The Pandemic introduced me and other reluctant clergy to Online Worship. We witnessed heroic efforts on the part of many clergy to learn over night how to record, edit, and stream something resembling worship. Seminaries did not and could not prepare us for it. We went online to learn how to do things online. Clergy experienced anguish, exhaustion, and our churches closing with a real possibility of never reopening. In short, we were tried and found faithful to our ministries. I praise my sisters and brothers who slogged through it. Now it is time for reflection about what it means to conduct online worship.
Online Worship Is Not Gathering
Communion is the primary function of worship. The sacrament of Holy Communion represents the totality of the gathering together of the believers. The ekklasia of the believers into fellowship and connection together as we seek to worship God is important. In this light, online worship is an oxymoron. Every person I have spoken to knows this is the primary weakness of online worship. It is difficult to overcome the loss of personal contact and still have fulfilling worship experiences.
Online Worship Requires A Greater Investment For A Diminished Return
No congregation has unlimited funding. Some churches have more than others. Online worship appears to be easily done. All a church needs is a smartphone and an internet connection. But a quality production requires an investment in equipment and getting accounts with some services. Notice the word “production” here.
Is the investment worth it? What happens when a small church makes an investment that does not replace the money spent? Funds that would otherwise be spent on mission projects are lost to something that depends on non-members finding us with a search engine. Platforms like YouTube and Facebook use a “pay to play” approach to placing the pages and accounts of their customers.
Televangelists beg for donations to recoup production costs. The same thing will occur with online worship if it isn’t already happening.
Attention Is Lost
One word of advice that bothers me the most is, “Keep your online time to 35 minutes.” I admit it is the only idea I remember that was shared in a 2 hour long presentation. My attention span is not the same in online meetings as in-person ones. I have Zoom Attention Deficit Disorder. There are not too many distractions. I go looking for them when I am online in meetings.
I am not the only person who experiences this. We tire quickly from watching the screen for too long. It is difficult to stay focused. The prepared videos are worse than the livestreamed worship. Manipulating images and constantly changing them helps hold attention. But it is only for a little longer. Online worship loses our attention and compounds the loneliness. The gathering helps bring attention back to the worship.
Online Worship Is Necessary (Sometimes)
Churches that did not have an online presence before the pandemic were behind from the start. Congregations that already had it never meant for it to be the primary worship experience. For awhile though, it was the primary worship experience for nearly every one. And many people did not like it. They wanted to worship in-person. Some of them went to other churches in order to do so.
Online worship is important for people who are stuck at home. Sick and shut-in church members need it. But, it is like having a portable set for Holy Communion. It should not be our primary worship service. Online worship should be a stop-gap measure. I do not recommend online worship for a family on vacation. I prefer the practice of families attending an in-person worship when out of town. The benefit of meeting other believers and having fellowship is better than tuning in for the service “back home.” To claim online worship is “better than nothing” hardly recommends it. If we keep it, we should keep it in it’s place.