I Don’t Think I Want to Get Better at This
Sometime earlier this week, I read the post of some pastor of a small church somewhere out there in Internet-land who said his modest goal for the week was to “record a sermon that didn’t resemble a grainy Taliban capture video.” That made me laugh. And it was a sentiment that obviously resonated for many of us who pastor small churches and for whom the idea of recording or livestreaming services would have seemed absurd even a few weeks ago, whether for philosophical or technological reasons. Or both.
But last night, that’s precisely what I found myself trying to do. COVID-19 and the ever-tightening social restrictions it is demanding of us (gatherings of fifteen or more are now prohibited in my province) has driven many churches online, at least in some form. So, on an eerily quiet Friday night I gathered with a few volunteers (all faithfully attempting to keep our distance) in a mostly empty church sanctuary and recorded a “worship service.” To say that it was not a high-tech production would be the height of understatement. I propped up my laptop on a music stand, opened up iMovie, and pressed record. My son adjusted the angle a few times depending on what was happening in the service. No expensive mics or lighting or anything like that. We did the best we could with what we had.
The morning after my first attempt at taking worship online, I have to say that I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience. For starters, it sends my weekly rhythms wildly off course. Ordinarily, I have a finely tuned system of spending Monday-Thursday reading, researching, leaving myself jumbled voice recordings on my phone whenever a decent idea occurs to me, and even writing down a few thoughts here and there whenever a few cracks in my splintered schedule present themselves. I start writing in earnest on Friday morning. Large parts of Saturday are spent arranging, rearranging, cutting, hacking, and shortening the sermon to a presentable length. Then, I get up early Sunday morning and do a few last-minute frantic edits before stumbling off to worship. I may or may not have discarded virtually an entire sermon on Sunday morning written a new one. It’s not exactly how they draw it up in homiletics class but, well, it is what it is. Needless to say, this well-oiled sermon machinery is sort of sent spinning by the imperative to have something written and ready to record by Friday night.
But beyond the inconveniences to my personal schedule, it just didn’t feel right. I don’t like speaking into a camera instead of to flesh-and-blood human beings. It feels awkward and forced in all kinds of ways. You tend to subtly imagine yourself as an actor and the service as a performance. And I happen to have some rather strong opinions about the whole idea of worship as performance. I think that one of the diseases of our time is that we are conditioned in countless ways by the media we daily consume to expect everything to come to us in the form of entertainment. Worship, we often assume, is no different. We expect charismatic speakers who can retain a vise-like grip on our vanishing attention spans and professional quality musicians who offer up radio-quality fare. We expect polished media to accompany it all. We expect a good production. How could we not?
Also, most of us who are pastors of small churches are well aware that people generally don’t attend our churches for the “production value.” They come because they are seeking community, somewhere they can get involved and participate. They come because they have found a family and because they are loved (or at least because we’re all giving it our best shot). They want to go somewhere where people know their name. Perhaps they even come because they are weary of the relentless cultural imperative to perform and they want somewhere to just be. Pastors of small churches care about the presentation, of course, but we at least partially manage to steer clear of the whole bigger and better treadmill.
But this virus has suddenly thrust small churches into the same realm as churches with vastly more resources, experience, and competence. I confess that I ordinarily spend almost zero time watching other churches’ online services. But this week I did. And boy, watching a few other churches and pastors online is enough to make you never want to do it yourself. Look at that video quality! Look at how engaging that pastor is. Geez, he seems quite a bit more confident and engaging than I often feel. And look at her, she barely even looks at her notes. I can barely stand to watch/listen to myself at the best of times. And these are not the best of times.
At the end of the day, though, my misgivings could be reduced to a fairly basic discomfort with the idea worship as a product to be consumed. Worship is not supposed to be passively watched, but something that we do together. We’re supposed to sing songs together (sometimes even half-heartedly and off-key!). We’re supposed to speak words of confession and hear words of assurance together. We’re supposed to share prayer requests and hear kids whining and negotiate the sound system hiccups and who knows what else. We’re supposed to nod-off during less than riveting sermons delivered by someone who we know might not hit every one out of the park, but who also knows us and loves us. We’re supposed to touch one another and look one another in the eye as we pass the peace of Christ. We’re supposed to take bread and wine from the hands of another and encounter Christ in real time and space. We’re supposed to do all of this together.
Sorry if all this sounds a little grouchy and ungrateful. It’s been a long week. I know that we are living in extraordinary times and that these times require the ideal to be sacrificed for the possible. I know that for many isolated people, any attempt at digital connection is deeply appreciated. I know that “together” can and does take place online. I know that even being able to online during a global pandemic is a massive gift—one for which previous generations facing hardship and distance would have given almost anything. This is all blessedly true.
But it’s still going to feel weird to send out a YouTube link tomorrow morning when I should be getting ready for worship.
Last night, as we were debriefing after our recording, I said something to the effect of, “Don’t worry, nobody’s expecting perfection, all we can do is the best we can. We need to give ourselves some grace. We’ll get better at this as we go.” I meant what I said. But just because we almost certainly will get better at this whole “online worship” thing doesn’t mean that I want to.