I’ve often heard it said that the central piece of the Catholic Mass is the Eucharist, while the central piece of evangelical services is the sermon. Granted, evangelicals sometimes celebrate the Lord’s Supper (whether it’s once a week or, more often the case, a few times a year), and the Mass has preaching. But there is a different focus between the two.
Think about this: If you’re late for church, what is the one part for which you want to make sure you get there? If you’re Catholic, it’s receiving the Eucharist. If you’re an evangelical, it’s hearing the sermon. When one talks about ‘being fed’ at church, a Catholic is usually talking about the Eucharist. An evangelical is usually talking about the sermon.
Now, the thing about sermons is that you don’t have to be present when they’re given to benefit from them. And evangelicals know this. For example, if an evangelical misses church, what do they usually do to try to ‘make up for it’? Listen to a sermon online (at least tech savvy ones do!).
Some recent visits to Willow Creek Community Church offered some other poignant examples. A few weeks ago, I attended a Sunday service at one of their satellite campuses. The service was just what one would expect at an evangelical church. A really good band led the congregation in worship songs. There was an offering and some announcements. But when it came time for the sermon, a video was played of the sermon given at the main church.
A week later, I attended the Sunday service at Willow Creek’s main campus’ +7000 seat auditorium. The pastor was there preaching in the middle of the stage, but I kept looking at the big screens that were beside and above him. For one, you could see him better on the screens, and two, it’s hard not to look at screens when they are all around you. So even when I was present, I watched most of the sermon on screens.
(I might add, even during music worship, where is the evangelical gaze directed these days? Toward screens. Such use of screens is so prevalent today that when an evangelical friend of mine attended a Catholic Mass for the first time, he said he felt something was different and eventually realized that it was the first time he’d ever been in a church that didn’t have a screen.)
This is taken to it's highest extreme with so-called internet churches. Type 'internet church' into Google and you will find the sites of several churches that are either partially or entirely based on the internet.
Now, it’s not problematic to think that one can benefit from watching a video of a sermon. Obviously a person can. But it is problematic that the central piece of these services can be, and now is, disembodied.
The central piece of the Catholic Mass, the Eucharist, is necessarily embodied. One cannot receive the Eucharist via the internet or over the radio. One must be physically present at a Mass to receive it (or have someone physically bring you a host if e.g. you’re in the hospital).
So why is this important? Because at the center of Christianity is the Incarnation - Jesus, the God-man. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1.14a) At the climax of salvation history, God himself came to us in a physical form. And why did He do that? Because we are physical creatures.
Evangelicals implicitly communicate the opposite as their worship life becomes more and more disembodied. They're trying to be the disembodied body of Christ.
As the body of Christ, we are supposed to manifest Christ to the world. And it ultimately can only be done in the manner Christ did it – in the flesh, physically, embodied.