These churches are done with buildings. Here’s why
These two congregations went virtual during the pandemic and neither pastor wants to go back. Do American congregations actually need churches to build communities?
In September 2020, the Rev. Mike Whang and his wife, Lisa, sat in their home in Houston wrestling with one of the most important decisions of their lives. As she cradled their 1-month-old baby and their 3-year-old daughter slept in another room, they debated leaving the safety net of their large, wealthy church to strike out on their own.
At the time, the Rev. Whang led an ethnically and racially diverse small group ministry for the church. It was going well enough that other pastors wanted to absorb the group’s members into the main worship service.
The Rev. Whang, who is Korean American, felt torn about the consolidation plan. Part of the dilemma boiled down to a question of “Do we want to raise our two daughters in a community where they would be the only nonwhite (children) or do we want to create a new community?” he said.
The alternative — using the ministry group as the starting point for a new church — seemed crazy, especially with a baby, especially in the middle of a pandemic, especially when they had no church building to call their own.
But that’s what the Rev. Whang and his wife decided to do. With the blessing of the area bishop, Oikon United Methodist Church was born.
The group still has no building. For the near future, at least, the Rev. Whang wants to keep it that way.
Being online means being unencumbered by financial concerns that come with maintaining a facility, he said, noting that the congregation is free to focus on values — like social justice and spiritual formation — rather than the bottom line. It’s also allowed the group to attract worshippers who wouldn’t be able to attend in person, including people from California, London and Australia, the Rev. Whang said.
“A church is a network of relationships,” he said. “It’s the people,” not where they meet.
Virtual churches like the Rev. Whang’s congregation aren’t new, but the pandemic thrust them to the fore. In the face of gathering restrictions and public safety concerns, even the most traditional houses of worship had to give online services a try.
However, now that it’s safe for many Americans to return to in-person worship, some religion experts are questioning why virtual church enthusiasts want to remain online. Online worship can be gratifying, but, both spiritually and sociologically, it often leaves something to be desired, said Dr. Andrew Newberg, a physician and neuroscientist who studies religious experiences.
“From what we know in general about how the brain works there is a kind of resonance that occurs when we’re with other people,” said Newberg, a pioneer in neurotheology. “The brain is designed to be social.”
The power of in-person church
Newberg pointed to the power of sacred architecture to illustrate his point. “If you walk into the Vatican — I don’t care what religion (you are) — when you walk into the Vatican, it’s hard not to feel something because of its grandeur,” he said.
Even smaller houses of worship create a sense of awe, he added, noting that vaulted ceilings contribute to a feeling of “spacelessness” in the brain — a sensation that might help us feel a little less connected to our earthly concerns and more connected to the people around us and God.
Seeing the Vatican through a screen, Newberg added, doesn’t pack the same neurological punch, in part because other sensory cues, like smell, are missing. Online worship, no matter how well it’s done, likely can’t affect us as deeply as in-person church does, he said.
Dr. Harold Koenig, a psychiatrist and the director of Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, said that while researchers still don’t know exactly what accounts for the potency of in-person, group worship — “the research is a little behind there,” he said — it probably activates circuitry in the brain’s reward pathway. Neurotransmitters like serotonin, epinephrine and dopamine are likely involved, he said.
Research has also shown that being with a group — particularly when that group is engaged in some sort of activity that makes a positive contribution to society, like volunteering — leads to physiological changes that create a feeling of warmth. The metaphorical warmth that stems from being with others “has a physiological basis,” Koenig said.
Prior to COVID-19, almost all in-person services incorporated some element of touch, as well, which also creates a sense of well-being, he added.
“As a psychiatrist, even though we’ve got COVID-19, I always touch (my patients) when they leave the room. That physical touch is critical,” Koenig said.
In general, face-to-face interactions and group activities, including worship, create “collective effervescence,” wrote Adam Grant recently in The New York Times, using a coin termed by the famed French sociologist Émile Durkheim. Take the collective out — or put it behind a screen — and the experience is flattened.
However, Newberg noted that religious believers who live in isolation, like some monks and nuns, certainly do have religious experiences. So while the in-person, group aspect of worship is important, it’s not essential. There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for a religious experience.
Similarly, Teresa Berger, a professor of liturgical studies and Catholic theology at Yale Divinity School, said just because someone comes to an in-person worship service doesn’t mean they’re mentally engaged.
“Some of them, quite honestly, in their minds are going to be elsewhere,” she said.
Theologically speaking, Berger added, “The decisive element is a community gathered — and I don’t mean gathered only physically but gathered in a multitude of ways, some of them could be digitally mediated — around seeking to encounter a divine presence.”
Letting go of the physical church
Berger is among those who believe it’s possible to forge that sort of community online. Being behind a screen can be liberating, allowing people to engage with worship in ways they wouldn’t if people were around, she said.
Berger offered an example from her personal life to illustrate her point. While attending online services, she explained, “I started dancing with ... a particular hymn that we sing every Sunday. It’s an ancient Christian hymn known as ‘The Gloria.’ I danced it for a year.”
When she returned to in-person services and she wanted to get up and dance, she looked around and thought, “Oh no, I can’t do that.”
Berger added that, for people who have been abused inside the church or for disabled people who might have trouble physically attending services, online worship has been a blessing.
“There is a diminishment,” that comes with online worship, Berger admitted, “but there’s an expansiveness about that space.”
Moving forward, more churches may be forced to move to an online-only model due to low membership and high building maintenance costs. That’s what happened to Trinity United Methodist Church in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, which is led by the Rev. Tim Smiley.
The COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated the process of his small congregation losing its brick-and-mortar church, he said.
To some, that outcome may sound like a tragedy. But now that the church has gone virtual, the Rev. Smiley isn’t sure he wants to go back.
“The facility that used to be the anchor for everything that took place that defined the church has become the anchor for everything that weighs the church down,” he said.
Each week, in addition to leading small, in-person Bible groups at home, the Rev. Smiley puts prerecorded worship experiences online for his congregation. Members of the church contribute to the services by recording greetings or other contributions. With the help of a tech guy, the Rev. Smiley stitches it all together.
“It feels a little like the way The Beatles mailed in their tapes for (the) ‘Abbey Road’ (album),” the Rev. Smiley joked.
The Florida congregation does meet about once a month in person, as does the Rev. Whang’s church. In June, the Florida congregation paired up with a local Lutheran church to do a “Chill and Grill.” In July, they did a beach cleanup and then had lunch afterward.
Currently, the Rev. Smiley is considering more initiatives like the beach cleanup. Focusing on acts of service — and slipping the scripture in behind that — is the best way to reach the 25- to 40-year-olds he hopes to bring into the congregation, he said.
The Rev. Smiley said he still believes buildings play an important role in church life. However, he thinks everyone should be rethinking what those spaces could look like.
Churches can be both small and awe-inspiring, he said. Or they can be shared spaces that are utilized by multiple congregations.
He pointed to Cannon Chapel on Emory University’s campus as a prime example — a space that “was built to be intentionally interfaith with no permanent religious symbols in the interior,” according to Emory’s website, and that hosts “at least 20 diverse religious and philosophical gatherings” on a weekly basis.
Regardless of whether they downsize or move online, the Rev. Smiley said congregations should move away from managing huge campuses.
For Trinity and other churches, stepping away from the cherished facilities that “are a part of people’s sense of church,” can be frightening, said the Rev. Smiley. But doing so will allow them to step “into something new,” he added.
“That’s the challenge for church in America right now,” he said.