Our wonderful pastor was taking a well-deserved vacation on Sunday, and the Worship Committee had not heard back from the other person they asked about preaching for the First Sunday after Christmas, and they knew I needed a link to a sermon I could share with the Committee on Preparation for Ministry anyway, which I didn’t already have, so for all those reasons they asked me and I agreed to preach this past Sunday.

This experience brought home to me just how un-church-like, from the perspective of what I think of as “going to church,” our new technologically mediated and internet accessed worship services are.

It’s not as if that hasn’t been obvious all along. It’s been obvious that we are separated rather than gathered, so that the “corporate” aspect of worship is a lot more abstract and cerebral under these conditions, instead of being immediate and intuitive. Instead of the experience being educational in itself, you have to have already had the education to grasp the “corporate” quality of worship like this.

It’s been obvious that we’re not singing hymns together, which is a lot of what a lot of people mean by “going to church,” and also a lot of where people learn their theology.

[In fact, in response to requests from people worshiping at home, our pastor started putting the words to the hymns on PowerPoint so people could sing along with the music being played by our Music Director. People want to sing. Something you might not have known if you’d been focusing on all the people who never opened their mouths in those pre-pandemic church services.]

It’s been obvious that we’ve modified the liturgy – as minimal as that already is in the Presbyterian church – to functionally eliminate almost all of the congregational responses.

[People still do them, actually – when we streamed the service on Facebook Live, before we got a tech upgrade and switched to YouTube and made some other changes – all of which have been in the direction of further eliminating real-time interaction, as it has turned out, although that was a side effect rather than the main point – there would be a little chorus of “chatted” “And also with you’s” and “Thanks be to God’s” at those points in the service. But again, those are from people who have overlearned the in-person way of going to church.]

And communion … again, obvious.

But what was surprisingly much less obvious to me as a person in the pew, and is newly obvious to me as someone who has now had to, in essence, play a preacher on TV, is how much this approach makes the theatrical element of the worship service the exclusive focus – “the main thing.”

Worship, or “church,” was already moving in that direction. Had already moved a long way in that direction. People have been complaining about this for a long time: sanctuaries look like concert halls, “worship teams” act like rock stars, “celebrity pastors” perform their sermons like stand-up routines, etc. etc. There was already a lot of church, or “church,” on TV.

Worship is multi-dimensional, and the theatrical dimension has always been part of it. That’s obvious, too – especially to anyone who was ever in drama club or community theater; it’s no coincidence that those are the folks who are also on the Worship Committee. The theatrical element is probably irreducible, too; even the Quakers have to arrange the chairs, and cue the silence.

But this moment’s technological intervention pushes us farther in the direction of identifying worship or “church” more and more exclusively with its theatrical dimension. That, in turn, makes it correspondingly easier to forget – or, worse, never to learn in the first place – that worship is more than a spectacle, and that church, the whole life of the body of Christ, is much, much more than that spectacle alone.

I think that we need to recognize the profound danger in this drift toward identifying “going to church” with “watching a performance,” and take some vigorous action to keep rowing against the current, or we will have a lot of tough work to do to restore the multi-dimensional understanding of “worship” and of “church.”
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Beyond that, what I noticed most keenly yesterday was how it felt like I was speaking to no one in particular.

Or rather: I was very aware of speaking to the three other people who were in the sanctuary. But also very aware at the same time that an indeterminate set of people might, sooner or later, listen to some or all of whatever we were recording yesterday. “The internet is forever” takes on new meaning in that context.

We were taught in seminary that sermons are about sharing a message from a text with a particular concrete specific congregation, whose life and immediate concerns and needs one knows and cares about; they are meant to be spoken into the life of that congregation at a particular time in its particular place. The context for a sermon is this particular congregation, here and now.

On the internet, then, every sermon is always, to some extent, taken out of context. Every sermon is necessarily re-contextualized in some other specific here and now.

It’s like a message in a bottle.

Whether a message like that will wash up on an inhabited shore, or will mean anything once it does, God alone knows.
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Our little congregation’s worship service for the First Sunday after Christmas, December 27, 2020, is online at the Corydon Presbyterian Church Facebook page, and also on the Corydon Presbyterian Church YouTube channel. Both of those are fairly well hidden from the perspective of the internet, but the members of our tiny congregation who have internet connections know how to find them – or so we think.
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Image: “Little bottle – little message,” Paul van de Velde from Netherlands, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons