I was torn this month between what was the more pressing digital church concern. On one hand, the world has been swept away by the flash-in-the-pan word game Wordle. On the other, the New York Times posted a blunt op-ed stating that churches should cease their online worship services. But then I realized… porque no los dos? What if Wordle is exactly the right example of why online worship is valid and needed in this current presentation of the church?
Bird is the Wordle
As someone rocking a 100% win-streak over 27 total games played, I feel confident in saying that I didn’t expect January to revolve around a simple word game. For those who have somehow held off from peer pressure, Wordle is a game where the player has six tries to guess a five letter word. For each guess, the game will tell you which letters in the word you guessed correctly by marking them green and which letters are in the word but in the wrong spot in yellow. Some days are challenging. Some are downright frustrating… who knew how many words end in -ight?
The gimmick with Wordle is that - well, actually there’s no gimmick. In fact, it’s a complete accident of a game. Josh Wardle (yes, that’s really his name), who also created the infamous button and the art piece Place, made the game for his partner on a whim. His little side project then blew up and has since been bought by the New York Times, which is an ironic twist of fate for this article.
A Word A Day Makes The People Stay
What drew people to Wordle was the community that began to form behind it. There is only one Wordle puzzle a day and the word is the same for anyone playing the game that day. This is called synchronous gaming. Unlike the asynchronous world of other phone games like Candy Crush, Wordle is a game that is played in conjunction with everyone else playing the game. In turn, this creates a bizarre sense of camaraderie between the hundreds of thousands of people playing this game together.
From Jimmy Fallon to random United Methodist Bishops, it feels like people everywhere are playing this game. Even on my community’s Discord, we instituted a whole channel for people to post their scores and promote a little healthy competition. For such an incredibly simple premise and unintentional delivery, it’s been inspiring to watch the Internet do what it does best: reach.
Now For Something Completely Different
Another thing that the Internet brought to my attention was the op-ed from The New York Times titled “Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services” by Tish Harrison Warren. Being a pastor in a digital-first church community, I was quite stunned by this clickbait article and had to know more about the argument. Now, I won’t give my full diatribe that I have already delivered on this piece, but I do think Wordle has an important message for this article.
A quick summation of the argument presented is that digital embodiment is not as valid as physical embodiment. Given that COVID restrictions are being lessened, the writer argues that churches should drop online worship and return to the smells, sounds, and familiarity of the physical church. A nice sentiment but with problematic repercussions for those without able bodies. The argument really doesn’t work. And it was proven wrong by the very acquisition that the NYT made during that same week - Wordle, thy name is irony!
Proclaim the Wordle to All Creation
What Ms. Warren seems to miss in her assertion regarding online church is the importance of digital bodies. Given the inability to physically see someone makes it difficult for our brains to comprehend their existence - this is why cyberbullying is a real issue. However after two years in digital ministry, I can firmly say that the Church is making real connections in digital spaces. Doubling down, these digital connections would be the only method by which some of these human bodies would have been welcomed and seen in the church building.
I grew up in the physical church. I ate at potlucks. I heard babies cry. Ms. Warren’s appeal to that pathos really was effective on me. But the reality is that the church is declining. And we can make excuses for why that might be happening, but I believe that it’s due to our hesitance to build community in digital spaces.
More Than A Worship Service
Digital natives want community. Desperately. So desperately that they are willing to play a silly word game just so that they are able to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. To feel connected to the body of people on planet Earth. Doesn’t the Church have something even better to offer than Wordle? If we are tasked with the Great Commission to go, then why are we writing articles telling the modern day evangelists to stop going and come on back to the way it’s always been?
Every Monday, I stream some random Pokémon game for three hours in the afternoon. If you’d told me in seminary that I would be evangelizing like that, I would have laughed and begged you to sign me up. Am I some Pokémon savant? No - believe me, my church community would tell you I am not. So why does this gathering exist?
Because digital bodies long to be a part of the Body of Christ, too.
So, I would take Ms. Warren’s article and flip it on it’s head. Not only should we keep our online worship services, but odds are we aren’t doing enough for our digital folks. We need to double down and build a Discord, Slack, or Facebook Group in order to do the hard work of opening those digital doors to the church, not slamming them closed.
Nathan Webb is a major nerd in just about every way. He loves video games, anime, cartoons, comic books, tech, and his fellow nerds. Hoping to provide a spiritual community for people with similar interests, he founded Checkpoint Church--"the church for nerds, geeks and gamers." Nathan can be found lurking on some visual novel subreddit, reading the latest shōnen entry, or playing the newest Farm Sim. Nathan is an ordained provisional elder in the United Methodist Church in the Western North Carolina Conference. He hosts a weekly newsletter podcast: To The Point.