Is a Livestream a Worship Service?

As we walk through this season of church under quarantine, I think our approach should be much the same as John’s as we instruct our congregations. We ought to pursue continued communication and teaching using the technology available to us. I thank the Lord that we have been able to gather to watch sermons on Sunday morning. Our family has benefited from short updates from our pastors on Instagram and Facebook. I’ve appreciated the chance to FaceTime with students at our seminary. But we all recognize that these interactions are limited.

We can see each other, but we can’t be with each other. There is a big difference, and we feel it every time we log on. I’ve also noticed that many pastors are preaching shorter sermons and sending out short updates. This is because we recognize that a lecture on a screen is, quite frankly, not the best medium for teaching and preaching complex theology or calling people to deep reflection on the gospel. Since we are not gathering as the people of God communing with each other and the risen Christ, I don’t think we should call our Sunday livestreams a “worship service.” We can use a livestream to call our people to worship and to teach from God’s Word, but we have to be honest enough to say that the television in our living room is designed for amusement, not for deep musing on the things of God, let alone a replacement of the means of grace that God has given to his gathered people.

– Chris Bruno writing for The Center for Pastor Theologians, “Real Presence and Social Distancing

Bruno’s underlying point is the correct one: what we’re experiencing now under quarantine is not the ideal means of gathering together as the people of God. The television, the tablet, the screen is a layer of mediation we are better without. But for the present moment, it is the best medium we have.

Contrary to Bruno, I think it is permissible to name what we are doing via livestream or prerecorded webcast a “worship service,” for it is an avenue by which we can be invited to worship God. But it differs from “church” in the sense that the people called church are literally “the called out ones,” the assembly, the gathered fellowship of the saints. Yes, the church is bound together invisibly as a spiritual reality. The church is universal, dispersed across time and space and geography. But it is also expressed locally and personally, physically and tangibly, when bodies come together, joining in one voice, to lift up praises to God and give thanks for the manifold gifts we have received through the gospel.

Some of my earliest forays into writing about church leadership and ministry was to argue against online “church” for the very reasons Bruno cites. I was thinking about this stuff ten years ago. I was a strong proponent of presence as witness, congregation as demonstration, and baptism and the Lord’s supper as vital events for the people of God and in time, acts of testimony, formation, and narration that remind, renew, and root us in the good news that Christ has come, died, redeemed, risen, and now reigns as we await for that day he will return.

In moments like the one we’re in, let’s see online vehicles for gathering and connection as temporary measures that can sustain us until such a time we can once again gather face to face. Let’s develop a deeper appreciation for human connection, for flesh and blood realities, for encountering the other.

Via digital interface, we only see one another in part. When gathered, we see one another face to face, body to body. Via the internet, we know only in part, but when gathered, we are more fully known, until that day comes in which we shall know fully, even as we are fully known (1 Cor. 13:12). The web helps us to remain connected. When we reconnect, present and in the flesh, let us then rejoice.

Legitimate Concern

I’ve done curriculum development for the Urban Alternative, and I’ve respected Pastor Tony Evans for years. We need to be wise, deliberate, caring, and attentive to God during this time of crisis. We’ll pull through. We’ll be OK. We have a Father.

Theology Happens

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I created a set of “Theology Happens” decals after a funny incident at the office. Students can earn several different certificates within the M.Div. degree plan: biblical studies and languages, spiritual formation and discipleship, music leadership in worship, etc. “Theology” is the default track. During one of our advising meals, students were told that if they do not opt to pursue a certificate, “theology happens.” Yes, yes it does. A colleague turned to me and said, “I think I’ve seen that on a bumper sticker.”

It isn’t a bumper sticker. But it is a sticker. I had some made. You can purchase one in my online store, which I set up just for this. That might be ridiculous. OK. You’re right, it is. But if you want one, it will be $5 + tax, shipped. Go to the store and place an order. I’ll have time to turn it around during the quarantine.

If you live local, I can hand it off personally from a socially acceptable distance for $3. I’ll also entertain interesting trade offers. I said entertain. Not necessarily accept.

Where’s the link to the store? Here. Thanks for asking.

What is a Church?

Nearby in Chapel Hill, Ben Williams looked out over the empty pews of Christ United Methodist Church on Sunday and prepared to lead worship, this time into a camera. In living rooms across town, congregants followed along with a liturgy he had sent out.

Maybe, he hoped, by filming the service experience in the sanctuary, complete with music, worship leaders might help normalize things in the midst of things that are not normal. The worship pastor had even written a “Hymn for Handwashing,” to the tune of “Amazing Grace”:

“Amazing soap! How sweet the smell, that keeps our hands germ free! Please wash your hands, and dry them, too, that we might healthy be.”

“It will feel somewhat strange, right?” Mr. Williams said. “What we’ve said is, you are still with us.”

– Elizabeth Dias in The New York Times, “A Sunday Without Church: In Crisis, a Nation Asks, ‘What is Community?’

Sunday did not pass us by without church. The church chose not to gather corporately in their designated buildings for services of worship and witness. The buildings are important. The liturgy is important. Face to face gathering is important. But the church is a spiritual body, called together in Christ and united in the Holy Spirit.

The nation could ask, “What is a Church?” For answers, the church will need to give witness to the nature of community, thinking carefully about the spiritual community God has constituted it to be, testifying to Christ, telling the gospel story, keeping eyes open for the needs of the neighbor, demonstrating love, caring for those who are ill and home bound, sharing resources, praying, offering spiritual leadership within households, showing mercy, seeking justice, and deepening faith in God. Washing hands should be done–that’s wisdom. We can even sing songs about it. But grace has even greater cleansing power, and is the necessary fuel the church will need in order to be faithful to her God-given mission in the world.

Times of crisis serve as times of testing, revealing character, raising critical questions, and creating occasions for radical displays of creativity, innovation, and the depths of the human spirit. Seize the opportunity. Rise to the challenge. And don’t miss the moment. We’re faced with a problem. If you, like me, are part of the church, let’s work at solutions, dispel darkness, and lift high the light of Christ.