Worshipping Online: What I’ve Learned (so far)

I’m in the middle of a four-month leave of absence from Old South, assisting my husband in taking advantage of his full-year sabbatical. We spent most of September in Norway and we expect to head out for a cross-country road trip next week. Although I’ll admit that I have not attended worship every Sunday, I have attended more than a few worship services from home, or away—all of them virtual, either live-streamed worship or recorded worship services that are available on YouTube. I have learned some important lessons.

  1. Address the online audience— and more than simply welcoming them at the start of worship. Whoever is speaking, preacher or liturgist, should look into the camera from time to time. Treat the camera, essentially, as a member of the congregation.
  2. Include the online audience in sacraments. For communion, especially, those attending worship virtually should feel included in the sacred ritual. As an example, virtual participants should be able to have a sense that the elements they use at home are consecrated as the elements in the sanctuary are. Clergy should do things like encouraging virtual attendees to hold their elements during the prayer of consecration, repeating words of consecration wherever they are. I’ve found the worship services that have included communion, but have offered no recognition of online participants, to be trying experiences. It’s where I’ve felt the deepest disconnect and a keen awareness of separateness from the worshipping congregation.
  3. Announcements. When my children attended church camp many years ago, there was a little song that they would sing that went something like, “Announcements, announcements, announcements. What a terrible way to die, a terrible way to die,” etc. There is a great deal of wisdom in that silly little camp song. For someone who is strictly visiting (and not looking for a congregation to join—although this may be true for them as well), long announcements make me just want to turn worship off and do something else. My advice: keep the announcements short, or find a way to corral them outside of the worship experience. When I return from my leave, this will be a top priority. I’ll set up morning worship so that I clearly inform attendees that announcements start at 10:00 and worship starts at 10:10 (or something like that) or I’ll move announcements to the end, after worship is over. I’m not really sure what it is, but long announcements about community activities of a church to which I do not belong (and will never belong to), make me feel like I’m a complete outsider, and not really welcome to worship.
  4. Pay attention to the sound. I know I’ve struggled with sound quality at Old South. As a virtual visitor, I realize how important the sound is. Everyone who reads, preaches, and/or prays should be coached in speaking loudly and clearly.
  5. Post bulletins online, before the service. I’ve discovered that I really want to have some idea of what will be going on in the worship service, especially when I’m visiting a congregation for the first time. I watched one online service that included a long church presentation, instead of a sermon. Good thing I was watching a recording that allowed me to skip the presentation. If I had attended live, I would have been really unhappy. Let me be clear: I don’t begrudge any church from doing special things during worship. But, as an online visitor, I just want to know ahead of time, so I can plan whether or not to attend.
  6. Keep the church website as up-to-date as possible. I know this has been a hard thing for me, since I’m Old South’s webmaster. But, I have a renewed sense of how important it is for church websites to remain current. I really don’t care how polished or sophisticated a website looks, as long as it has the information I need offered in a way that is clear and accessible. I want to know: when worship takes place; who the pastor is (and whether or not the pastor is on sabbatical or vacation); can I attend worship anonymously (YouTube or Facebook) or will I be identified (Zoom); etc. All of these things are important. At least to me.

My exploration of worship and worship services has opened up a whole new sense of what is possible, in terms of attending and engaging with worshipping communities. No more am I tied to attending worship at churches I’m willing to drive to. I can cross all sorts of boundaries— county, state, country, denomination. Online worship has its drawbacks, though. It’s especially strange and unsettling to attend worship where no one greets me personally or talks to me after worship. It’s weird to sing hymns at home, where I hear mostly my own voice instead of a group of voices. It’s unsettling to feel like a voyeur during worship, when there’s little to no appreciation for the fact that there are people looking in from other places than the sanctuary. Still, I’ve appreciated not only being able to attend worship, but to have such a wondrous array of options.

It’s now clearer to me that virtual worship cannot simply be a mostly neglected “add on” to local church worship. Church communities should not just install a camera and spark up a computer, and think that their “hybrid” existence is meaningful and fulfilling to everyone who attends, in person or online. Instead, the needs of those who attend in person and not in person ought to be kept in mind when planning, preparing and leading worship. Hybrid should be conscientiously hybrid, with a balanced approach for those who are in person, online and those watching days or weeks later. Worship doesn’t need to strive to be perfect, but those who lead worship should recognize the reality that pandemic-related changes are not temporary inconveniences. They are here to stay.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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