To Be or Not To Be Online? That is (Not) the Question: Reflections on Worship Today

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Written by Dr. Stuart Blythe

Worship: More Than Just Sunday Service

Over the years, I have taught courses in Christian worship that explore what it means to design and lead Christian gatherings. Gatherings which we often refer to as “worship services.”

In every course, I wait for the moment. The moment when a person puts up their hand and says, “Worship is not just about what we do on a Sunday, you know?”

In response, I reassure them that, yes, I do know. However, I also thank them for highlighting that “worship” is a slippery term.

One of the things that we learn in our ADC course Christian Worship…Now is that Christian worship is very contextual. Christian people have and do worship in very different ways. This variety is evident historically, geographically, denominationally, and locally.

As we push into the Bible itself, we discover some interesting – if not disruptive – information: there is no one clearly described or prescribed pattern for gathering for worship. We even see that there is no explicit evidence in the New Testament that the early Christians made use of musical instruments in their services. Singing, yes. Musical instruments, no. What’s more, we find that the slippery term “worship” is never used in the New Testament to describe the nature of these Christian gatherings.

This does not mean that we should not call our gatherings “worship gatherings.” It does not mean that we should not have musical instruments in our worship services. But it does mean that our contemporary patterns modelled on the Bible are both interpretative and contextual.


But What About Online Worship?

This year, I have had to deal with a new question. A practical question: “But how does what you’re saying relate to online worship services?”

This, too, is slippery. In the same way that there is no single expression of worship, there is no single expression of online worship, either.

Technology, theology, and taste impact the varied nature of these gatherings. For some, digital worship is a welcome development. For others, it is a necessary move for reasons of safety and well-being. Yet for others still, it is a situation imposed upon the Church by unsympathetic authorities. Regardless of where we fall within the spectrum, the majority of us are dealing with the unfamiliar.

A common strategy in negotiating the move to online worship has been to explore how we can do online exactly what we were doing in person. This is understandable. It offers familiarity in a state of uncertainty, it builds upon established practices, and it reinforces what we think are the essential ingredients of a worship service.

This presentation of worship services was already the strategy and choice for some congregations. But for many others, it is something contrary to their experience and, indeed, their understanding of the nature of Christian worship.

This unease does not mean everyone thinks that congregations should hold in-person services against good health advice, of course. It can, however, mean dissatisfaction and increasing disengagement with what is being offered on-screen.


New Context, Not Replication

In light of this, it might help us to intentionally view online worship as a new context rather than merely the technological replication of another.

Allow me to offer three questions that can help shape our online gatherings and by which we can evaluate what we are doing. These three questions intersect with one another, like the three points in a triangle with our worship gatherings in the middle.

Who are the people we are hoping to gather?

I remember attending many a “gospel service” in my youth. These services included gospel hymns and a soloist, and a gospel sermon, all with the intention of “spicing up” the usual service format. These services were designed for the “non-believers” who were never there. They neither attracted newcomer nor satisfied the already believers.

We should seek to ensure that any worship service we organize online or in-person is hospitable to the unexpected guest. The idea of the worship leader as a “host” is a good one. Yet, we need to plan primarily for the people who will gather, whoever we decide these are, rather than for those who may not.

Why are we gathering?

It is a question to which the obvious answer “to worship” is too vague. Our gatherings can certainly contain acts and actions directed towards God in adoration. Prayer and praise played a critical part in New Testament gatherings (Acts 2:42-47) but there were other purposes for Christian gatherings, too. Two of the main ones were learning together and tangible acts of fellowship.

We need to ask ourselves if what we are doing (and how we are doing it) helps sustain and build up the faith of the people.

What are we doing to facilitate participation?

This question is concerned with the acts and actions that will make up the service. New Testament descriptions of gathering do not mention musical instruments, but they most certainly talk about and assume participation as part of the gathering (1 Cor 12-14).

This is one of our most significant challenges in mediated formats. The move from participation to passivity has been ingrained in our worship services for many years, and the move from in-person to online has severely limited our options for participation.

Two things require work here. The first is to highlight the formative value of watching, listening, observing, and reflecting. The second is to plan and prepare for varied expressions of active corporate participation. Some practical solutions can help, such as variety in people hosting; variety in people taking part; variety of service formats; encouraging participants to keep their videos on; facilitating a live chat; and hosting follow up gatherings.

Have the Conversation

Congregations need to talk about what they are doing in and through their online worship. I know that such discussions can become heated around style and preference, or the mundane “can you please remind Mr. Jerry to mute.” However, the questions above form a prism through which we can have conversations at a more structural level about what on earth we think we are doing, for whom, why and how, online and in person.

Rev. Dr. Stuart Blythe is the John Gladstone Professor of Preaching and Worship, Director of Doctoral Studies, Director of Simpson Lectures, and Dean of the Sarah Daley Nickerson Chapel at Acadia Divinity College. 

Expand your understanding of worship by taking or auditing “Christian Worship…Now”

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