We’ve been doing this for a while. Let’s pause and take stock.
When my church in Moose Jaw was unable to meet physically anymore during Covid-19, I was part of a small team who produced our online services every Sunday. There was a sense of camaraderie and mission as we worked together to produce the highest-quality, most engaging worship services we possibly could.
Although leading sung worship and preaching to a camera in a largely empty room were challenging and draining, the experience was nonetheless intense, heightened by sharing it with the close group of production staff and volunteers.
After several weeks in front of the camera, I had a week off and experienced the service from home. I was shocked at how flat and lifeless it appeared to me. I began to question the value of online worship.
Since the pandemic forced so many churches to embrace online worship services as the only alternative for gathering during the crisis, let’s reflect on what happens when we put worship online and how it affects worship leaders, pastors and congregants now and in the future.
Online worship provides a way to safely participate in a worship service during a pandemic, but it also makes church attendance extremely convenient. Families can at tend in their pajamas. A person can literally participate with out getting out of bed.
The downside of this convenience is that we risk losing the habit of regular church attendance. This habit forms us. The effort required to get dressed and ready for church and to make the trip to a church building embodies and reinforces the priority worship ought to take in our lives. This effort is part of the offering of worship.
Online worship alters those values and presents worship as something that happens at our convenience rather than something that requires a sacrifice. Church leaders are wondering if providing online worship undermines the message that physically gathering for worship ought to be a priority. Indeed, some wonder if online worship could do to our churches what Amazon did to shopping malls.
Who’s the audience?
Putting our services on a screen also reinforces our tendency to view worship as a form of entertainment. Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard noted that Christians can view the act of worship as a theatrical experience where the worship leaders are the actors, the worshippers are the audience and God is the prompter who gives direction to the worship leaders – whereas a more correct understanding is that worshippers are the actors, the worship leaders the prompters and the audience is God. It’s easy for worshippers to fall into the error of acting like an audience, especially music since many of our contemporary worship spaces are nearly indistinguishable from concert halls.
Putting our worship online further reinforces an entertainment mindset. Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s famous quote, "The medium is the message," also applies to worship. The video screen is largely an entertainment medium, so what we view on a screen we tend to experience and evaluate as entertainment. Therefore, online worshippers can easily revert to evaluating what appears on their screen in terms of the production quality along with how well the online service can hold their attention.
Most churches are ill-equipped for competing with the widespread, professionally produced video content that fills our social media feeds. As a result, online worship can be experienced as third-rate entertainment rather than an engagement with a supreme being. Treating worship as entertainment is not a new problem, but putting it on a video screen increases our tendency to view worship through an entertainment paradigm.
Putting our services on a screen also reinforces our tendency to view worship as a form of entertainment.
Streaming our services also radically alters the way we participate in worship. Putting a worship service online is not the same as taking a live-action play and turning it into a movie. The audience of a play passively observes and evaluates the content on stage. In a movie the content has moved from stage to screen, but the audience still passively observes and evaluates.
However, an in-person worship service is (or should be) a highly interactive and participatory gathering where worshippers engage vertically with God in worship as well as horizontally with their fellow worshippers. While encouraging online worshippers to interact via chat boxes or comments can increase the sense of community, it is a far cry from the rich web of inter action present during in-person worship. Therefore, online worship is something we tend to view in solitude rather than experience in community.
A medium that connects also keeps us apart. Not only does streaming keep us physically distant, there’s a wide gulf between those producing the services and those engaging remotely online. In an in-person worship service, perspectives of those on and off the platform may be some what different, but it is still largely a shared experience.
For online worship those involved in the production are drawn into active participation. In most cases they are part of a team and therefore benefit from authentic human interaction as they serve. In contrast, those who worship online can feel isolated from what they are merely watching on a screen. Any kind of active participation, such as singing along with the songs, requires considerable effort and can even reinforce the sense of separation.
The medium and the message
The online medium also exerts an influence on the content of a worship service. One pervasive influence is the pressure to keep things short. A 15-minute sung worship set can feel like an eternity when viewed online. The fast pace and shortening durations of visual media have atrophied our attention spans, so service planners face a pressure to abbreviate everything in a worship service to avoid losing the attention of online participants.
In 1985, media theorist Neil Postman wrote that the result of televising church was not creating religious content for television, but television content for church. The same pressure exists for online worship. Rather than producing worship content for online videos, churches end up programming worship services that cater to the demands of online video.
Churches embracing online worship also face the challenge of mastering the technology of video production. In an era where our worship services are becoming increasingly dependent upon technology, online worship in creases that technological dependence by an order of magnitude, requiring investment in equipment as well as training staff and volunteers. These substantial investments can potentially shift energy and focus away from the traditional ways churches love and serve their communities.
Another dilemma – what to do about the sacraments? For traditions that require the bread and cup to be administered by an ordained minister, there is simply no way to celebrate communion through a livestream. However, for traditions that stress the priesthood of all believers along with an emblematic view of the communion elements, a case can be made for celebration communion over a livestream. However, even in those cases, the sense of intimacy and unity created by breaking bread together is diminished, if not altogether lost.
With all the questions surrounding online worship, one thing is certain – it’s not going away. Even if a church chooses not to stream their own services, their congregants will have access to online worship from other churches, making for a new kind of digital church hopping.
A middle way
One possible middle way churches can choose is to use their online worship as a way to keep congregants connected when they are otherwise unavailable to attend. Churches can emphasize the importance of in-person gathering while offering online services as an alternative when in-person gathering is not possible. In this way, the online ministry takes the place of the cassette ministry many churches started in the 1970s as a way to stay connected with shut-ins.
The New Testament epistles offer an example of mediated presence when physical presence was not possible. These authors wrote letters as a way to extend their presence to a community they could not otherwise visit. However, both Paul and John expressed the desire that in-person presence was the preferred option (Romans 1:11–12; 3 John 1:13–14).
Scripture reminds us to not forsake gathering together (Hebrews 10:25). Although in-person gathering is the biblical norm, is worshipping on line a legitimate alternative? To answer this we must first understand the purpose of the worship gathering. In worship the Church proclaims and commemorates the gospel. That gospel celebrates a God who became flesh and physically dwelled among His people.
To present this gospel in a disembodied way, over a two-dimensional video screen, seems to undermine the incarnational aspect of the Christian faith. Living out the Christian faith requires unmediated human encounters in which we are entirely present to one another. The advent of online worship may lead us to renegotiate how and when those incarnational encounters occur, but online worship can’t replace them altogether.
As Covid-19 continues, churches must navigate the role online worship will play in their ministry now and going forward. Technological innovations from the printing press, radio, television and now the internet have all affected the way we worship. As long as these innovations keep disrupting the ways we gather and communicate, the Church must continue to adapt its methods while remaining faithful to the gospel.
While leading songs for on line worship, I developed the habit of looking directly at the camera, doing my best to imagine the presence of the online worshippers on the other side of the glass. When my church returned to in-person worship, for a time I was overjoyed to be making real eye contact with the congregation again.
I was reminded of Paul’s words, "For now we see through a glass, dimly; but then, face to face." Of course, we are still waiting to see our Saviour face to face, but in the meantime I’ll cherish my encounters with His image bearers, my fellow worshippers, face to face or otherwise.
Geoff Dresser is an assistant professor of worship arts at Briercrest College and Seminary in Caronport, Sask., and is also on staff as the worship pastor at Victory Church in Moose Jaw.