By Mark Michael
On that sweltering morning last July when we held our first service of pandemic-season public worship at Saint Francis, Potomac, Roy was there. There was no vaccine, and lots we didn’t know yet about the virus. We did know that 95-year-old men were in the vulnerable category.
But Roy was there anyway. We saved him a seat in the shade and, for once, he left his suit jacket in the car. I remarked to him afterwards that I knew he was tough, but didn’t expect to see him back yet. “You can die anytime when you’re my age,” he retorted. “I might as well die going to church.”
Roy could have joined in via our live stream instead. He had a long career as an aeronautical engineer, and he’s been an early adopter of plenty of technologies. He happily patches himself into the Thursday seniors’ fellowship time on Zoom. But for Roy, the worship of God is a different matter.
I told him last week how encouraging it had been to me to see him in his pew every Sunday through all the challenges of the past year. I know it’s not easy for him, that his body is sore in the morning. He doesn’t like wearing masks and is still a little self-conscious about the cane. Roy cracked a smile. He said, “It’s the highlight of my week. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
Roy understands something that seems to be missing in the way many American Christians think about worship. The Barna Group conducted a poll of 794 practicing Christian adults in December 2019 about what it calls “worship shifting.” Barna asked participants about their engagement with Christian media: how often they listened to Christian music or sermons on the radio, read Christian books, watched a service or sermon from their own congregation online, or “used social media that helps me grow in my faith.” Rates of participation were fairly high, with most responders saying they participated in one of these edifying activities at least occasionally.
A second question asked, “Do you ever rely on these Christian resources like these instead of attending church?” Overall, about 13 percent of respondents said they did. Among millennials, the digitally native generation also struggling with the burden of making sleepy children presentable on a Sunday morning, the percentage of those who often “worship shifted” rose to 34.
Barna will surely conduct another poll, asking similar questions, any day now. After more than a year of habituation to digital ways of worshiping, I shudder to imagine what the totals will show. And you really don’t want to see Barna’s more recent poll about what active Christians say they are doing while they watch those church service live streams.
But is worship-shifting worship at all? Certainly, some church leaders seem to think so. A March episode of evangelical leadership expert Carey Nieuwhof’s podcast Church Pulse focused on preparing for our new “hybrid church” future. Jon Adamson, the longtime digital coordinator for metro Atlanta’s North Point Community Church, said he had been discussing these trends with the megachurch’s pastor, Andy Stanley, for years. As he put it:
Church attendance is not decreasing, it’s decentralizing. People are watching [Stanley’s] content, but they are watching it [on?] multiple channels now. They might come to church one week of the month. They listen on podcast the next week. After that they watch a video on demand on YouTube; and the week after that they might catch it midweek on a seven-minute version of the message on YouTube….
When I’m feeling lonely, I want to search, “how do I overcome loneliness,” or “how do I find hope.” And I want to watch that content, and it happens to be on a Wednesday. Unfortunately, I think that for a lot of church leaders, the only on-demand that they think of is that they demand that people come to their church building, at a certain place, at a certain time of the week to access their content. And that’s not the reality of the world anymore.
“Yeah,” responded Nieuwhof, “Nobody’s sitting around on Thursday night at 9, waiting for the latest The Office to drop. If you want to watch The Office, you just go watch The Office.”
To be fair, while Adamson has no problems with busy people substituting a seven-minute version of the pastor’s message for coming together to worship God and share the sacraments, he does believe that weekly small group gatherings to “talk about [a church’s] content” are essential. Accurate statistics on how many evangelicals actually attend a weekly small group are very hard to find, but it’s surely far fewer than those who claim to attend worship services each week. Once the notion of a duty to worship God in community has been discarded, can a weekly small group commitment remain intact for long?
Is Christian worship reducible to listening to sermons? Maybe — for an evangelical video producer and a pastor who spends most of his week preparing 45-minute sermons. But the analogies that come so quickly to Nieuwhof and Adamson give me pause. Is Christian worship entertainment, even in part?
I’m in the content production business, at least as editor of The Living Church, and I want our stories, podcasts, devotional texts, and video conferences to be as engaging and helpful as possible, to Christians at all levels of faith development. I rejoice in the creative gifts being shared in local congregations across the Church: the determined effort that so many have made to produce and release content that will provide faithful and pastorally attentive answers to the deep spiritual questions being asked by troubled people.
Inasmuch as hybrid church means the production of more theologically robust, accessible, attractive Christian teaching, it surely is a gift for our times, born of the Spirit’s work. But it is no substitute for the public service of the Christian assembly, where we are gathered to praise God for his mighty acts, to receive his grace, and offer ourselves in the one body as living sacrifices.
But if hybrid church is a movement that imitates, more or less intentionally, the joyless grind of the entertainment industry — a zero-sum game in which the “content producer” with the biggest video editing and search engine optimization team wins — then surely it is of the Evil One. It’s ominous that, even as he sings the praises of the “content-driven” future, Nieuwhof’s number one “New Disruptive Church Trend Every Church Leader Should Watch” is “market consolidation.”
Inasmuch as hybrid compounds our cultural embrace of passive, individualized forms of entertainment and consumerism’s scorn of patience, generosity, and self-control, it can hardly claim to be building up the Church. If it makes it easier for Christians to abandon their local communities and avoid the messy work of real relationships, it will hinder us in a crucial missionary vocation of our time. Incarnational religion simply cannot be fully practiced in digital spaces.
Iexpect that most of our churches will be live streaming until Christ returns in glory. Live-streamed worship has come as a great gift to many in the last 16 months of crisis, allowing continued access to the proclamation of God’s Word and true, albeit only spiritual, means of sacramental grace. Live streaming will continue to be very helpful to the permanently or temporarily homebound.
If, as seems likely, most “church shopping” will be done first from the living room chair in the future, an attractive live stream will soon become what a functional website was 15 years ago: the preferred way to let potential congregants know your church is still alive and kicking.
But this is also a crucial moment for church leaders to make the case for public worship, to urge people winsomely and graciously to come back as soon as possible, so that the house of God may again be full, and all voices united in praise and thanksgiving. It’s a time to resist the slouch toward consumerism, and to explain why God is rightly praised in the assembly of bodies and voices that gives public witness to his glory.
Mature, proficient Christians belong, like Roy, in the pews every Sunday. The worship of God should be the highlight of their week, as the fullest anticipation of that glorious destiny set ahead of us — heaven being notoriously long on public liturgy and short on video sermons. After a year of forming bad habits, we need someone to explain why it’s worth all the trouble.
In my next column, I will dive into some classic Anglican sources on the duty of public worship, in order to turn up resources for our pastoral moment.
Fr. Mark Michael is the editor of The Living Church magazine and rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Potomac, Maryland.