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“And just like that, we were all televangelists.” Thus says a meme I’ve seen posted by a number of my ministry friends. This pandemic has forced many religious leaders into the strange and awkward world of the virtual worship service, of preaching to an empty sanctuary, of meeting together without seeing each others’ faces.
Just a few weeks ago at church we naively shook hands during the passing of the peace. Now we are offering messages of peace through a chat feature while viewing our minister through our computer screens as he leads a service before vacant pews.
In this time of social isolation, of staying home and canceling gatherings, church has become the one dependable regular event in our family’s schedule. On Sunday mornings, we’ve traded our pew for the couch, the lectern for a laptop propped up on the ottoman. I mourn so much of what we are losing. As I click the YouTube link and see the minister open the Bible on the podium, I miss this time of watching friends and newcomers gather in the pews. As I hear the organ notes trickling through my computer speakers, I miss the way the sound echoes through the historic sanctuary. As the minister stands to greet the invisible worshipers, I miss this opportunity to welcome each other, to look each other in the eye, to reach out our hands in greeting.
Of course we grieve that we cannot see our church family. But it is reassuring to know that people we care for and know are gathering remotely and sharing this experience. We are meeting God together while apart. We sense this great cloud of witnesses in a new way.
I’ve seen some thoughtful blog posts floating around that question whether worship services should be recorded. Can we really emulate this sacred moment virtually, and are we doing it a disservice to try? While I think it is important to critically engage with technology and consider its implications for our lives and spirituality, Jesus’s ministry again and again put accessibility before religious propriety. Allowing our congregants to “virtually” participate in worship, however flawed and limited the medium is, can provide spiritual connection, reflection, and refreshment in this time of isolation.
I’ve been part of congregations that televised their humble services since my childhood. This was not because our pastors were so popular or our choirs so angelic. Rather this was an act of service for shut-ins, sick, and elderly who could no longer attend our services. While nothing can replace the in-person meeting together of Christ’s family, I’ve always found this relaying of the service to people’s homes to be an important ministry for the people in our community we don’t see, those we don’t notice.
It’s important to recognize that technology is not a neutral medium. Televising Sunday worship comes with great risks: conveying a sense of the congregation as a passive audience, trivializing the importance of collective in-person worship, losing the sense of sacredness around prayer and scripture reading. But it’s also important to ask, what is our purpose in televising, recording, or live-streaming a service? Is it to nurture people who are in need who physically can’t be present?
Now we have all become those who can’t, or shouldn’t be, physically present. This is an opportunity for us to empathize with the vulnerable in our community, with those who would love to be with us but cannot. It is also an opportunity to set aside our preferred methods of worship in order to collectively protect the vulnerable in our church community and society as a whole.
If church leadership concludes that the worship service is too sacred an event to even try to replicate it using technology, it is incumbent upon them to use whatever other means they can to create spiritual content for congregants at home. Use voice recordings, email, blogs, and old-fashioned mail to connect with people.
We need to reflect on what we are missing when we meet virtually. The online worship service isn’t a substitute for entering church in body and soul. It’s a new and different, flawed and yet beautiful, way for us to meet with God and each other. For now, let us thank God for technology in this time of pandemic, for the gift it is to our spiritual communities, and let us creatively reach past its limits to encounter each other and God in new ways. Let us continue to grieve the absence of in-person collective worship. But let us also not give up on meeting together, to encourage each other in whatever ways possible. We cannot do this alone.
Tips for moving your service online:
- Do what is most authentic to you and your congregation. If standing up and leading a service in your empty church feels forced and awkward, consider offering a more personal approach to your sermon from your living room or study.
- Use this as an opportunity for creativity. Is there someone in the congregation who is musically gifted who might record themselves leading songs of worship? Perhaps there are families who are willing to create videos of themselves singing and playing together.
- Be thoughtful about the medium you choose. Different platforms offer different levels of engagement. I’ve found it encouraging that our church’s Youtube live-stream has a chat component that allows us to greet each other, to say which youngsters are present for the children’s message, to offer the occasional “Amen” or “and also with you.” These small gestures create an interactive element that reminds us we are together.
- Avoid creating the sense of consumable content by providing interactive social opportunities. Last week our church hosted a Zoom “coffee hour” after the service to provide opportunities for us to see each other and catch up. Many churches are also facilitating online prayer meetings, Bible studies and small group meetings.