The tension was so thick from the front seat of the wood paneled station wagon my brother and I could feel it all the way in the rear-facing third row. The lace trim on my socks itched against my ankles and I reached down to scratch at it. We were late to church, which was our weekly norm. The reason for all the marital fuming from the front seat was this particular morning was Easter Sunday.
We arrived at church and the ushers informed us that the service was full but that we could sit in the overflow room. In the fellowship hall chairs had been neatly lined up and a giant television on a rolling cart had been placed front and center. We were able to watch the brass ensemble accompany the choir, their music pure and muffled coming from the side door, its alternative vibrating tinny through the plastic TV speakers. My parents shooting accusatory glances over the top of my little brother’s well combed hair.
At my first church out of seminary, as we wrestled with the launch of a second campus and an expanding first campus, my senior pastor declared one day at staff meeting “No one wants to be sent to the overflow room! They are always done so poorly that it feels like a punishment. Here, if we have to create an alternate space for people to worship, we want them to feel like that space was created for them, we want it to feel special.” It had been years, but hot shame flushed over my cheeks at the staff meeting table. He was right, the church often at worst treats the overflow like a time out corner for late attendees or at best an opportunity to watch others worship.
Worship is not meant to be observed from the sidelines, or from a box TV wheeled into fellowship hall or from a laptop at home. Worship is an experience in which we participate in the divine in community. As churches pivoted last March to form online communities, we tested and tweaked and experimented with the tools and techniques of building faith communities digitally. We worked endlessly to help people reimagine that their living rooms, dens, desks and kitchen were holy, sacred spaces to experience God and to worship.
As many congregations make yet another monumental pivot from exclusively online worship, to a blend of limited in-person worship and virtual worship, there is a temptation to allow our virtual service to become the virtual overflow room. There is a temptation to let our digital worship spaces be the place where folks who are unable to attend in person can watch in person worship happen. With it we risk undermining the sacred spaces and sanctuaries we’ve taught people to build in their homes.
As easy as it is to slip into treating digital worship as the proverbial overflow room, it is just as easy to ask a few simple questions to keep both in person and digital worship engaging community experiences.
Does this invite engagement or viewership?
As we shift to worship that engages multiple communities at once some elements of worship will need to be re-thought. Liturgical elements such as children’s moments, prayer stations or passing of the peace can create moments of disconnect for online viewers if those moments are shaped to engage only in-person worship participants. Asking “does this children’s moment invite engagement for our whole worship community or viewership for our online community?” is a good way to begin thinking through adjustments to worship that engage the full community of Christ. Many of the liturgies we want to do in person with a thoughtful sentence or an email about supplies ahead of worship or in the chat can engage both communities well.
Are there verbal transition cues to maintain engagement?
The church is notoriously bad at giving verbal cues that help people engage in worship. However, good verbal cues are a practice in hospitality and disrupt the notion that “everybody here knows what to do, because everyone here is an insider.” As pastors and church leaders transition to in person and digital worship it will be essential to cue both the in person worshipers and online worshipers of what is happening where there are transitions. Introducing pre-recorded video clips, reminding people to gather their communion supplies at home or signal a deacon if you didn’t get your communion serving at the door of the sanctuary are all examples of verbal cues that help all worshipers in your community engaged and connected.
Do I reference both worship communities (in person and digital) evenly?
I think there is a strong case to be made for choosing language that doesn’t bifurcate your community. Just like naming individuals while preaching can create alienation, naming individual communities if not done thoughtfully can create the same awkwardness. Often the need to name in person and online community cannot be helped, so it is good to check in and make sure that both of the ways people are experiencing your worship community are referenced. If you say “welcome, its so good to see all your faces here with us this morning” balance that by adding “and please drop a hello in the chat for our online worshipers, so we can get a conversation going.” Otherwise, you run the risk of signaling that the only community that matters is the one that is able-bodied or geographically able to access worship. Small cues, like excluding one community can communicate big ideas about who your community is and what you value.
Is there a way to say this that doesn’t draw contrast to our two worshiping communities?
If we have learned anything in the past few years it’s that language cuts both ways. Language has the power to draw us together or further separate us. This is true when we are cultivating multiple communities within our community of faith. Asking “Is there a way to say this that doesn’t draw contrast?” is a practice in imagination. What language might emphasize us as a single community with multiple worship opportunities and ways to engage community? How might we articulate clearly the larger picture of what we are building as a community? Take some time to come up with some key phrases that will signal to your community of faith that each of these communities are vital to the whole of the community our churches are trying to build.
This moment of re-entry is an opportunity to thoughtfully reshape the communities we are building to be more expansive. Our online worship experiences have been more than a life-line this year of pandemic. It’s allowed people to peek into our stained glass windows to see if we are a community they might trust with their spiritual journey. It’s given the medically at risk the chance to connect with their faith community during an isolating time. Virtual worship has stretched our imagination for how we create meaning, connect to one another and experience the sacred. This season the Spirit is extending the same invitation–to imagine that holy spaces can be created everywhere in faithful and creative ways.
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