The Coronavirus pandemic has swept through the globe so quickly, restricting gatherings and in some places prohibiting gatherings altogether, which has forced churches to make fast decisions about how to use technology to keep their congregations connected in these times of social distancing. Many churches have chosen to webcast their worship service through Facebook Live or other similar tools. While under the rapidly evolving circumstances, I don’t blame churches for going this route (my own church is planning to do so, starting this Sunday), I can’t help but urge us to pause and consider:
What is a worship service? What really matters in a worship service? And, what technological tools can be best used to create a space in which worship can flourish?
Each church should be wrestling with these questions over the coming weeks and will have to make discernments on how to follow in the footsteps of the answers they are finding. I worked in IT for over a decade, and have been wrestling with these questions for years (my recent book, How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church, offers a deeper look at some of them) and I would like to insert a few thoughts for churches to chew on as they make discernments about technology and the shape of their gatherings in the coming weeks.
Worship services, I believe, are intended for as much fully embodied participation of everyone present as possible. (Or, from a different angle, worship was never intended to be a religious product that is passively consumed.) Our worship is shared as we join voices in singing and prayers, and as we eat and drink the body and blood of Christ together. Consider the Apostle Paul’s guidance to the church in Corinth in I Corinthians 14. (The whole chapter is worth reading, as it paints a picture of the church there being too interactive and chaotic in its worship, but the heart of the chapter is verses 26-33.)
26What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 27If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. 28But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God. 29Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. 31For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. 32And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, 33for God is a God not of disorder but of peace. (NRSV)
Paul seems to be assuming that church members are coming prepared to participate. The ever-interactive life of God in the Trinity, it seems, is a vision for the sort of worship-full human community: being together, talking together, paying attention to all the members of the body who are gathered together.
Recall Jesus’ words: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20 NRSV). And considering the larger context of Matthew 18, i.e., of talking about and discerning sin and being reconciled, we could say that God is present with us as we are present to one another in conversation. (And I use conversation broadly here to mean not just the words we share, but our full bodily communion — words, emotions, nonverbal communication, etc. — as we are as present as possible with one another.
So, what does this mean for the technological discernments we will have to make in the present pandemic?
• Not all technological platforms are created equal. While we cannot be bodily present with one another right now, some technologies allow us to be more present than others. Video conferencing (Zoom, Google Hangouts, etc.) where all participants can be seen / heard, are much better for presence and participation than webcasting platforms (Facebook Live, etc.) that are designed for passive consumption. Audio-only tools (phone conference calls) are not as fully participatory as video conferencing but are better than passive media. And even Facebook Live with its capacity for real-time commenting might be a wee bit more participatory than solely passive broadcasting platforms — but it is much closer to the passive end of the spectrum than to video conferencing.
• Churches (and especially medium-to-large churches) may have to implement connection using multiple tools. Maybe church services are webcast, but small groups should be encouraged / enabled to meet using video conferencing platforms, fostering presence with one another in that setting. Churches could provide materials for how to worship together in smaller video conference groups: a suggested order of worship, prayers/songs, scripture passages to be read and discussed together, ideas on how to have an edifying time of sharing what’s going on in our lives (as we all need that in this rapidly-spinning chaos!). Our church has implemented a daily 8:00 p.m. Zoom call that is open to all members, for instance, for praying and sharing together.
• Worship is holistic, not just something that happens in a “worship service.” Video conference tools can be beneficial for churches in talking together and caring for one another and our neighbors in the daily realities of this new world. Again, the aim of worship is to be present with one another, and we as churches need to give all of our members imagination and resources for how to do this as well as we can under the present restrictions.
Why does this distinction matter?
The founding father of media ecology, Marshall McLuhan, iconically observed that “the medium is the message,” noting that “[It] is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.” In other words, if we choose a medium or a tool designed for passive consumption, we will be formed over time to be passive religious consumers. If, however, we choose a medium that allows us to be more present and participative with one another, we will be formed over time to be active participants in God’s gospel work of healing and restoring creation.
What an extraordinary opportunity we have been given! We have been forced by the realities of this Coronavirus pandemic to wrestle with the questions I noted at the top of this piece. (Truth-be-told, most real-life worship services prior to the pandemic skewed toward passive consumption, but this reality has been upended by the Coronavirus, and we have the distinctive possibility of imagining a better, more participatory, way of worshiping together.)
C. Christopher Smith is founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books and author of several books on cultivating deeper life together in the local church. This article originally appeared on his website: C-Christopher-Smith.com. It is reprinted here with permission.
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