To be Online or Not To Be Online: Uncovering the Roots of the Debates Concerning Online Worship  

[1] “The right understanding of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other.”[1] Like the novel as a whole, this statement from Franz Kafka’s The Trial is a portal into opacity. Joseph K., the novel’s protagonist, finds himself lost in an endless debate governed by nontransparent logic. He ends consumed by a legal system that is either unable to judge any matter or willfully engaged in misunderstanding. Either way, bewilderment abounds.

[2] Life is increasingly Kafkaesque these days. Everything is a little off-kilter and peculiar. A dizzying rate of change in recent years has brought bewilderment to our schools, homes, offices, communities, and churches. The last of these – church – is notoriously impervious to change. Though many congregations have had the same potluck menu for half a century, suddenly these same congregations are experiencing massive change through online worship.

[3] What might have once seemed impossibly innovative is now commonplace: people ‘go’ to church at home. Clergy lead worship services for a hybrid congregation that is simultaneously in-person and online. A portion of the congregation digitally gathers from around the world while watching another portion of the congregation gather around the altar. Bible studies are both here and there, in the fellowship hall and on Facebook Live. What would have seemed like a labyrinth of technological confusion several years ago is now just a typical Sunday morning.

[4] And, as in Kafka’s novel, we now find ourselves immersed in what might feel like an endless and irresolvable debate about the virtues and vices of online worship. Indeed, discussions about online worship will never go anywhere unless we first interrogate the foundations of this debate. Before entering the fray of online worship wars, we need to make visible the presently invisible logic that leads one community to drop online worship while another wants to keep it. The question we should be asking is: How and why do congregations come to such radically different conclusions about online worship?

[5] Actually, online worship has been around for over thirty years, although its widespread adoption is relatively new. Digital religion scholars such as Heidi Campbell[2] and Tim Hutchings[3] have documented earlier iterations of online worship and how debates emerged from these practices. Of course, beginning with the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, online worship moved into the center of contemporary religious discourse.

[6] The Hartford Institute for Religion Research reports that in 2015, only 19% of U.S. congregations reported using livestream technology for worship services.[4] In a pandemic induced rush, many congregations wired their sanctuaries for livestreaming services. Congregations that had previously only understood themselves as local gatherings suddenly became hybrid communities with both a physical and digital presence.  In November 2021, a stunning 80% of U.S. congregations reported offering hybrid worship services in which congregants gather both online and in person.[5] In 2022, Christian communities must now adjudicate their decisions – either ending their online worship or continuing it indefinitely.

[7] Earlier this year, Tish Harrison Warren wrote a New York Times opinion article stating, “Online church, while it was necessary for a season, diminishes worship and us as people.”[6] Arguing that embodiment is particularly important to Christian theology, Warren called for the end of online worship. This prompted an internet trial of sorts with a flurry of interlocutors taking stances on online worship – both for and against. This online worship debate has produced a dizzying number of responses, yet it is no closer to a satisfying conclusion.

[8] Why does one community want to drop their online services and prioritize in-person worship while another community wants to maintain or even expand their online church opportunities? There is an obvious delta in praxis between these two views. But how does this delta come to exist in the first place?

[9] Virtue ethics could provide some much-needed lucidity to these recent online worship debates. Virtue ethics can help us make sense of recent online worship debates by allowing us to understand the logic behind differing practices and ethical decisions. Virtue ethics enables us to transcend simple ‘for’ and ‘against’ bifurcations and arrive at a clearer understanding of how and why people disagree about the practice of online worship.

[10] Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book After Virtue, is often credited with reviving contemporary interest in virtue ethics. MacIntyre explains how virtue ethics can bring clarity to seemingly interminable normative debates. MacIntyre offers a schema for understanding virtue and how a community’s virtues are directed toward a particular aim. Three of MacIntyre’s core topics – practices, narrative, and shared moral tradition – are especially helpful for making sense of recent online worship debates.

[11] First, according to MacIntyre, human character is shaped by practices. These are coherent and complex human activities that foster internal goods, conform to standards of excellence, and develop over time. As an example, planting turnips is not a practice, it’s just a simple action. Since it lacks complexity and a socially established coherence, it is just putting turnips in dirt. Farming, on the other hand, is a practice because it exists within a community that has a shared aim, a shared standard of excellence, and shared traditions. Far more than just putting turnips in dirt, farming is a practice grown in the loam of community, tradition, and time. Other examples of practices include family life, cricket, architecture, and chess. Practices cultivate certain virtues. Habitual practices are the locus of character formation; as the locus of virtue formation, practices become more than just things we do – they do something to us.

[12] Second, practices can only be understood within a narrative context. The stories that a community receives and believes, hears and tells shape their practices. According to MacIntyre, “Narrative history of a certain kind turns out to be the basic and essential genre for the characterization of human actions.”[7] Actions become intelligible within a narrative – worship, work, life, relationships, and communities gain meaning through stories. Humans are at their core ‘story-telling’ beings: “It is through hearing stories about wicked step-mothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living and go into exile with the swine, that children learn or mislearn…the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are.”[8] MacIntyre brings practices and stories together in that our ongoing practices occur within a narrative understanding of human life.

[13] To explain this in the context of the question of online worship, the stories that a worshiping community hears and tells shapes their practices of worship and catalogue of virtues. This helps explain why some congregations see online worship as cultivating virtues while others see it as a vice; communities that privilege biblical stories about inclusivity and marginality will differ from communities that give priority to biblical stories about embodiment or incarnational presence.

[14] Finally, MacIntyre argues that practices and stories are lived out within a particular time and place in accordance with a shared moral tradition: “What the good life is for a fifth-century Athenian general will not be the same as what it was for a medieval nun or a seventeenth-century farmer. But it is not just that different individuals live in different social circumstances; it is also that we all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity…This is in part what gives my life its own moral particularity.”[9] Along with attending to time and place, virtue ethics gives attention to the role of community; different communities adopt different understandings of human flourishing and therefore differences in practice. This sentiment is echoed by Stanley Hauerwas in his book ‘The Peaceable Kingdom.’ Hauerwas suggests that ethics always requires an adjective or qualifier – Anglican ethics, Lutheran ethics, Jewish ethics, existentialist ethics. The catalogue of virtues differs according to a particular community’s history and convictions. Recognizing the differences in a community’s history and convictions is vital to making sense of how that community lives and moves and has its being.

[15] Again, in the context of the discussion of online worship practices, each particular Christian tradition and each church community holds to slightly different notions of virtue and the good life. The traits, skills, and behaviors that are commended within a community depends upon this shared moral tradition. Normative statements about online worship must recognize the shared moral tradition that has been established both historically and socially within a tradition. Again, this helps explain why one worshipping community lauds online worship while the other is looking for the off switch.

[16] Rather than engaging in an endless debate about online worship, we might rather attend to the virtue theory behind our differing practices. Different guiding narratives and communally-held mores result in differing practices when it comes to online worship. The framework of virtue ethics does not resolve online worship disagreements, but it does help make them intelligible.

[17] A comprehensive digital ecclesiology framework is beyond the scope of this article.[10] However, it is possible to propose some pragmatic suggestions for how a congregation might use virtue theory to work through its own decision-making about keeping or ending online worship services. A theological heuristic informed by virtue ethics would help a congregation in its decision-making process. This theological heuristic would include some of the following questions: What virtues do we aim to develop through our habitual practices? What biblical narratives shape our practices? What traits, skills, and behaviors are commended within our worshiping community? How does online worship either serve or subvert these virtues, practices, and narratives that guide us? How is our ecclesiological theology caustic or congenial to online worship? These questions can help make this article actionable for a congregation or denomination.

[18] And we might as well learn how to have intelligible discussions now because the future is fraught with more questions. Virtual reality and metaverse ministry will add more embers to these already burning online worship debates. If we are confused now about how to discuss online worship, then it will only get harder as technology presents the church with more and more questions. This is what technology scholar Shannon Vallor calls ‘acute techno-social opacity.’ As technology interacts with society, the future will become increasingly opaque. In her book Technology and the Virtues, Vallor argues that emerging technologies will make the future increasingly unclear thereby making guiding virtues all the more important.[11] In order to deal with technological change, individuals and communities will need to recognize and cultivate technomoral virtues to help navigate life in this brave new world.

[19] However, we need not be paralyzed by this situation—we can create a framework for making decisions that allows us to maintain reflective equilibrium when it comes to matters such as online worship.

[20] Virtue ethics is certainly not all that is needed to make sense of recent online worship debates. Bringing equilibrium to this dizzying debate will also require attending to matters of ecclesiology and paying attention to the technologies themselves. In order to engage digital ecclesiology in a comprehensive manner, one must also consider the influence of specific humanly established tools on the wellbeing (bene esse) of the church. For example, how do the technologies of radio, livestream, and virtual reality differ? Furthermore, how is the Word and Sacrament ecclesiology of the Lutheran tradition more or less congenial to online worship than that of the Orthodox or Reformed traditions? These are important online worship questions that are beyond the scope of virtue ethics and this article.

[21] Nevertheless, an ethics of virtue helps us interrogate the foundations of online worship debates. To keep online worship debates from devolving into Kafkaesque confusion we need to address the virtues that undergird various practices of worship. Though this will not end the disagreements, it will at least provide the transparent logic needed for a conversation that actually goes somewhere.


[1] Franz Kafka, The Trial, translated by W. Muir, E. Muir (London: Penguin, 1978) 238-239.

[2] Heidi Campbell, Exploring Religious Community Online: We are One in the Network, (Berlin: Peter Lang: 2010).

[3] Tim Hutchings, Creating Church Online. (London: Routledge Research in Religion, Media and Culture, 2019).

[4] Scott Thumma, Twenty Years of Congregational Change: The 2020 Faith Communities Today Overview (Hartford: Faith Communities Today, 2020),

[5] Hartford Institute of Religion Research, Navigating the Pandemic: A First Look at Congregational Responses (Hartford: Hartford Institute of Religion Research, 2021),

[6] Tish Harrison Warren, “Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services,” New York Times, January 30, 2022,

[7] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 208.

[8] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 216.

[9] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 220.

[10] My pending PhD dissertation, “Put It on the Scales: Bringing Reflective Equilibrium to Digital Ecclesiology,” offers a comprehensive digital ecclesiology framework for making sense of these sorts of issues.

[11] Shannon Vallor. Technology and the Virtues. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.


A. Trevor Sutton

A. Trevor Sutton is a Ph.D. candidate at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis with a research focus on digital ecclesiology and online worship. He teaches in the digital humanities graduate program at Concordia University (Ann Arbor, MI).