises and sensory inputs can harm him.
These actions lead good and loving people to react in visible and negative ways. I see it and my family sees it. We see the glares that come at you when someone wishes your child would be quiet. We see people being uncomfortable with him being in worship and the lack of connection towards my family when they worship in person. There is a reason why 80 percent of the autistic community does not attend worship. I do not contend it is because they do not want to be present in the church. I believe our attitudes and presumptions about people with autism, and other invisible disabilities and their families, exclude people from the sacred and loving relationship of the church.
For my family, the ability to worship online means being able to worship in an environment where they can remain fully engaged in worship and experience the presence of God through music, proclamation, and prayer. The same is true for others who worship from home. It is not because they don’t want to be in person, but often because online worship gives them a better opportunity to experience worship without judgment or being harmed in the process.
There are positive experiences and growth that come through online worship. I rejoice when my wife tells me our oldest son sat through worship and intently paid attention to the sermon and music from the couch. That does not always happen in church, because he cannot control the volume or pace of how sensory inputs come to him. I rejoice, as well, when my wife tells me that she was able to get something out of worship when she would not be able to often in person because of trying to calm our son or the fear of glares from others.
Online worship, for many, is a blessing. It is a blessing for my family, which happens to be a pastoral family.
It is easy, especially when the church is dealing with a post-COVID world and declining worship attendance, to complain about anyone who worships online as being ‘”lazy.” This is the message from a common meme that gets passed around and challenges people to not worship from home. It is an offensive message to people who might feel the need to worship from home, and it is counter to the love of Christ. God calls us to go where the people are and understand their story, not sit in judgment of others for not doing things as we would do them.
Instead of seeing the opportunity before us, we revert to familiar patterns of worshiping inside the sanctuary as being the only true option. This is because seeing people, and the increase in in-person attendance, gives us a feeling of safety and comfort when everything else is uncertain. In doing so, we forfeit the opportunity to engage people who feel they need to worship from home, and we shame them in the process.
Instead of shaming, the church would be wise to take time to listen to people who worship from home. It would be wise to be considerate of families like my own who may worship online more often than not. The church needs to extend the table beyond just the in-person fellowship, by ensuring those who worship online are included, valued, and cared for like anyone else. This is something that the church is missing, and we must do a better job of caring for everyone as we move forward.
Jesus went where the people were. This is our calling today as followers of Christ in uncertain times, to go where the people are and love them as Christ loves them. Let us do the same for families like my own who are worshiping online because it enables them to experience the presence of God in worship in a safer and holy space.