I remember well the circumstances that led me to finally give in and open a Facebook account. In 2009, my friend Dr. Daniel E. Goodman served as the Bob D. Shepherd Chair of New Testament Interpretation for the Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity. He died unexpectantly at the age of 40. In an email exchange shortly before his passing, Dan lamented just a bit his 40th birthday. However, he acknowledged that turning 40 was better than the alternative. We simply do not know what each day holds. We do know, however, that life is fragile.
When Dan passed away I was in Scotland working on my Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh. I was unable to return to the States in time for the memorial service. There was a Facebook page devoted to remembering Dan’s short but impactful life. I needed to grieve. I needed to share. So, I opened a Facebook account and joined a community united by a strong affection for Dr. Goodman.
Just as I was hesitant to join Facebook and did not do so until I had no other option, I have been hesitant about livestreaming worship services. Yes, I have been hesitant about posting on our church website, church Facebook page, or church YouTube channel livestream worship and/or previously recorded complete worship services. Sermons are fine as they are instructional, but not complete worship services.
Allow me to share my concerns.
First, worship strikes me as a you need to be there event. Watching worship later is a bit like watching an athletic event when it is over. Even if you do not know the results; you know the activity is finished. Who really wants to watch people sing hymns anyway? It is one thing to be present to sing hymns to God with a congregation. It is something else very different to watch people sing.
My main concern with livestreaming and posting recorded worship services is that worship becomes something it should never be – a spectator’s sport. No, worship is intended to be participatory. When engaged with God, together with others in worship, no one sits the bench. We are all out on the field playing the game. When we ‘watch’ worship I worry that the whole dynamic relegates us to bench warmers. Worship should never be that way.
During this time when we cannot safely gather together, I have been forced to embrace livestreaming our entire worship services, as well as our Wednesday night Bible studies, just as I felt forced to join Facebook years ago. And as with Facebook, I readily acknowledge there are numerous benefits. I notice that our worship service from last Sunday, that is now posted on our church Facebook page, has 145 views. If we multiply that number, let’s be conservative, times 1.5 to account for occasions when another person watched with someone else, we get to 217.5 people “in worship” last Sunday. It we multiply 145 times 2 we get 290. That is more people than we would likely have had in our sanctuary. And we haven’t even factored in the radio congregation. Furthermore, I understand we had someone from the west coast with us for a recent Wednesday night Bible study. No doubt, livestreaming worship and then leaving the entire service posted increases our outreach. Nonetheless, numbers are not everything. Yes, I wrote that sentence! It still concerns me that, due to the reality that we cannot safely gather together and are forced to connect via social media, worship may occur with folks relaxing in their lounge chair, drinking coffee, and switching back and forth between live or prerecorded worship and the most recent Saturday Night Live clips.
Even so, I am confident that when the current crisis passes, we will continue to livestream worship and leave it posted for others to engage with later. The benefits are numerous enough that I believe we need to continue. In fact, I am working now towards livestreaming worship from our YouTube channel, which is open to anyone anytime.
However, to help ease the theological concerns I have about spectator worship, I am very pleased with ideas Anita has expressed that will better enable us to stay engaged as we worship apart from one another. Please do strongly consider her suggestions found in her column in this edition of The Window.
What ideas do you have about participating, not spectating, in worship during our indefinite time of separation? And let’s begin to think now, what attitudes and practices should we develop in order to stay engaged in the worship of God when that glorious day arrives, and we all gather together again in our beautiful sanctuary? May we reunite as a stronger worshipping community than we were when last we gathered in one another’s company as well as the very presence of God.