Ahead of Sunday, March 21, 2020, the call went out from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) National Office for photos of adapted worship spaces. It was the first Sunday that nearly every church was suspending in-person gatherings. The week prior on March 15th, I had used a small tripod to clip my phone to the front pew at Sherwood Park Lutheran Church in order to crudely livestream our service to our Facebook Page. This was our last in-person gathering.
I snapped a photo of our worship space for that first Sunday of suspended gatherings – a few mic and music stands facing the vast emptiness of our pews. I would have never imagined that this would be my view of worship for nearly a year and a half to come.
Though it can feel like those chaotic weeks of late March 2020 pushed the church into something completely new and unexpected, I believe that we have been on this path for a while. Using new means of reaching worshippers and connecting with parishioners in new ways is something that the church has been doing for a long time.
The pandemic did not completely change our course, but merely accelerated us in a direction that we were already headed. There have been congregations and parishes out there that have been including online aspects to their worship for years now: livestreams, hashtags, photo sharing. A parish I served ten years ago in Camrose, Alberta has been broadcasting their services on the local cable access television station for decades for the residents of the many nursing homes in that city. My grandfather, who was also a pastor, preached radio sermons in the ‘50s. We have been laying out prescribed orders of worship in hymnbooks for centuries. Scripture itself contains descriptions of prayers, hymns, and liturgical practices that have invited the faithful into worshipful and worship-like experiences for millennia.
And so, though it seems like worship through new media is a new experience for us, Christianity has been conveying its worship and delivering the good news of the gospel using different mediated forms since its beginning.
Prior to March 2020, I had periodically considered live-streaming worship. I have been a blogger and active social media user since I attended seminary 15 years ago, and I could sense that live feeds, podcasts, and videos were the direction that social media was going. A decade ago, a church having a website was as necessary as being listed in the phonebook. Five years ago, having a Facebook Page or other social media presence became necessary as these were the first places that people would seek out our congregations, our “front doors” so to speak. Live-streaming seemed like an obvious next step.
The ELCIC’s conventions have been live-streamed for a decade, as well as Anglican Synods. Finally, in the past few years the technology has become more accessible as well—as easy as pulling out your phone and pressing record.
So when COVID lockdowns began, and parishes needed ways to convey worship to worshippers who could not come to us, the ideas that a few of us had bouncing around the back burners of our minds became the most pressing matters of the day. Worship began appearing on Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, and of course, Zoom. During those early pandemic Sundays, you could bounce around services from across the time zones of Canada.
Back then, it all seemed so novel and exciting. I think most of us had the sense it was temporary, too. We envisioned doing this fun “online” experiment and then returning to worship and liturgy as we knew it.
A year and a half later, with several in-person false starts in between and cumbersome COVID protocols limiting what in-person worship can be, online worship is no longer “temporary.” Clergy and parishes are being forced to step back and consider what online worship actually means for us. What does it mean for the gathered assembly to be dispersed? What does it mean to proclaim the gospel, to confess and absolve sins, to hear the Word of God, to confess our faith, share the peace and pass the offering plate through a computer screen? What does it mean for our understanding of the Eucharist?
And what will the future bring? Hybrid worship experiences with some in-person and some online: who becomes the gathered Body of Christ where Jesus is present?
As we step into an uncertain future, my hope is that there are, at least, two lessons that we can bring with us.
The first lesson is that moving worship into online spaces has opened us up to connections with unlikely people—people we might never have imagined would walk through our doors. Our public witness to the gospel has become more open and accessible than it has been in a long time.
The second lesson teaches a more cautionary tale. It reminds us of the limits of mediated Christian community and worship. There is something about being together that is so important to the worship life of a community—the embodied gathering of the Body of Christ connects us like nothing else can to the life of the Trinity. Joining together as the worshipping assembly makes manifest the primary symbol of God’s presence in the world—the Church. The primacy of the assembly is why Paul did not mail bread and wine along with his letters. It is why hymnbooks are not the act of worship themselves, but, simply, instructions on how to join in with the heavenly chorus. It is why radio sermons and televised services have always been supplemental to in-person gatherings with our siblings in faith. And it is why the online worship which has carried us through this pandemic will not replace our live gatherings.
Our in-person, embodied gatherings are reflections of the God whom we worship:
The God who brought life into being with the Word and with dirt.
The Christ who joins in our fleshliness allowing us to see and hear, touch, and feel the divine with our own bodies.
The Spirit who connects us across great spans and distances, also makes us one, shoulder to shoulder in the pew, at the communion rail, and on our way out into the world.
The Rev. Erik Parker is the Pastor of Sherwood Park Lutheran Church in Winnipeg. His blog and podcast can also be found at The Millennial Pastor.