Two years ago, our congregation did not even record audio of worship services, much less do a live broadcast. COVID changed all that in significant ways, both positive and negative. When it became clear that, at least for a time, the only safe way to worship together was in virtual worship, our church chose to pivot and love our community through different means. We started livestreaming from a phone, worked our way through parking lot worship and broadcasts, and built a more robust video streaming system in our sanctuary. It was a forced learning curve, and we are glad to see COVID hopefully wane and more people return to in-person worship. Yet a hybrid in-person-and-online service will likely be our permanent mode of worship. There are many good reasons to hang on to the practice of broadcasting from now on.
Christian love demands care for every member of God’s diverse family. Within every congregation, there are those who can’t be there every Sunday. Some are shut-in and no longer travel. Some are sick or debilitated for either a short or lengthy period. Some aren't excited about being around lots of other people. A church member laid up after an injury can still worship from their hospital bed, and may even hear their name prayed over in the service. Those who have hearing challenges can benefit from having captions auto-generated. Whether it's mobility issues, navigation of illness, risk of exposure to others, social anxiety, or even just being on vacation, those away can stay engaged in the life of the church by having access to the worship service online.
Having remote access to the worship service keeps people connected who might otherwise have felt disconnected. Suffering from a serious illness can feel isolating, but there is connection in hearing the body of Christ praying for you. Even seeing your fellow worshippers on the screen can help us feel a sense of connection. People have long felt emotional connections to the people they see on their TV screens, even in works of fiction. How much more for those who see fellow believers they actually know on their screens. Perhaps there are former members who have moved away, or extended family who want to worship in some way with your people. Online participants can text or comment on the livestream to give greetings or otherwise say hello. A sense of social connection is still present even through the technology.
As a fellowship of believers, having fellowship is important, but not everyone needs the same amount glad-handing and chit-chat. In person or on video calls, small talk can grow tedious. Although connecting in-person has advantages, for many, an online connection fully meets a need. The snowbirds in your congregation who migrate to warmer climates for the winter months can stay connected to what is happening in the life of the church. Someone with social anxiety can participate at a safe distance. A family on a vacation can continue watching a sermon series from their campsite before enjoying God’s goodness in creation.
A lesson many congregations are slow to accept is that the Internet is now your front door. Your online presence is at least as important as your church's landscaping and signage. Anyone interested in visiting your church will likely look you up online first, to learn service times, to see photos, to watch videos of what it's like there. Only then will they decide if your building is worth a visit. When my family was moving to a new state, we researched the churches in our new neighborhood, looking for their livestreams to see which would be a good fit for us. People are curious about what is happening inside the doors of your building and your broadcast is now a safe window into which they can peer into your worship and connect with the congregation. They can hear what music you sing and see how God’s word is being handled. From a distance, they can get familiar with your worship style and assess what values they see the church prioritizing. They can look over the congregation to see if there are faces that resemble their own before walking in the door. Technology is part of 21st century worship; it is no magic solution, but it is as much of an expectation as having a parking lot, front door, and chairs to sit in.
Does this mean we should engage in lazy habits of worshipping in our pajamas while reading the newspaper? Probably not. God calls us into fellowship with one another and tells us to not neglect the chance to worship together (Hebrews 10:25). If you have kids who have the attention span to engage online, then a family worship time should be encouraged. Participate as you can. Download the liturgy and read along at the appropriate parts. Sing along if you're brave. Ask your kids what they heard and if they understand what's happening (you can even pause the stream for a teachable moment!). Invite them to share a thought or prayer request in the comments of the livestream. If your kids are too wiggly to sit and watch in real time, perhaps you adults can create a worship routine once the little ones are in bed or down for a nap. Take the time for worship as self-care.
Like video projectors 20 years ago, livestreaming is becoming a part of what worship in today's world looks like. Do it intentionally and well as you pursue belonging to the communion of saints!
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Dr. Robert Ritzema