Digital Worship: Congregations Find Hope in Unfamiliar Waters

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

On March 15, St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco faced the same urgent problem that was testing churches from coast to coast: how to quickly begin offering quality worship online and hold a congregation together without gathering in person.

The Rev. Kyle Matthew Oliver | The Rev. Kristin Saylor

Heeding a call to help slow the rapidly spreading coronavirus, St. Gregory’s streamed its liturgy via Facebook Live, which allows viewers to see and hear worship leaders in real time. Congregants appreciated the results but lamented that they couldn’t see one another’s faces as they’re used to doing in the seating configuration at St. Gregory’s.

The next week, a snafu proved providential. In a glitch that foiled countless churches on March 22, St. Gregory’s videoconferencing feed from Zoom failed to transmit to Facebook Live. At the last second, everyone was redirected to join worship leaders on Zoom for videoconference-style worship.

“We were worried that that would it would be a little bit overwhelming with having to keep track of mics being muted and all of that,” said Kyle Matthew Oliver, a congregant at St. Gregory’s and a doctoral student in educational media at Columbia University. “But the benefit was that all of a sudden, we could see each other’s faces again! And I think something very familiar happened. People who are used to seeing each other’s faces during worship said, ‘Oh what a joy!’”

What St. Gregory’s discovered at that moment is part of a fast-growing trove of insights gleaned from the virus-induced, mass migration online. For thousands of churches, it’s been an unplanned plunge into unfamiliar waters. As recently as last fall, 41 percent of American congregations were not putting any portion of their worship services online, according to a LifeWay Research survey.

“Before the crisis, the purpose of live streaming was to give outsiders a glimpse of what your worship was like,” said Phil Cooke, a Los Angeles media consultant for church organizations. “But now, with 100 percent of your congregation on the other side of that camera, we’ve started to have to think much more intentionally about how we adapt a service toward an online crowd.”

From this forced experiment, congregations are learning that no single tech tool or worship format is ideal everywhere. What’s working, practitioners and consultants say, is to identify the congregation’s values, needs and strengths, then create an online experience that leverages a local church’s unique assets to accomplish priorities while minimizing unpalatable tradeoffs.

“Your design decisions, whether you realize it or not, tend to be connected to your values,” said Oliver, who’s also a priest in the Diocese of California. “I would encourage folks to consider, while they’re slowing down: what are the most important values that we bring to our worship? And how can our decisions about how we choose to do this draw out those values as effectively as possible?”

In Lincoln, Massachusetts, at St. Anne’s in-the-Fields Church, seeing faces of fellow parishioners wasn’t a felt need like it was at St. Gregory’s — at least not during worship. Seeing their faces happens aplenty in fellowship time after worship when St. Anne’s convenes the congregation for a virtual coffee hour via Zoom.

For the worship service, St. Anne’s parishioners said they wanted a calming experience that’s grounded in the space of the church, not a homily delivered from a priest’s living room, according to curate Greg Johnston.

“People appreciated the closeness to what we were usually doing and feeling that it was something that was stable and provided continuity with their lives pre-coronavirus,” Johnston said.

To leverage St. Anne’s strengths, a worship team assembles in an intimate chapel space with windows and ample natural light. The visual serenity is enhanced by the liturgy and the talents of two clergy, an organist and a small professional choir.

“It turns out that if we have a choir that consists of just four paid, highly talented singers, they can sing some really awesome music,” Johnston said. “We have the resources to put together something really beautiful.”

Palmer Memorial, Houston

The format also has advantages for St. Anne’s congregants in terms of minimizing obstacles. Anyone can view the service either at the church’s Facebook page (no Facebook account necessary) or simultaneously at its website. Those who watch on the church site can make their offering right there electronically.

In terms of drawbacks, the Facebook Live format doesn’t make viewers voices audible, so congregational singing and unison prayers aren’t heard. Zoom isn’t much better for those experiences because the standard setting picks up only one person’s microphone at a time.

But such tradeoffs can be tolerable in Episcopal settings, Oliver said, because of something he observed in the great migration online in March. Worshipers who might hesitate to ask for prayers aloud, perhaps because they don’t want to accidentally cut someone off or interrupt the liturgical flow, can turn out to be refreshingly forthcoming when given a chat box to use.

“In my experience,” Oliver said, “in these first couple of weeks [worshiping online], we’re finding it very moving to see the depth and specificity of prayer petitions that people are sharing via synchronous chat that they would probably never share out loud in in-person worship.”

In Houston, self-described liberal Baptists at Covenant Church have been perfecting a technique that’s also been tried lately in some Episcopal congregations: the prerecorded worship service. Director of Communications Jodi Bash organizes congregants to record themselves, say, reading an Old Testament lesson or offering a prayer. A pastor records a sermon; musicians record themselves playing instruments. Bash then collects all the digital files, edits them on Apple’s Quick Time software for Macintosh and uploads the finished product to the church’s YouTube channel at worship time.

As soon as the service ends, viewers hop over to the church’s Facebook page, where the pastor is live and congregants chat with him and one another via the comments.

The format reinforces the strong value that Covenant places on hearing fellow congregants’ voices and seeing them, according to William Martin, a Covenant member and director of the Religion and Public Policy Program at Rice University’s Baker Institute. Even a parishioner who’d relocated to the United Kingdom could take part by singing a solo.

“My wife and I said, ‘Hey, we haven’t heard Casey sing in a long time!” said Martin, a scholar of religious broadcasting. “This is pretty neat.”

Unlike Zoom, the prerecorded service removes a variable that’s been the bane of American life for weeks: anxiety. Because everything has been packaged in advance, worship leaders have none of the fear that comes with hosting a live event that might not even happen if technology fails. Not having to fret can be a treasured value, especially in a time of coronavirus-related stress and uncertainty.

“We aren’t worried about glitches during a live stream,” Bash said in an email. “The challenge is getting each new person who is part of worship comfortable with videoing themselves, overcoming technology fears and issues. I have recorded some how-to videos for people that they can access from our website to help them with this.”

Because many congregations place a high value on inclusivity, Oliver emphasizes the need to keep technology bars low in order to encourage maximal participation. For viewers, that can mean putting worship on Facebook Live, which is accessible even to those who don’t have Facebook accounts, or using Zoom, which requires only clicking a link and following prompts. For worship participants who record themselves, Oliver suggests letting them email their digital files to a content organizer. Though uploading to Dropbox or Google Drive would be more efficient, efficiency is not as important as inclusivity. Settling for email is worthwhile if it gets someone into worship who otherwise wouldn’t be there.

Oliver and Cooke agree that online worship doesn’t need to try to replicate the experience of worshiping together in a physical space.

“I hope we can continue to make our worship more and more beautiful without feeling like the way that we do that is by making it more and more perfect,” Oliver said. “I think it can be both beautiful and messy… One of the things that I hope is next for us is thinking: How can we bring some dynamic visual beauty into our services?” such as by looking at art together on screens.

Meanwhile, some congregations are finding their worship life can be enriched by adding dimensions that never quite caught fire in their physical spaces. Example: saying the Daily Office together.

At St. Mary’s Church in Wayne, Pa., rector Joseph Smith has begun leading morning and evening prayer online from his home since the coronavirus outbreak forced the public to stay home. Before the outbreak, he would have no takers joining him in person for the rites, he said via email. But now, a group of about 40 people will sometimes join him online. Fewer than half are from his congregation.

“People are scared and so they are grounding themselves in worship and prayer,” Smith said. “We as a society have gotten ourselves so busy and our priorities so out of whack, that we no longer had time for God. This has been a call back to our roots, and it’s been so helpful and calming according to the folks who have let me know.”

In terms of the mechanics, St. Mary’s assistant rector Lucy Ann Dure said it takes her about 10 minutes to assemble each online bulletin using, a free resource that Johnston created. Once she’s built it, a link gets posted at St. Mary’s website. Using two devices makes it all go smoothly for those taking part at home, Dure said. Worshipers will often have the program open on their smartphones while following along with Smith, whom they stream on a laptop, desktop or tablet.

For those experimenting with online worship, the focus on congregational values is helping keep the work grounded and not let it become overwhelming. It might also be helping newly fashioned online preachers stay focused on the emotional connections they need to be making with their congregations at this uniquely unsettling moment. And to rest assured that basic biblical messages are enough right now.

“This is not the time to get too theologically erudite and deep,” Cooke said. “This is the time to really give people hope and let them know how to get through this whole thing.”



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