Worship in the Land of Trolls and Bombers
For most of us, turning on our computers, phones and tablets to attend church was a journey into the great unknown. We all got Zoom accounts and went live on Facebook for the first time. After a winter of biting our fingernails about whether our heat would be working on a Sunday morning, we realized that for the first time we depended on the Wi-Fi connection for church to happen. Some churches may have been streaming or recording services already, but this was not the case for most of us.
We were also suddenly stripped of the sensory experience of church. Touching was already forbidden before we locked our doors as the pandemic reality sunk in. Online, the smells of wood, prayer books, goldfish snacks that kept our kids appeased in pews, and perfume at the altar rail were gone. Even if we managed to offer music, the awkward creaking of pews, and coughing was replaced with, “You’re muted.” Reflecting on the sensory loss of the foretaste of the heavenly banquet is too much for me to get into right now—the grief remains too raw to dwell on if I’m to survive another week of this fast. At least we could see and hear, even if it was different.
In my context, I knew that pre-recorded services would not work. Our worship feeds off the energy in our space, and it seemed too much to remove more interaction when we were already being deprived of so much. And so, every Sunday since March 15th, we all come to church in our little Zoom boxes.
The Zoom gallery view has transformed the way I see my congregation. When we think about it, in many of our churches, it is only the clergy and altar party who are able to see the faces of the whole congregation. Those gathered only see the faces of those at the altar and, for the most part, the back of a lot of heads. As a clergy person, it has made it possible to see most people from the same distance rather than scattered around the church. I may need to scroll to another view, but everyone is just as close—nd just as far. My mom zooming in from California is as close as the person zooming in from down the street. The music director, who is usually at the back, is as close as the person on my screen who might usually sit in the first pew. There is something that is now visually equalizing, at least from my clergy perspective. For the congregation, many are becoming familiar in new ways. Faces and names are neatly placed together. Members of our choir are not in the back while the altar party is at the front. Even in the same building, there were ways we were separate from each other without realizing it.
We also can’t control the households we sit next to on Zoom. Yes, you might now be adept at pinning and moving the little boxes around, but you know what I mean. We all get crammed into the same gallery together, and it is beautiful. Even though we feel so far from each other, there is a visual depiction every Sunday assuring me, and hopefully others, of the closeness of the bonds of baptism and the very nearness of God.
And then there is Facebook. Before I did it, I couldn’t imagine anything lonelier than saying the Daily Office into a camera streaming onto social media. Yet I had to, because public weekday Morning Prayer was not only already an offering for my congregation, but something I had come to depend on to sustain my ministry and my soul.
The first miracle of Facebook Live is the people arriving, one after another. Instead of one or two a day it became five to eight. The comments roll through one after another, and we can see who is watching, and people comment, “Good morning,” and the little “like” and “love” icons float up. This isn’t lonely at all. People are here—more people! The next miracle manifests daily during the intercessions. The stream of prayers begins. “Thank you for doing this.” “Prayers for those with Covid.” “Prayers for our nation.” “Pray for my mom who died yesterday.”
Maybe it is because I am so visual that these things have been so present to me in the online worship experience. Yet I believe this is tangible evidence of something deeper that is going on.
We know that where we Zoom and where we Facebook (I can’t speak much to the other platforms for worship because we aren’t using them), there are bombers and trolls. We secured our online worship spaces with bomb-proof passwords. And there seems to be no place on Facebook free of trolls. I wonder, however, if we have paused to think about what it means to be doing church in cyberspace? When we think of all the human sinfulness that is constantly combated online, the Internet can feel like a place beyond redemption.
But, what if we took time every week to consider what the increased prayer traffic online is doing? We know what it is like when we walk into spaces that have been saturated with prayer. Evidence is presented in our churches and chapels with worn out kneelers and smooth altar rails. What if with each service, with each prayer, with each login, and with each “like,” there is a little piece of cyberspace being transformed into a sanctuary?
Just like in the material world with our brick and mortar churches, this does not eradicate the hurting of the world, but it does bear the hope of its healing and redemption. What I wonder is, if the church online, as much as many of us can’t wait for it to end, is the mission field that desperately needs the Gospel and the grace of God: Just when we were most willing to abandon it for the hate it bred, we were dragged kicking and screaming into it.
The presence of God can be revealed in any place and at any time—even in the midst of a pandemic that strains the bonds of fellowship and baptism more than we can bear some days. But maybe, just maybe, we can step back and take a look at the ways God can get to work in places where we thought God was least likely to go or to be found. This is an ancient part of the story of God’s people. It is very much a part of the story we are writing, seeing, hearing, and streaming today.