Online worship: God isn't different. We are

Many United Methodists now participate in worship primarily through digital means by tuning in to weekly livestreams of worship services or participating in digital-only worship experiences. Some wonder if digital worshippers are missing out on something.  Photo by Canva.
Many United Methodists now participate in worship primarily through digital means by tuning in to weekly livestreams of worship services or participating in digital-only worship experiences. Some wonder if digital worshippers are missing out on something. Photo by Canva.

Many United Methodists now participate in worship primarily through digital means. We are tuning in to weekly livestreams of worship services or participating in digital-only worship experiences. Some wonder if digital worshippers are missing out on something.

There is a Chasidic Jewish story about a rabbi’s son who spends his days wandering alone in the woods. The concerned rabbi asks his son why he wanders there alone day after day. The boy tells his father, “I go there to find God.”

The father thoughtfully replies, “That is good my son. But don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?”

“Yes,” the boy replies. “But I am not.”

As the kids say, God “hits different” in nature. Not because God is different, but because we have different postures and attitudes in those spaces than we have in others.

Might the same be true for our different worship experiences?

Digital is different

Some practices translate differently from in-person to digital experiences.

For example, there is a powerful moment during our United Methodist communion litany. Following the prayer of confession, the officiant declares to the congregation, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” A choir of voices responds, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

United Methodist pastors know that replacing voices in the room with texted words and thumbnail images on a YouTube chat, feels different. It lacks the same impact.

But different does not necessarily mean less valid.

God is the same

The God we encounter in digital worship is the same God we offer praise to during in-person worship.

Rather, it is we who often change. Our approach, posture, mindset, and expectations may be altered when worshiping in an unfamiliar or untraditional setting like our homes. The object of worship is the same, but if we are not intentional, we may come to God differently.

It’s not that one expression of worship is more, or less valid than another.

We can be just as disengaged from worship when we are sitting in a sanctuary pew, as we may occur when we are sitting alone on our couches, looking at a screen. The difference is our attitudes and expectations.

If we expect our digital worship services to “hit” the same as our in-person worship experiences, we must prepare ourselves for a holy, set-apart experience. Then we with find our worship connecting us to God in caring community.

Preparing to worship

Many worship services begin with the reminder, “Let us prepare our hearts and minds for worship.”

The following practices help transform our approach, posture, mindset, and expectations for worship, regardless of the venue.

Practice Statio

Benedictine monks utilize a practice called Statio, or “holy pause.” It is the act of simply putting aside one task in order to concentrate on another.

That may mean setting aside five minutes to close distracting browser tabs, set the cell phone on silent mode, put the unfolded laundry aside, and settle our minds in preparation of worship.

Sometimes it takes our minds longer than our bodies to transition from one station to the next. Statio—whatever it looks like for you—delivers our minds the opportunity to close down one mental browser before literally opening up the browser for our worship experience.

Find Holy Space

Imagine a stubborn parishioner who refuses to move to his congregation’s new sanctuary, but instead sits alone in the old, now-vacant space. The old sanctuary may be holy space for him, but his church is worshiping in a new space.

Where we worship is not as important as the community with which we worship, but some spaces just feel holy while others do not. So, it may help us engage in digital worship when we set apart the time and space, away from the toil or mundanity of our daily lives.

It might be time to get off the couch, if that is a distracting setting for you, and move perhaps to a dining table or sitting out on a porch (weather permitting). If the physical space in which you’re worshipping allows you to be intentional about your focus, you’re doing it right.

Be Visible

Being visible doesn’t mean showing off your superhero print pajama bottoms. Instead, find ways to make yourself present with your congregation. Greet the community through chat. Say “hi” to the church. Say “hi” to friends by name. Then, throughout the service, offer some “amens” or emoji reactions. 

This isn’t something you do for show, but to connect. The community will value knowing you are present and attentive alongside them. And when you seek to show that you are attentive, you just might actually be attentive to what is happening in worship. 

Participate

If digital worship feels like a passive experience, get active. When invited to sing, sing. When the congregation prays, pray along. Find ways to participate with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, even from your home. 

It’s up to you

Your involvement in virtual worship depends greatly on how you participate in it. When approached with reverence and willingness, we’ll find expressions of digital worship can quite involved and engrossing. 

To see what churches in your area are offering digital worship, visit our Find-a-Church page or our listing of online worship services.

Ryan Dunn is minster of online engagement at United Methodist Communications. He is an ordained deacon in The United Methodist Church. He can be reached by email. This article was published on October 1, 2021.