The Both/And Question: What Is Worship?
Updated: Feb 3
This past week I read an op-ed "Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services" in the New York Times by an Anglican priest. That headline is pure clickbait for a clergy person like me and the fact that it was written by someone in our denominational family (we don't get much play in the media, I think) had me devouring it instantaneously.
The question the headline poised isn't new. Before the pandemic online streaming was something for the megachurch, meaning either those with the budget to afford the technology and expertise, and/or, those with the membership that justified the expense. The fact that the majority of Episcopal congregations were able to pivot so quickly live-streaming is still amazing. You may or may not know that at Good Shepherd we had already planned and budgeted for the technology piece so that we could stream our worship to our foyer (and hopefully in the future, our parish hall). The idea of putting it on YouTube or Facebook felt very remote. And, if I'm honest, I saw the whole process as taking at least a year if not more.
It took us one week (thank you Wim Cassard!) to start streaming our worship in March 2020 via an iPad and a camera stand. Amazing.
But, back to the headline and the article. The case the Rev. Warren makes is that online worship makes church just another optional convenience. Without the mandate to literally go somewhere to experience our worship it is easy to opt out. Theologically, she makes some valid points, and I will not summarize all of them here.
What stayed with me is that worship, especially the Holy Eucharist, is an embodied experience of a gathered community. Brought together by God, through the Holy Spirit, we become the Body of Christ. The words, the postures, the songs, the silence, and of course the actual food - all of it incarnational - God with us!
Live-streaming worship does not do this, she asserts. On the one hand, I agree. On the other hand, I do not. This is why the headline is clickbait and why it is wrong.
The both/and worship we currently offer most certainly does create the Body of Christ. One of the reasons I became an Episcopalian was via media, or an institutional church that proposed a middle way (thank you Queen Elizabeth). The Anglican/Episcopal faith tradition through its polity, theology, biblical interpretation and worship always seeks to find the "both/and." When I am being forced to choose either/or in one of the areas above, I am wary.
After I read her article I sat with my thoughts for some time. What if we gave up streaming for Lent? What if we streamed on the first day of each month, but not every Sunday? Would more people actually come to church?
Then my heart and mind filled with the images and words of actual conversations I've had with people. The many people who have told me "I am with you every Sunday, online!" or who have expressed their thanks for being able to feel a part of Good Shepherd, of our common life and ministries even though they are unable to attend. To stop streaming would mean shutting a door, excluding participation in our community. It would mean the opposite of the tagline on every Episcopal sign - All Are Welcome.
To stream or not to stream is not the question for me. The question is bigger and more expansive and most importantly, an ongoing question. There is no one answer or one way to be the church right now because we are in a period of reformation! There are many answers, this is all new and creatively changing.
The live-streaming we do now is wonderful and connects us. If you haven't yet sent a thank you to Wim Cassard, Kate Knott, or John Horine - please do! If you've been moved by something you listened to in our worship - share the link! Online worship does offer a tool for evangelism that is fairly radical for those of us in the shall we say, shy branch of the Jesus movement.
After I read the op-ed, I thought about posting it to my Facebook feed and starting some debate. But, in truth my friends, it is the people of this faith community who I want to be in dialogue, not debate, with. It is your thoughts and prayers and ideas that matter to me. I welcome hearing them.
I hope you will join your prayers with mine in thanksgiving for those who enable our streaming to happen with their time, talents, and treasure. And I hope you will join your imaginative and hopeful prayers with mine for the both/and ways of being the church that God will continue to inspire in and through us in 2022 and long after that! Peace, Arianne+