Like many others, my church pivoted to virtual-only worship and programming for much of January. It was a difficult decision, but one that our pastoral and leadership team felt was necessary considering rising COVID cases. As a result, our worship attendees found themselves back at home in their respective living rooms on Sunday mornings, eyes affixed to their devices, and tuning in live with us from afar. Déjà vu. Reluctant as we were, our church family settled back into this all-too-familiar Sunday morning rhythm. So, I found myself asking, “What have I learned about virtual worship after all this time? What is particularly unique about virtual worship? Appealing? Perhaps even … beautiful?”
Virtual worship heavily emphasizes the visual. Behind the scenes, many hands work tirelessly to set a particular scene, to fit as many liturgical elements as possible into the shot at once, and to create a worship setting that inspires, comforts, and unifies, even when we are miles apart. Yet when our congregants tune in with us online, they may not always like what they see. Their visual experience may not comport with their expectations of what they believe worship should look like.
Theologian Serene Jones states in her essay “Glorious Creation, Beautiful Law,” “To do aesthetic analysis is to engage in an examination of a topic’s quality as beautiful or as appealing and tasteful.” Jones speaks of two phases of aesthetic analysis. The first explores the beauty in a topic. The second is a deep dive into what specifically makes that topic appealing or not and why. Naturally, aesthetic analysis is a highly subjective undertaking. What is aesthetically appealing to some, may not be appealing to others. As a theologian, Jones uses aesthetic analysis primarily as it relates to topics of faith. I find her framework as a very helpful tool for understanding how we view virtual worship.
Protestants historically uphold a very open and personal theology of worship in general. We are encouraged to reach an individual understanding of what specifically appeals to us in worship. What music speaks to our hearts? What homiletical method engages and inspires us? What style of worship nourishes our souls? We each have a different vision in our mind’s eye of worship, of what it should be and what makes it beautiful.
Confession time: I don’t close my eyes and see my ideal vision of worship as families gathered around their screens at home. In my Presbyterian tradition, our sanctuary buildings are historically bare, simple, and clean to limit distractions in worship. By contrast, when worshipping at home, distractions and disruptions abound.
Virtual worship may not be my “ideal” vision. And yet, I have found beauty in it.
When we suspend in-person gatherings, our sacred liturgical traditions become blended into the ordinariness of daily life. At the beginning of the pandemic, many local church ministers invited their community into their home on Sunday mornings via Zoom or live on Facebook. The pastor speaks directly into the screen with a compassionate smile. It feels as though she is speaking to and connecting with each viewer personally. She has a message of God’s grace to share with you.
The act of virtual worship reveals a raw vulnerability. When recording worship live from the church sanctuary, the preacher stands at the pulpit, alone in a sacred space, trusting that someone, somewhere is listening. Despite all our best efforts, our technology so often fails us. Technological glitches and user error drive wedges in our capacity to connect. Even so, we have confidence that the God of creation, who brought order to the formless void and the darkness over the face of the deep, will bring order to our worship even when we cannot. We simply must trust that when the livestream ends and the cameras cut off, something redemptive happened. Since we don’t get to see and greet our attendees after worship, there is often no immediate feedback. We are often left wondering, questioning. Still, we have faith that somehow the Holy Spirit was moving the minds and hearts of the faithful!
There are elements of virtual worship I believe we as the church should learn from, whatever the future may hold: the personal connection, the vulnerability, the freedom to try new things, make mistakes, and commend all our imperfect efforts to God.
I have discovered beauty in virtual worship. I hope you have, too.