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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.

——

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22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kevin K #

    Thanks Ryan. For being honest about the grief/struggle and for attempting to care for your congregants in this unconventional way.

    I drew up a “production schedule” for my week just to give myself a frame of reference of what needed to be done on which day, and boy does it feel antithetical to what being a pastor truly is. Pastoral ministry has always been a deeply contextual practice (as Eugene Peterson notes, among others), and this feels sooooo weird, but entirely appropriate. Looking forward to the context shifting back to normal when this is all over… and am curious about the healthy ways this will shape us.

    One of the byproducts is all of a sudden people in our broader community are coming to church who would have never done so before (turns folks have some latent spiritual needs that a pandemic makes much more urgent). We have the advantage in a small town that I already know their names/faces. Hope we get to see them in the building when this is all over, and we can thank God for YouTube while at the same time throwing the “production schedule” into some sort of bonfire at a church picnic.

    As always, thanks for sharing your journey in this space!

    March 28, 2020
    • Thanks for this, Kevin. I appreciate the reminder of the good that can come out of this, as well. Who would have thought that people have “latent spiritual needs that a pandemic makes more urgent… ? 🤔

      March 28, 2020
  2. Thanks for this, Ryan. Best wishes at this time. I’m an online teacher, much of the time (about 1/3 of my work), and I still feel a bit spooked tomorrow doing this service in almost solitude. We celebrate “communion” every week. It sort of breaks the point.
    My sermon tomorrow is “It is not Good for Man to be Alone,” from Gen 2:18. But my main text is “In Which Piglet Is Entirely Surrounded by Water.” We’ll see how it goes, but I’m going to try to receive comments at one point during the sermon. We’ll see.

    March 28, 2020
    • micki #

      oh i love the main text! i actually just finished listening to both winnie-the-pooh books on audible & it seems to me that there are a lot of lessons, spiritual and otherwise that can be made from them! i would love to hear the sermon.

      March 28, 2020
    • That sounds like an intriguing sermon, Brenton! I’d love to listen 🙂

      March 28, 2020
      • I actually mentioned your blog post in it, but wimped out on the Taliban bunker reference!

        March 30, 2020
      • Ha! Well, I didn’t use that one in church either 😉

        March 31, 2020
  3. Paul Johnston #

    I wonder what Jesus thinks of it all?

    No efforts are being made here to simultaneously obey the law and to worship Christ. At my parish, for example about 50 congregate daily to worship. If we chose to celebrate Mass more frequently instead of not at all, we could still honour the Lord’s sacrifice and meet legal social distancing requirements. More not less. More, as opposed to, not at all. A little more work, a little more effort, a little risk of disapproval from the secular world that surrounds us…..and we can’t bother to be inconvenienced. We fear criticism. Such little faith. I am ashamed if us.

    I wonder what Jesus thinks of it all?

    March 28, 2020
    • What does Jesus think of the church’s response to COVID-19? I don’t know, obviously. But I suspect, as usual, that Jesus would be rather more merciful with us than we often are with each other.

      March 28, 2020
      • Paul Johnston #

        Isn’t Christ’s mercy a response to our sin, Ryan? And aren’t we to acknowledge our sins, repent of them and accept God’s gracious gift of mercy? Do you not think our quick abandonment of communal worship is an affront to the person of God?

        “We cannot simply accept the determinations of secular governments, which would treat the worship of God in the same manner as going to a restaurant or to an athletic contest”. – Cardinal Raymond Burke

        March 28, 2020
      • Yes, of course Christ’s mercy is a response to our sin. I think it also reflects his general disposition toward humanity. The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love…

        And, no, I do not think that churches temporarily suspending public gatherings in the face of a global pandemic (while continuing to seek ways to be together in creative ways, to serve the needy, to proclaim the gospel, and to worship the risen Christ) is “an affront to the person of God.” I think God is bigger and better than that.

        March 28, 2020
      • Paul Johnston #

        So if you affirm God’s mercy as a legitimate response to our reactions to the pandemic, you are inferring that our reactions might be sinful. All I’m asking you to do then is to examine the choices being made and thoughtfully consider, over time, through prayer, if they might be.

        I am not intending to provoke you into argument or pass judgement. I still see you as a potential prophet and work to provoke you beyond your prodigious intellect and it’s bias and into the realm of the Holy Spirit.

        As I understand the Spirit realm, the right orientation with regard to all our earthly choices, regarding every earthly issue, ought to be, “How do my choices and encouragements affect God?”

        Do they affirm or offend his person? Do they affirm or offend His word? Do they affirm or offend His kingdom? In heaven or here on earth?”

        It is in answering these questions wisely, lovingly and accurately, that my just interests and the just interests of all others are met. “First seek ye the kingdom of God”….

        Choices that seek God’s will by prioritizing human interest and glory before God’s interest and glory are precisely the kinds of choices Satan encourages. “If you eat the fruit from this tree, you will be as wise as God”….

        Virtual living through technology, that seeks to replace the experience of real community, is an abomination. It is an affront to God and his creation. He does not seek it as our future. It is a death sentence, a death to love, to intimacy, to community and in the end will lead to the mass destruction of his people.

        A people that are increasingly being seen as parasites. A threat to the planet, a threat to one another and even in their potential utility most being made redundant by technology.

        Mass worship on-line is not the way forward. I feel it in my soul.

        March 29, 2020
    • I’m fully prepared to admit that temporarily taking worship online (to whatever extent that is possible) might turn out to be misguided. I’m actually somewhat sympathetic to the arguments being made by people like R.R. Reno at First Things lately. I obviously don’t go the whole way with him, but I think he’s asking some good questions.

      At any rate, to say that a decision is misguided is a long way from describing it as “sinful” or an “affront to God.” If decisions are made through prayer and discernment to the best of our ability, with the desire to protect vulnerable people (to love our neighbours as ourselves), it’s hard to imagine how Jesus would ever view this as an “affront to God.”

      For what it’s worth, I agree with your statement:

      Mass worship on-line is not the way forward. I feel it in my soul.

      Amen. It may, however, be a limited and temporary response to an emergency situation, a way of seeking to love our neighbours by trying to slow the spread of a deadly disease.

      March 29, 2020
      • Paul Johnston #

        In this very fundamental way, we will always be different….well I’ll never change at any rate lol. I cannot take my faith seriously if I am not considering the potential for sin and the possible affront to God my important decisions in life, may reflect. “Solid food, not milk,” I think I hear St. Paul say.

        Thanks for the Reno link, his Spirit and mine are kindred even if you find his descriptives more palatable.

        Likely the difference for us and for you is the Eucharist.

        The Eucharist is, “The Bread of Life”. This is the bread Christ references at the well to the woman at Samaria. This is the bread more essential than the bread of the field. This is the bread that those who know it should never surrender to the self-interest, fear mongering and duplicity of non believing authoritarian regimes.

        Mr. Reno is absolutely right, there are some things worse than death. The abandonment of Godly principals, first and foremost among them.

        “Do not be afraid of that which can kill the body”…

        March 30, 2020
      • I guess I simply do not see the temporary suspension of public gatherings (while still striving to be the church in creative ways while scattered) is an “abandonment of Godly principles.” What “principle” is being abandoned in seeking to love our vulnerable neighbours in this way?

        You are right, of course, our theologies of the Lord’s Supper is likely a a big factor in how we view this matter differently. As I said, even though I don’t go the whole way, I can fully appreciate arguments like yours and Reno’s because of the centrality that this embodied, tactile practice plays in your weekly (daily) worship.

        March 31, 2020
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Good question, Ryan. One that I will likely need yours and others help, in answering.

    The obvious comes to mind first and I guess requires repeating. Christ is present in the Eucharist. To deny the Eucharist is to deny the presence of Christ. NO amount of rationalization can deny that truth. It’s an insult to the person of God and will lead to the subsequent failure of all Catholic believers to act as God would have them act, apart from God choosing to contradict His word for mercy’s sake. The church knows and believes this and refuses to respond accordingly, even within the framework of what social distancing allows.

    The truth of the matters at hand, regarding the pandemic itself, may also be at stake and it is here my thoughts are incomplete and insufficient, though I think my doubts and the doubts of others need to be, if still possible in our virtual truth-telling environments, considered and explored.

    Why have we shut down the world? Why are we not isolating the sick, the vulnerable and the cross border travellers? Both daunting tasks to be sure but surely if either of the options is even remotely possible, surely it is the latter and not the former? Why do we insist on a solution that seems more likely to fail?

    How does the potential ruin of world economies serve the long term interest of human civilization? Why are we not seemingly allowed to have the discussion that the potential for, “cures worse than the disease” is real and not just some self-serving rant of clearly the worst and most devious human being who has ever lived and presently sits in the White House?

    Why does our own prime minister seek nearly two years of dictatorial power, to address a response intended to lead us through this crisis for the next 2 to three months and nobody is seriously questioning his motives and demanding his resignation?

    Do you sincerely believe that the primary motive for this quarantine is because of concern for the elderly and the vulnerable among us?

    I see the woefully inadequate OAS pensions a CPP pension fund long ago laid to waste by tax and spend social and business advocates, mostly token appreciation of our veterans, inadequate care facilities, ever-expanding, “rights to die” and western cultures, that since the 60’s have been intoxicated by their own delusional definitions of their perpetual youth and progressive natures…. and I pause to take a breath.

    Only to discover some shit just don’t pass the smell test.

    March 31, 2020
    • Interesting thoughts, Paul, but they don’t answer the question of which moral principle is being violated by the church in temporarily suspending public worship. It might violate theological principles (i.e., one’s theology of the Eucharist), but is this sinful? An affront to God? Is it sinful to get one’s theology wrong?

      I don’t deny, incidentally, that any of the questions you raise about the cure being worse than the disease are worth discussing. They absolutely are, even if our distaste for their loudest proponent makes us reticent.

      Oh, and yes, I do believe that for some people, social distancing comes out of concern for the elderly and the vulnerable among us. Unless I were to assume that many people that I know and respect are lying about their own motives, I don’t see how I could think otherwise.

      March 31, 2020
      • Paul Johnston #

        Thanks, Ryan. We will have to disagree on point one. I am not advocating on behalf of a theological principal, I am advocating on behalf of the real presence of Christ. It is being denied. It doesn’t any more offensive to God’s person than to deny the experience of His reality. Particularly when it is being done by those sworn to and swear they believe it so….it is not your sin though, it is ours.

        I was being facetious, regarding the Trump reference. Irrespective of my personal feelings towards the man the most obnoxious truth I believe being reflected in American culture and politic today is that the self described, best educated and progressive among them, are easily the most pathologically, “ad hominem” towards any person and idea they disagree with….

        On point, thanks for the important reminder that on an individual level, people are still motivated by a loving concern for others. This in of itself is Godly but do we not have other Godly responsibilities as well? Aren’t there more challenging moral questions as to whether or not our reflexive emotional response to do good is grounded in an honest effort to understanding the truth of the matter, reflective of our best effort, free from self interest and in all things, all things, our best prayerfully discerned Word from God.

        March 31, 2020
      • Yes, we absolutely do have other Godly responsibilities. Weighing them in this context of crisis is a crucial task—one that we’re not super good at. I am tracking along with Reno and others (mostly Roman Catholics, incidentally) who are asking probing questions of whether our whole “preserve life at all costs” ethic is a faithful approach for Christians to take. Again, I don’t go all the way (largely due to our differing theologies of the Eucharist, likely), but their arguments make good sense from within a RC framework.

        For what it’s worth, I am pushing our church leadership to do some small form of two-meters-apart embodied Easter Sunday worship—even if it’s a short liturgy and a prayer around a cross in our parking lot. I think that we can still be the church while physically scattered, and I am seeing good evidence of care-giving online and over the phone (more, ironically, than when we could meet together physically). But Easter Sunday… I think we need to do something.

        April 1, 2020

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