Prior to 2020, I had never considered digital worship as a viable alternative to gathering in person.
This is somewhat surprising, given that I consider myself an early adopter, someone who rocked the flip phone in high school before my peers. My own interest in technology may have come from growing up around NASA (my first memory was seeing the Challenger shuttle explode from my classroom window) or from being such a big Star Trek fan (I may have built a mock bridge in the basement as a child).
It may seem strange, then, that prior to the pandemic I didn’t consider digital worship as a legitimate option. I had no problem recording the sermon and posting it to the congregation’s website. When I came to my current congregation in 2014, one homebound widow called me in tears of joy that she could now watch the sermon and feel somewhat connected to her congregation again beyond the Communion service provided to her each week by one of our deacons. However, the thought of someone sitting at home and watching the service digitally—in real time—was just not a possibility that I was willing to consider.
Then March 2020 happened. I set up a tripod in front of our Communion table with a music stand serving as a makeshift pulpit between them and pushed the launch button on my Facebook Live app. My congregation was now streaming its worship service. I led the entire service—providing the welcome, preaching the sermon and sharing a Communion meditation. We later began offering drive-thru Communion so that I could at least pray with members who needed it. To be honest, as I looked at myself on the screen that first Sunday, I was just glad that my shirt was buttoned. We continued this for a few weeks until, for either good or ill, our governor allowed houses of worship to reopen—which we did with a very strict plan. We have continued to stream our morning worship services, as well as our Bible classes that we offer throughout the week.
However, some are calling congregations to drop the digital service because it “diminishes worship and us as people.”1 The argument is that worship cannot be experienced fully in a bodily manner from the living room couch. I want to take care here not to dismiss this deeply theological and pastoral concern too quickly. I deeply miss seeing on Sunday those who have yet to return to in-person worship. Their space on the pew remains empty, vacant.
And, yet, some of these beautiful souls still attend every worship service and every Bible study (perhaps even attending more regularly than those who are attending in-person). They regularly thank me for providing this option for them. They regularly ask for prayer and occasionally leave comments about something they found interesting in the sermon or Bible study. Some are watching digitally because they are legitimately homebound, some are watching online because they have chosen not to return. In either case, my congregation has a core of faithful attendees who connect digitally—and my congregation is committed to not abandon them.
The current pastoral question being asked by our sociological situation should not be “Is it time to drop digital worship services?” but “How are we going to use the tool of technology as we move forward with God’s mission for our congregation?” Perhaps Paul the Apostle asks the question better: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news’” (Romans 10:14-15).
Technology, specifically what is being used for producing and broadcasting digital worship, is simply a tool that can be used to proclaim the gospel, much like the Roman roadways facilitated early mission work and the printing press put scripture into the hands of those in the pew.
So what are some tangible ways to better integrate the in-person gathering with those who join digitally? Possible areas of collaboration include making it possible for digital participants to:
- lead a prayer
- read scripture
- offer the Communion meditation
- provide announcements
- participate in the musical liturgy.
These are a few of the ways that we can allow the word as many opportunities to work as possible.2
Carey Nieuwhof challenges us to consider that “if the size of your vision shrinks to the size of a room you can fill, you’ve missed the church’s mission.”3 Digital worship provides so much opportunity to expand our ability to invites others into worship.
Keep experimenting with your approach so that God’s kingdom may continue to expand personally and digitally!
- Tish Harrison Warren, “Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services,” New York Times, 30 January 2022; https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/30/opinion/church-online-services-covid.html.
- Ryan Panzer’s Grace and Gigabytes: Being Church in a Tech-Shaped Culture (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2020) is an excellent resource to begin this conversation.
- Carey Nieuwhof, “The False Debate Between Online and In-Person Church (How to Plan for an Uncertain Future), 7 March 2021; https://careynieuwhof.com/the-false-debate-between-online-and-in-person-church-how-to-plan-for-an-uncertain-future/.