What Do You Think About Livestreamed Worship?
I find the question difficult to answer because I feel like it is, along with all other aspects of social media, a mixed bag.
There are undeniable positives. People who cannot or should not gather, whether permanently or temporarily, can be edified and encouraged. It is not the same as being there, but for some faithful believers, being physically present is not possible. Others with certain risk factors may need to avoid crowds when COVID-19 numbers spike in their areas. For many of these it is not just a tremendous blessing, but a lifeline.
Other benefits are clear. Those traveling can keep in touch with the life of the church. The church can easily share more of its identity with its community and beyond. Personally, I’ve appreciated being able to hear sermons and music from other churches, both near and far.
But I think we also have to be honest about the potential problems and articulate them.
Here are some of the difficulties I see.
1. Watching isn’t the same as being there.
You’re not part of a congregation if you don’t congregate. You can’t be together when you’re apart. The biblical and historical norm for gathered worship is to actually gather together as the visible body. Even though generations past could not have anticipated the technological advances allowing us to livestream, we cannot simply claim that watching is equal to being there.
What is on the screen is one-step removed. We can never escape that. Even if we pray and sing every word of the liturgy, we are not actually there. Worship is more than intentions, and requires more than an academic exercise.
More practically, if you aren’t there, your presence isn’t seen and felt by fellow worshipers. Nobody can hear your voice participating in the liturgy or lifted in song. The physical gathering is weakened, and your own prayer loses the horizontal dimension.
Anyone who wishes to argue this point should first ask the nearest grandparent if talking to their grandchildren on Facetime is an adequate substitute for seeing them in the flesh.
2. It emphasizes production value over liturgy.
When we watch something on a screen, we expect top-notch production value. Big churches with cash are going to win. That might not matter to someone who is only interested in watching their own church’s worship, but the expectations persist. Look around in the comment sections and see how often someone mentions sound issues, video quality, and other points of contention with the presentation. Or mentions how WaterCress GatePointe RiverWood HopeRoad LakeCrossing Church, with its multimillion dollar media budget, provides consistent quality.
Meanwhile, others are trying to figure out how to mic a 40-year-old toaster and a choir of seven lady tenors and two sopranos. But they’re doing their best for the glory of God, and approach the liturgy with reverence. Unfortunately, reverence is lost in translation. I’ve even seen churches redesign their chancel as if it were a movie set, all meant to maximize camera angles for an enhanced viewing experience for those at home.
The point is, again, the liturgy of the church is not meant to be watched over a medium meant for entertainment.
3. It loses children.
I have seen my own young children captivated by reverent liturgy free from gimmicks and electronic media. But getting them to sit still and watch online church is a total waste of energy. I’ve heard the same from many other parents. Children cannot (and, according to recent research on the effect of visual media on developing brains) should not be expected to sit and watch for extended periods of time. But there’s a problem here. If a church were to create and package an “experience” for children specifically that can hold their attention as well as slick cartoons, what they are offering them isn’t a substitute for worship. Liturgy is for the whole church.
4. It further clouds the distinction between personal worship and corporate.
I’ve already touched on this, but it bears more discussion. People are already apt to downplay the importance of gathered worship by appealing to activities they feel more of a connection to.
“I can worship God anywhere.”
“I commune most with God when I’m in nature.”
“For me, coffee and and a book on Sunday morning is great church.”
People do actually say these ridiculous things. Some of them have a tiny sliver of truth. One can worship God anywhere, in a sense. But liturgy is special, and it’s not about the individual. It’s about God’s story of salvation, the gathering of his covenant people to be strengthened by Word and Sacrament. The grace that is available at the Table is a special means of grace. It is not available to you elsewhere. There is no biblical or historical basis for being a Christian and not being a part of the gathered worship of the church. It doesn’t compute.
Again, you might be able to worship anywhere, but you can’t fully participate in the liturgy from your favorite chair or walking path.
5. Online Communion is a “wafer-thin practice.”
I’m quoting a brilliant article by Hans Boersma, written following the onset of the pandemic. I don’t blame the intentions of those who jumped to institute this practice, but I’m afraid it’s severely detrimental. Self-serve Communion has never been a thing, nor has celebrating alone, even at the same time as others. We cannot change our sacramental theology to salve our felt needs, even legitimate ones, such as the need for connection in isolation.
It’s not unlike one Methodist pastor who once commented on Facebook that he had baptized a deceased person, a clear violation of sacramental practice, because “it was a pastoral decision to minister to the family.” The Eucharist is not ours to treat “as a consumer service satisfying my individual religious demands rather than as the chief act of divine worship through which we’re transfigured so as to become the body of Christ that we eat.”
Boersma elaborates further:
The Christian tradition has typically treated body and body (Eucharist and church) as mutually dependent. On the one hand, the Eucharist makes the church. This seems to be the Pauline logic of 1 Corinthians 10… On the other hand, the church makes the Eucharist: We offer up our gifts—our entire lives—in Christ on the altar. Body and body depend on each other. Neither can go it alone. The reason is simple: The two are one flesh.
Eating and drinking in front of the screen usually indicates a theology of real absence: Neither consecrated bread nor epicletic invocation of the Spirit is required if communion is a mere mental exercise. Indeed, a memorialist communion celebration is virtual by definition, even if it takes place in a church.
If you are a theological descendant of Zwingli, perhaps this isn’t a problem for you. But for most Christians today and throughout history who believe the Eucharist to be more than a devotional moment, this is a problem. “Body and body depend on each other.” In that way, online Communion makes about sense as an online marriage.
Those supporting this practice, as well as the legitimacy of worshiping online, often use the argument that to say or do otherwise would be limiting the Holy Spirit. There’s a real paucity in this argument, and it sounds more like a catch-all trump card or a platitude. We inhabit the world that God designed, and despite our technological efforts, that includes real limitations of space and time. In that context, he graciously ordained that we should assemble, and gave us the Sacraments to strengthen us. This is not a question about what God is able to do, but about the function of the gifts he gave us. What are they, and what is their purpose? At their essence, they are about the body, not the individual.
But what about those who aren’t able to attend? If their clergy take their vows seriously, they will extend the Table to each person who can’t be there in person. They will visit them and pray with them. If your pastor or priest won’t do this, you need to find one who will.
In Summary, Sort Of
So where does this leave us? Is livestreaming ultimately good or bad? Again, I’m not sure. Probably both. But churches planning to continue with livestreaming should do so while encouraging people to come whenever able. The norm for most Christians in most places and at most times is to gather together physically.
There will be those who won’t. That’s nothing new. If the livestream keeps them peripherally connected for a while, perhaps that’s a good thing. Maybe others will watch out of curiosity about faith or a particular church. Those can be invited to show up, see for themselves, and bring their questions. But like older forms of media that churches have used for decades, livestreaming shouldn’t be proposed as a viable alternative for actually being there.
Basically, worship isn’t just another box to check. It’s not just something to serve the individual, but to glorify God and strengthen the body.
Photo: unspash, https://unsplash.com/photos/imAfCYq7KH0