On Preaching: Worship and Preaching outside the Sanctuary Walls through Digital Mediations
Lis Valle-Ruiz, Ph.D., is assistant professor of homiletics and worship and director of community worship life at McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois.
Most historic, mainstream Christian churches in the United States of America by now should be experts in conducting hybrid or multimodal worship services, but, surprisingly, they are not. Some of them were already good at recording and posting or even livestreaming their worship services before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The rest of those churches had the opportunity to learn and develop the art of online worship during the two years COVID kept most churches shut down. It has been three years since the government asked the population to “stay home.” It has been one year since churches that complied with that mandate began to gather in their sanctuaries again. Astoundingly, many churches went back to their pre-pandemic ways of worship, turned the video camera on, and continued liturgical life as usual. These churches may be unwittingly nurturing a sense of disconnection in those who join online from the rest of the church.
The problem with this return to the pre-COVID past is that it throws away any learnings from doing online worship. This return privileges church members who come to the physical sanctuary, and it leaves all others out as mere spectators. It is a practice that nurtures liturgical voyeurism. While liturgical voyeurism may be an apt way to queer worship (queer as in to interrogate an assumption or expectation), this essay focuses on the desirability of nurturing a sense of presence in worship from all attendees: those inside the sanctuary, those watching live online, and those who will watch the worship service asynchronously at a later time. In the case of the seminary where I work, we also have a community gathered synchronously in a videoconference room.
Streaming worship services places preaching outside the sanctuary walls through digital streams reaching church members and friends in multiple places and even seekers and wanderers who might otherwise not know the church. How may preaching generate a sense of connectedness for those who are outside the sanctuary walls? Our hope is that the data produced in the research project Divine Wisdom Festival will strengthen congregations by leading them to critical reflection upon their practices of digitally mediated worship and preaching and refocus on the goals of worship and preaching. You may find more about the project at https://vimeo.com/showcase/7927718.
The Divine Wisdom Festival studied digitally mediated worship and preaching practices to establish the sense of presence from the perspectives of the worshipers depending on the technology that the worship leaders employ. The research found that while scholars think of presence in terms of body or physical presence in the sanctuary, worshipers think of presence in terms of focus or their ability to concentrate on what is going on in the worship service. The research also found that the modality that most generates a sense of connectedness for those who are outside the sanctuary walls is videoconference. This modality is also the one that requires the most resources from participants in terms of focus and energy. These are, perhaps, the reasons why participants get tired quickly when participating in a meeting, conference, or worship service online via videoconference.
After videoconferencing, two digital mediations are tied as second-best modalities to generate a sense of connectedness for those who are outside the sanctuary walls. One of these is streaming live while liturgists and preachers pay attention to both audiences in real time, and the other is using YouTube Premiere watching or other method to broadcast a video of a worship service that, though it has been pre-recorded, is presented as though it were live, with opportunities for congregants to interact via chat or comments. These two modalities generate a sense of presence that results in members of a worshiping community feeling connected to one another. Streaming live and premiere watching both generate a sense of connectedness for those who are outside the sanctuary walls without causing exhaustion.
The modality that did not generate any sense of connectedness with other members of the worshiping community was watching a recorded service that was previously live, that is, when a person watches the video that remains online from a worship service that was streamed to a social media platform or to the congregation’s website. In this case, the person is watching an event that occurred in the past with little to no prompts directly addressed to the person watching.
Based on those findings, the Divine Wisdom Festival research recommends the following: (1) Use active verbs to prompt participation. The more action verbs the liturgists and preachers use as prompts during the worship service, the more present and actively participating worshipers feel, and the more focused they are. (2) If you prefer quality over quantity, then consider gathering the online community in small groups using videoconference technology because it is the one that generates the greatest sense of connection with the worshiping community. (3) When having two simultaneous audiences, look at both, pay attention and speak to both. This might seem obvious, but to this day many liturgists and preachers never look at the camera! The practice of looking at the camera as much as at your live audience is easy to do and the most important practice to engage in order to generate a strong sense of connectedness with other members of the worshiping community. (4) When recording a live worship service, keep in mind the people who will watch the recording later. If you look directly at the camera to talk to those watching live, those who will watch later will feel as if you are talking to them also. Since watching a recording of a prior live worship service is the least engaging of all modalities, if the seekers and wanderers are an important audience for you, it is imperative to speak directly to them while you are recording.
Now that you have several audiences simultaneously, do more than opening the window that digital mediations provide for people to look into the sanctuary. Do more than turning the camera on. Give your online audiences as much attention as you give the ones in the sanctuary. When you are leading worship and you are preaching, remember the people out there and act accordingly. Worship and preaching effectively go digitally outside the sanctuary walls when you intentionally take them there.