The past two Sundays, I had the opportunity to participate in worship online, from the comfort of our couch at home. First, with Church of the Resurrection, a large Methodist congregation in Kansas City, and then with Lutheran Church of Hope, a large church in Des Moines.
My intent had been to worship in person with both congregations, but alas, after 2.5 years of being careful, COVID finally caught up with Lori and me. Our symptoms were mild, but they were real. So we worshipped at home.
While both of these worship experiences were online, they were very different, and they got me thinking about “why” we do worship online, and how we work to serve those who worship with us this way.
The church in Kansas City had a worship experience that was fully produced for the online audience. In other words, all of the elements had been recorded in advance. The musicians pre-recorded the music in the empty sanctuary. The pastor also preached in an empty sanctuary, but preached directly into the camera…to the online worshippers. Likewise, the announcements and the prayers were all tailored directly to those worshipping from a distance.
Meanwhile, the church in Des Moines was a different experience. They too had announcements before and after the worship that had been prerecorded and were geared towards the online audience. But the worship itself was a livestream of the Sunday worship in the sanctuary, full of people. When the pastor preached, he preached to the crowd, only occasionally looking directly into the camera. The musicians were leading the congregation in singing, and the online congregation was invited to sing with them.
It was clear that the two congregations thought of their online worshippers differently. In the Kansas City church, the online community was a congregation unto itself, and they were doing their best to speak directly to that group, instead of inviting them to simply watch what was happening elsewhere.
In the Des Moines church, worship was happening in the sanctuary, and the online congregation was invited to join…to become a part of the whole.
Both perspectives are valid, and have their strength and weaknesses.
I’ve been reflecting on these differences. At Trinity, we have focused primarily on the invitation for the online worshippers to join the larger worshipping community that is in person. But we’ve also wrestled with what can we do to make the online experience as authentic and meaningful as possible. The last thing we want is for online worshippers to simply feel like they are watching other people worship.
O God, you are my God; I seek you;Psalm 63:1-4
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
It is in worship that people experience the love and grace that comes through Word and sacrament. It is in worship that we experience the community that God has called together. It is in worship that we return to God praise and thanksgiving for all that God has done.
This happens in person, in the Sanctuary. It also happens in the online community.
We will continue to wrestle with the best way for this to happen. Right now, it feels to me like those who worship online at Trinity are doing so because they are unable to be there in person. It may be health related…they may be out of town…they may have had to travel to a soccer tournament (or hockey, or baseball, or whatever sport it may be)…
These people are looking for an opportunity to remain connected to the larger community, to be a part of Trinity.
And so for the time being, we will continue to invite people in to the worship that is taking place in the Sanctuary. And we will continue to look for new and better ways to do this, so that people continue to feel connected.
Know that wherever you are, however you worship, you are invited to be a part of this community. God has called us together and you are a part of it. Together, through Jesus’ love, we welcome, connect, learn and serve.