Midweek Message: “Reflections on Worship Livestreamed” Featured

Week of Easter Four

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“Reflections on Worship Livestreamed”

Dear Friends in Christ:

There have been some curious silver linings to the clouds of my Covid convalescence, one of which was having occasion to experience first-hand our Sunday worship livestreamed. While I’ve shared with others in the responsibilities for livestreaming our Sunday worship, I’ve obviously not had occasion to participate live online because of my calling otherwise to lead our worship in person. So, on the Third Sunday of Easter, when seminary President Guy Erwin preached and presided on my behalf, I shared in our worship life from a distance – not far at all geographically speaking, namely, next door in the parsonage.

For those in need, I am glad that we make this option available. Some, out of ongoing concern for coronavirus vulnerabilities, still cannot be present with us indoors and in person for worship. Others have temporary circumstances of one sort or another that keep them home or away on Sundays – recovery from illness or surgery, travel for business, generally being homebound, and other sundry reasons that may keep us from church. Worship livestreamed is a point of contact with our life together. It is a connection among our small diaspora of those who for whatever reasons cannot join us in person for worship. It’s not nothing.

Thus, especially as a ministry for our most vulnerable members, I am glad that we livestream our worship. And I am especially thankful for the team of members who expend a great deal of time and energy to make this happen. And given our limited resources and our desires to protect the privacy of those who worship in person in not having their identities revealed to the wider public of cyberspace, the production quality, in my experience, is quite reasonable, especially the quality and clarity of the audio aspects of the livestreaming. Thousand thanks to Steve Black, Paul Bastuscheck, Chris Smith, and their team for their work in providing this current outreach ministry in our pandemic life together.

All of this said, livestreamed worship is no substitute for our worship together in person, in the flesh, together in our nave. I would not want a steady diet of only the tangential participation that livestreaming affords. Especially at the time of Communion, when the video feed was turned off to protect the privacy of communicants going forward to share first-hand in Christ’s presence, I was reminded of those occasions when, as a young child before I was of age to receive the sacrament, I would sit alone in the pew as my mother and father and older brother went to the chancel to receive Christ’s body and blood. I recalled my longing to go up there myself (this was before the now common practice of giving blessings to the little children), but was instead left behind. That’s the memory of experience that came flooding back a week ago Sunday when I could not be present with you, the body of Christ next door, as the church, to receive and to abide with and share sacramentally in Christ! I was filled with desire for incarnate presence of the full sacred body of our Lord made known in the breaking of bread in the in-person community. My consolation prize at that moment was Steve’s beautifully rendered slide images of our building’s compelling stained-glass windows. Engaging those images meditatively helped redeem that moment from the pangs of longing to be present with you – and with Christ – in the flesh.

Worship livestreamed made for me at best a sense of tangential participation, largely as an onlooker from the back of the room – which is literally where our cameras are located up in the balcony. Even if our cameras were located more centrally in the nave and even if I could see all of your faces on the screen, it still would have been the experience of looking on from afar.

Moreover, sitting at home on my sofa with my laptop before me on a coffee table, I found it challenging to participate in worship, singing and speaking the words in the bulletin by myself in the parsonage living room. Maybe that’s just me, but it took some effort to do more than just view the screen. It didn’t seem natural to sing and speak all by myself. It might have helped if others were there with me. And I also found myself easily distracted by other things in the house – for example, what my two cats were up to in their usual playfulness with each other before their lunch. It was better than nothing, and I’m glad I viewed the livestream, but it was still not the fullness of the divine happening that was going on next door.

Still further, livestreamed worship, even at its best, is but another experience online in front of a screen when so much of the rest of our lives is undertaken online in front of screens. Which is to say, think about how comparatively countercultural is our habit of being assembled in person together each and every Sunday morning in a place apart from our homes. Fewer and fewer people do such things together these days on a regular basis, week after week. Yes, many folk attend sporting events in person, or go to the theater, or to concerts, but usually only on occasion and not as a regular, weekly habit. And worship of almighty God at its best and as intended is so much more than a concert or sporting event, which themselves are experiences of being spectators together but not active participants in the drama of what is going on in the room.

My absence a week ago Sunday underscored for me in renewed ways the central importance of the Sunday assembly in person, in the flesh. Worship on the Lord’s Day, the day of resurrection, is the centerpiece and organizing principle of all of Christian life. It is the focal point of our whole week as people of faith, people of Christ. Sunday serves as I imagine how a gyroscope functions – as that which stabilizes our life and helps to maintain equilibrium in forward missionary movement in and for the sake of the world. As such, as THE organizing principle of Christian life, the Sunday assembly best happens in person and together. Livestreamed worship is at most a thin approximation of the fullness of the incarnate reality of what we habitually do on Sundays.

Think of the multiplicity of gifts available to us when we are gathered in person by the Holy Spirit at our beloved Resurrection Church. We’re together in a three-dimensional space and not the comparative two-dimensionality of the experience of the screen. Our building becomes an extension of our embodiment and focuses our attention on the central things and places – the place of the baptismal bath, the place where the word is proclaimed, and the table at which we gather for the meal. Together as the body of Christ, even if our faces are covered with and obscured by masks, we nonetheless give to each other the gift of body language where so much communication takes place, communication that is largely impossible or confusing online. We sing together, we speak together, voices blending in unity in an increasingly divided, compartmentalized, isolated world. We may get wet by dipping our hands into the waters in the font in thankful remembrance of our baptism into Christ. We share the peace, even if it’s in truncated form still because of pandemic safety precautions. We get up out of our seats, making our offering in the plates provided as still more profoundly we move to the place of the table to eat and drink of Christ’s real presence in, with, and under the gifts of bread and wine. We benefit from the discipline of each other’s presence which helps us to stay focused on the central activities of the liturgy. We get to hear and enjoy the live music of our choir and the sounds of the pipes of the organ and sounds of the piano in a space with fine acoustics – in contrast to recorded music which is our more usual norm in life these days. Before and after worship, we enjoy the privilege of one-on-one conversations or holy conversation in small groups which contribute greatly to our well-being in Christ with each other, drawing us palpably together in community. Again, this is all so very counter cultural. It’s a dedicated hour and more away from the screens which otherwise dominate us in our contemporary daily lives. In short, our Sunday routine in person is an astonishing gift.

I know that I am preaching to the choir, as it were, as the vast majority of you reading this prefers what we do on Sundays to occur in person over against the lesser, but not insignificant-in-its-own-ways-option of worship livestreamed. Given the immense benefits of being together in person, I don’t understand the churches which expend undue energies, in my opinion, on attempts at doing church more and more online. What we do by way of livestreaming or other online video recordings should serve to point to and ultimately draw people to the in-person assembly. The tail of a complementary ministry initiative in livestreaming should not wag the dog of the centrality of Christian assembly in person. Anything short of this incarnate gathering is not ultimately faithful to the core principles of the Christian tradition. May livestreaming serve those in occasional, circumstantial need, but more importantly, may these efforts increase in us the desire, as it did for me, to gather in the flesh in Jesus’ name each Sunday.

In thanksgiving to God in Christ for the grace given us week after week on the Lord’s Day,

Pastor Jonathan Linman