Churches Should Think Twice Before Webcasting Their Worship Services

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.

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10298

As for me (I won’t speak for my house), I’ll wait this out. I have no interest in watching video sermons, or video church services. Nor do I wish to participate in a sabbath school discussion by teleconference. This will pass.

Whether video taped or not, most Adventist worship hours are in serious need of an upgrade.

Every minute of the worship hour should be evaluated for its worshipfulness and content.

One congregation ( METHODIST ) that I attend, selects five of the most eloquent, articulate, well spoken members as LAY LEADERS who on rotating weeks, deliver the announcements, and do the scripture reading and the responsive reading.

This ensures the highest quality for these segments.
It also ensures that only the minimum time is expended —- no rambling repetitiveness allowed !

In most Adventist churches I have attended through the years, these
announcements, / scripture readings / prayers are rotated through various elders / deacons / church members who then find it an ego trip to perform — often extending their remarks / prayers etc to an inordinate length.

Announcements should be kept to a bare minimum, because they do not contribute to worshipfulness and are printed in the weekly worship bulletin / church web site anyway. Most congregants can read — no need to cajole / prevail upon them at length, to attend the annual church picnic / whatever!

The same can be said of offering calls — any financial need of the congregation / conference / mission field needs no extensive elaboration to be persuasive.

Congregational hymns are important and should be plentiful —- but not every verse / stanza need be sung — sometimes just the first verse is adequate. Displaying the lyrics on a screen, or printing them in the worship bulletin ensures maximum participation without groping for the right hymnal page.

PRAYERS are best said exclusively by the most articulate member of the pastoral team. They should be pertinent to current world / political conditions, appropriate prayers for healing of sick congregants —- and should be pared to a maximum of 2-3 minutes —- more particularly if congregants are required to kneel during prayers —- us older folks are arthritically impaired for long kneeling episodes.

The children’s story should be short and hopefully tied into the sermon content of the day. Best done by a parent / preacher who themselves has young children, so the content is at the level of the toddlers / children ability to understand—- not aimed to impress the adult members with too elevated talk! And the length no more than five minutes!

Finally Adventist SERMONS ARE TOO LONG

Most SUNDAY sermons I hear are maximum 20 minutes and often less.

On Sabbaths when there are baptisms / Communion or other additional events that extend the worship hour, the preacher should deliberately pare the sermon to a shorter length.

Rambling repetive sermons detract from the sacred hour.

A short pithy sermon, with just one or two potent anecdotes / stories will be remembered / recounted over the sabbath lunch meal, while rambling repetitive ruminations are shortly forgotten !

Whether communion sabbath, baptism sabbath, conference president preaching sabbath, the worship hour should end sixty minutes after its commencement !

Congregants need to depart the worship hour, ecstatic, elevated, exhilarated, exuberant —— not bored, irritated and angry !

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"…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.)"

One could only hope and pray that this would be the desired outcome. Nonetheless, if the Denomination, Pastors, and most church members, actually prefer the non-participatory model (passive)…it will simply revert back to the same. I wish that this would be different but the reasons for keeping this passive model appears to support more of what is desired/wanted (even if unspoken).

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At this very unique time of emergency, I believe it is time to support and thank the pastors and church officers who are working diligently to offer the best access possible to worship. We are promised that “when two or three are gathered” the Holy Spirit is with us. There is no reason in the 21st century to discount the use of Webcasting in achieving this!

I have watched “streamed” services for two congregations in recent weeks, and have been deeply blessed by both. That includes both prayer meeting and Sabbath morning worship.

During my life I have also frequently attended services at Episcopal, Methodist, and Lutheran churches. I have often been blessed by that. But WE DO NOT ALL NEED TO WORSHIP THE SAME WAY! Worship should not be entertainment. Worship is also very culturally driven. Those other churches are NOT better because they complete worship in 60 minutes! They are simply different.

We each have a unique personality, too. Mine is not the same as Dr. Vadermolen’s. To some personalities one type of worship is fulfilling, while to another type of personality a different style of worship is fulfilling. We don’t all dress and eat the same. So let’s not criticize others for different choices in worship time, style, etc.

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I enjoy La Sierra Univ church internet church service. [they are 3 hours behind
me. So I watch it in the afternoon.]
AS MENTIONED by someone – WHY do the Pastor and those who sub for him
believe they HAVE keep talking 45 minutes by the clock?
The Episcopal pastor uses at the most 20 minutes. Several years ago a visiting
pastor announced prior to beginning her message that she had 12 minuets [and
everyone laughed.]. She did take less than 15.
One teacher said – Stand up – Speak up – Shut up. Good advice.

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If someone’s message cannot be delivered within 20 minutes, it’s probably a poorly prepared sermon. I remember that years ago, when I preached occasionally, I always stayed within 20 minutes.

By the way, according to my Homiletics teacher in college, a good sermon always requires a minimum of 12 hours of studying. Long sermons usually have lots of “bla bla bla.” …

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Yes, we have a dedicated team here. They are competent and creative. And the sermons are usually kind of 25 minutes. Having those services online has been a challenge because they can’t do it from church anymore, so the staff is doing it from home. Not an easy task, but the church cannot just suddenly “disappear” … “poof”…

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G –
Yes, it takes a LOT of thought and study to get the “kernel” out of
the Bible material one wants to present.
It is always much easier to just “chatter” to fill in time.
I have sat through a LOT of “chatter” in my lifetime.

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Passive or active participation is only one aspect of the problem. A person might be present in a church gathering, but still passive. One aspect of church gatherings that strongly influences present audience are rituals. Namely, ritual theorists claim that bodily participation in rituals increases in-group feelings and strengthens social solidarity of the group members. There is power in rituals! By rituals they do not only point to the baptism or Lord’s Supper, but also to the entire worship service including communal singing, praying and listening to the Word of God. This communal ritual bodily participation is irreplaceable for the flourishing of any group. If you cut it down, you endanger the future of the group. No technology can replace in-bodily ritual participation of the worshipers. Thus, Zoom and similar technological advancements, that we now use, lack that ritual bodily participatory in-group dimension, which influences positively a person present in a group gathering even if a person participates passively. Ritual dimension is destroyed and missing in an online event. We may try to replace it with Zoom, but I am wondering how many are still going to have strong in-group feelings and connection to their local churches if this present situation continues for several months or years?

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The strong in-group feelings might be related to the relationships in the group before coronavirus. When my Sabbath School class did a Zoom meeting last week, some people who have moved out of the area were able to participate. That was heartening for all here in the area as well as those from afar. This group is already close and a Zoom meeting is an easy way to maintain that closeness.

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“If present situation continues for several months or years”.
But this is not going to happen. President Trump is already
speaking about part of American citizens getting on with their
normal lives on Easter weekend.
Of course, those 60+ and older along with those who ALREADY
have compromised health issues need to continue to take
precautions.
On Talk Radio this week non-medical persons are already asking
about “Herd Immunity” and that this is a possibility among older
teens to 40 years olds who seem to be affected very little by symptoms
but have an immunity. THE QUESTION-- Why NOT let these go back
to work and keep businesses open? Several physicians came on line
a little later and agreed that “herd immunity” would be a good thing in
America.
On-Line religious services would help keep the 60+ and other persons
connected to their religious traditions of worship with their group.
The Sunday group I’m connected with had an on-line service last Sunday
with the Pastor and Assistant. Called “Morning Prayers” from the Book of
Common Prayers [Episcopalian]. Without communion.
Feed back from members said they WANTED the on-line service this
coming Sunday to Include Communion Service even if it is just between
the Pastor and the Assistant. MENTALLY those watching would participate.
Actually those watching could be waiting with a little wine and bread and
have the Pastor “bless” them through the watched screen.
And ACTUALLY feel the familiar words – “Behold who you are, become
what you receive.”

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And, Steve, President Trump has some peculiar powers, one at his disposal being the ability to eradicate the virus by a presidential decree. His last resort. He is, by far, better equipped with resources like this than any other human being. Hopefully he will sign that damn decree at any moment. :wink:

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Thank you, Robin Vandermolen for this positive, well-constructed review of the ideal Worship Hour, and it should be primarily a Worship experience that sends worshippers home deeply sensing that they have spent an hour close to God.

Participants will have each spent time in prayerful, careful preparation: concise prayers, spiritual reading of the Scriptures and every sentence of the sermon packed with meaning and inspiration.

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For some time, I’ve seen more than half of our church (okay, we only 12-15 people) scrolling through their phones during the church service so they’ve pretty much gone digital already…pardon the sarcasm. I do agree with one previous commenter that some members LIKE a non-interactive service; just showing up is what they do, to be fed. I have begged the three young people (sporadic) to take part or, heck, TAKE OVER! I have asked other people to facilitate the SS lesson; they don’t like my methods? PLEASE, take over. I’m hoping that this hiatus will cause a re-set somewhere, somehow.

I worship in a small Episcopalian chapel which serves as the church for my son’s high school. There are usually only about 20-50 people in attendance in a room that holds the entire student body and staff of 250 every morning for required chapel. It is an intimate gathering with beautiful music.

The choir sings the service accompanied by a talented organist. I just love everything about the service which is high church and of course is liturgical. However, I am aware that it is not attractive to our Adventist family members who have come to visit various times over the seven years that we have been attending. They find it cold, or too “Catholic”, they don’t all like the high church traditional music, they don’t like the readings, they don’t like standing and sitting multiple times. All that I like, they do not like. But one thing everyone agrees on–12 minute sermons are perfect!! :blush:

For about six years we attended both SDA and Episcopal services. Eventually my husband and I decided to stop attending the service that no longer spoke to us and that was the Adventist service. This is not a situation that will last forever as we will likely no longer attend as often after our last child graduates, and we are unsure where the future will take us. But we are appreciative of the opportunity to experience a beautiful and meaningful form of worship, different from that which were were raised with.

When this virus passes us by I know that I am most looking forward to getting back to that chapel. I cannot wait to pray to God there and thank Him for His goodness. It cannot happen soon enough.

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We do as well, having worked with Pastor Oberg in the same academy industry when we were all many years younger! But it is even more than that for us. The service always seems to radiate such a spirit of worship and love. In my estimation the best service available inside the Adventist denomination, though there are many I’ve found of other faiths that also provide that atmosphere.

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They are working hard to keep the pace since they cannot broadcast live from the church. The Conference asked them not to, for some legal reasons I guess. So they prepare everything and record from their homes during the week. The outcome is very good anyway.

One thing that is concerning is the increase of anxiety and depression second to the virus crisis and correlated issues. And it’s going to be much worse in the near future. I just offered free services via Skype to members who are distressed and anxious.

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Ann –
Robin Williams [who was Episcopalian] called it
“Pew Aerobics”
Another of his sayings was “Christians can believe
in dinosaurs.”
He had a number of other good ones. They were on
a black T-shirt that quite a number bought and wore
at my Sunday congregation.

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Here’s the tee shirt. Funny and true.

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