Monday, May 11, 2020

Musings of an Online Worship Binge-Watcher

When I began my new national staff position, I knew that one of the things I'd miss most was preaching and worship leadership. I love preaching. It's one of the things I always liked to think that I was pretty good at as a pastor, and I enjoyed--I enjoy--doing it.

That said, my experience of weekends the past month has been revelatory. That first Saturday evening when I didn't have to fret about the next morning, when I could just...relax? Watch TV? Have a drink? Stay up as late as I wanted? It was weird. I didn't know what to do with myself. And my mind is still trying to adjust; I still experience a low-grade anxiety on Saturday nights. My colleagues who are former pastors themselves say that it will pass eventually. But I'm guessing it will take a while.

If Saturday nights feel strange, Sunday mornings are even stranger. I get up when I want, I sit on the couch with my coffee, and if I want to I can just...keep doing that. Or not.

In this current season of social distancing, I don't really have a lot of other choices right now. But honestly, the couch and coffee is enough, because most Sundays for the last 15 years I couldn't. Just the principle has been enjoyable.

That's not to say I don't miss some kind of in-person church experience. Leading up to this vocational change, I was looking forward to visiting other churches and eventually deciding with my family on a new spiritual community. I was making a list of places to check out. For the first time in my entire life, I was ready to become a church shopper.

Of course, I haven't been able to do that, because COVID. So while sitting on the couch with my coffee, I've been doing what most other church-goers who can't gather in person have been doing: watching services online.

Now, I don't know whether it's a product of this new non-pastoring reality to which I'm still adjusting or due to some other aspect of my personality, but over the past month's worth of Sundays I haven't taken to just watching one service. It may be the convenience of having so many church experiences suddenly at my fingertips, or finally having the chance to see colleagues and friends preach that I've never had before, but I've yet to have a Sunday where I just watch one service. I would say that, on average, I've taken in 3-4 every week.

I've become kind of an online worship binge-watcher.

For most people, having to watch worship on one's computer or phone is not the ideal situation. Many are missing seeing their friends and neighbors in person, and can't wait to get back.

Online worship lacks something that can only be experienced in person. Whether it's the sense of really being part of something, communal singing, partaking in the sacraments with others instead of having juice and bread handy by your keyboard...analog worship offers a lot that digital worship cannot.

That's not to say that digital worship is going to suddenly go away when this is over. For various reasons, people are going to want to keep the online option around and churches will need to prepare for that if they weren't doing it already.

But the general merits of online worship are for another post, and Lord knows there's no shortage of those thinkpieces right now. Instead, I just want to share a few thoughts on what online worship has been like for me these past few weeks.

The first thing is something I've already mentioned, which is having the opportunity to see so many different people preach. I've tuned in to seminary classmates, friends, churches and preachers I've only known by reputation, and churches I mean to visit in person. And I get to experience all of this in a single morning if I want to.

The second is one of my favorites. There come inevitable points in each of these services where you're reminded that you're not watching worship in a vacuum, but instead a real 3D faith community still looking after the needs of its people. This especially becomes apparent during the sacred liturgical practice of announcements, when someone reminds viewers about activities such as Bible studies and mission projects. The other primary reminder comes during the sharing of prayer concerns, when particular names of members and friends of the church are lifted up so that wherever people are gathered, they are invited to remember their siblings in Christ and to raise their joys and concerns to God.

To watch any online service, whether now or before this started, is to experience a certain church's expression of worship, and also to eavesdrop on how unique places are navigating life together.

During this season, this is still the case. Online worship might not be the preferred option for most, but it's one way that churches are trying to hold it together right now. It's one way they're trying to still be there for their people, and other ways become apparent if you stick around to watch.

I think that's what I've been treasuring most about my Sunday morning binges. I like the preaching and the music. But listening for those reminders that these are particular communities still trying to be faithful in difficult times has become especially meaningful. And in that spirit, my prayers join theirs, if only from afar.

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