In a series of posts a few months ago, I expressed many concerns about the continuation of “online church,” that is, online streaming and recording of church services to be consumed by members of the congregation and the general public. I’ve been continuing to reflect on these issues, which are not going away anytime soon–in fact, they will only become more important. I want to make several additional points about online church that build on previous posts here, here, here, here, and here. (Though it might be helpful, it’s not necessary to have read those posts before engaging with the points below.)
What Can “Online Church” Mean?
Before I raise my additional concerns, several distinctions are necessary. The idea of “online church” usually centers around giving people at home something spiritually edifying to do on Sunday (or later!), and to remain connected to the local church when they choose not to gather with others, or when gathering is prevented. But forming an online service entails choosing from a variety of formats, which I’ve tried to summarize in this outline (without being exhaustive).
- A. What precisely is being transmitted online?
- A1. Only the sermon, the most difficult element of the service for the lay person to “replicate” at home
- A2. All elements of the service, including songs, Scripture readings and prayers
- A3. Sharing of personal prayer requests, or otherwise engaging with people from the congregation other than those who have chosen to step up, in front of the camera
In “the old days,” churches might provide recordings of sermons on tape, CD, or audio download. The church I worked for in Pennsylvania would have a sermon from a previous week broadcast on AM radio on Sunday mornings. Nowadays, when time and storage space is not an issue, churches have been including songs, readings, and other service elements in the broadcast as well. Multi-site churches, as I discussed previously, make recording and broadcast technology central to their normal (pre-COVID) services.
- B. Video or Audio only?
- B1. Audio only
- B2. Audio and Video
This distinction certainly matters for how digital presentation is generated and received, as Richard Nixon found out in 1960. Some preachers rely on presentations and other images in their sermons; others are purely discursive (I tend to be the latter). Some churches might also have theological objections to the use of (moving) images in worship (though Reformed churches seem to have become less hesitant about this than our confessions seem to be–see, e.g., Heidelberg Q. 98).
- C. When is it recorded/presented?
- C1. In advance, designed for online presentation
- C2. Live, simultaneous, not recorded for later consumption (stream only)
- C3. Live, simultaneous, but existing online for later consumption (e.g., Facebook Live)
- C4. Recorded live, presented online later, possibly edited
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic (and to this day), some churches continue to produce their service elements fully in advance, often in a studio-like setting, with the pastor and worship leaders sometimes looking directly into the camera. Other churches have simply transmitted from the live service onto the web.
- D. Who can access it?
- D1. Members or attendees only (e.g., unlisted Youtube video, linked from church’s website)
- D2. On a public channel where it’s relatively easy to find and share
This last issue is probably one of the most important for what I will raise below.
My previous posts focused extensively on the negative effect of online church service that permits those who could attend church in person to feel like they are getting something beneficial, but actually prevents them from receiving the full benefit of gathering in community for worship. I still feel that this is a grave concern. But in this post I take for granted that some people really want to engage and remain connected to church, but cannot always come, for some compelling reason.
[Note: I myself continue to participate and to lead worship services at our church that stream live on Facebook, and remain online for public consumption (indeed, you can go back and watch our streams from the past two years). A few weeks ago, I had quite a bad cold, stayed home, and watched the service online (Corrie and kids were doing the music!), singing along with the songs as best I could, reading the scriptures, etc. I did tune out for the prayer time because the audio is not good–I just prayed for the church on my own. So, this is all an active concern for me–we’re figuring it out in real time.]
Performativity: Preaching to the Crowd, or to the Camera?
My first additional concern is that the very fact of having a service (or some element) recorded or streamed could lead to the music or sermon becoming more performative than it otherwise would be. Now, there is always a dramatic dimension to music and preaching–in worship, we should be reenacting God’s drama of redemption. But just as watching a live performance of a play is different from that play adapted for the screen, so music and preaching may be affected when the camera is present.
I’ve been listening recently to Christianity Today‘s podcast series, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” It’s very interesting (and sobering)–highly recommended. One moment that stood out to the producer/writer in Mars Hill’s development was a dramatic high point of a sermon in which Driscoll yelled, “How dare you! Who do you think you are?!” at a specific segment of the congregation, apparently with spontaneous pastoral/prophetic zeal. This moment was excerpted and went viral. But it later became apparent that this was planned, and happened in all of Driscoll’s “performances” of this sermon in the various services. Basically, the presence of the camera seems to have prompted him to plan this particular dramatic turn in his sermon. It is hard not to see this as manipulative, but you can judge for yourself.
Most churches don’t have any platform to do this, or the technology to make a compelling online stream. But when it comes to pre-recording and online streaming, small local churches face a choice: either do the online stream poorly, or orient the service preparation and rehearsal toward online production, which can detract from the in-person service. Basically, the congregants who are physically present start to wonder whether the service is “for them” or for those online–when it should be a service “with them”: they are full participants in it.
Privacy: The Church as Safe Haven
A second issue is the sharing of personal information when a camera is present. Here the concerns are performativity, and privacy. Younger people, including younger pastors and worship leaders, are simply more accustomed to sharing more of our lives online, publicly. We are more comfortable talking about (socially-approved) personal struggles, including mental health issues. But this can lead to an unhealthy performativity for those in front of the camera (pastor and worship leaders), and those who might be present and wish to share prayer requests in the service.
Regarding privacy, some people are less comfortable sharing when they know it can go out on the internet. I myself have experienced this on a few occasions. I mostly preach in contexts where only my wife and kids are present–not extended family. I have occasionally self-censored or spoken in intentionally vague language about extended family members–partly to avoid being distracting in a sermon, but partly because I don’t necessarily want a family member (or friend) who is not present to hear me talking about them on the internet. It’s not likely that they would seek out my sermons and listen, but I just don’t want to take that chance.
Prayer requests can be even more sensitive when it comes to privacy. Some people are shy; they might feel comfortable sharing intimate life concerns in a local church setting, but don’t want such prayer requests mentioned on the web. Some are from countries, or in sensitive family and job situations, such that they could face harm if the wrong people found out that they attend Christian church, or this church in particular. People should feel safe and protected in the church, and not be concerned that their faces or problems could be broadcast.
Scrutiny: Woke Corporations are Watching
“Rabbi, is there a blessing for the tsar?” “Of course! ‘May G-d bless and keep the tsar…far away from us!'”(Fiddler on the Roof)
A third concern is that “online church” can open local churches up to scrutiny that could result in legal or censorship action. There is the copyright issue when it comes to recording songs–this is beyond my area of legal expertise. I’ve lived the last five years in a context where we sing in other languages and no one cares much about CCLI and copyrights! It’s rather liberating. (Copyright issues should not be an issue for biblical texts, liturgies, or sermons–though, unbelievably, recent plagiarism scandals have brought this problem to the fore. Prepare and write your own sermons, pastors–and you won’t have those issues!)
But there is an even bigger legal threat on the horizon, especially for churches that preach the biblical view of marriage and sexuality (by this I mean: faithful one-man-one-woman marriage for life, and chaste singleness). Check out this recent episode of Mortification of Spin podcast, “Big Tech at the Church’s Doorstep.” We have seen in recent years two similar sorts of online shaming and harassment. One is “doxxing,” which is essentially mustering an online mob against someone you don’t like, to make their life hell using means other than simply calling the police and accusing them of a crime. This has been happening to individuals and small local establishments whose owners have expressed support for traditional views, for a while now (Brendan Eich, Indiana pizzeria, Masterpiece Cake Shop, etc.). But it can happen to churches and pastors as well.
A second kind of legal threat is posed by tech and financial services companies. Like most individuals and families, churches rely on websites and social media sites to share information (including streaming services). By now, everyone should be familiar with the pitfalls of sharing certain kinds of information on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., that doesn’t fit the tech companies’ vision of what should be said (either on marriage and sexuality, or religion, or COVID stuff). Even more crucially, churches rely on banks and services like credit/debit cards, Paypal, Venmo, etc., for processing tithes and conducting the business of the church.
Whereas those companies had previously been neutral about serving all but the most extreme sorts of speech and organizations (child porn and the like), in recent years payment processors have been pressured by advocacy groups to stop serving certain…unpopular institutions. It starts like this: “Mastercard, Visa to block use of cards on Pornhub website” — a development that traditional Christians might short-sightedly celebrate. But it next becomes this: “PayPal Partners with ADL to Fight Extremism and Protect Marginalized Communities.” Given the ever-expanding definition of “extremist and hate movements/speech,” how long will it be before Christian churches, especially traditional ones, are included in this definition? Now, woke tech companies, prosecutors, and politicians can score popularity points by pressuring churches to change their messages, or be fined and shut down.
Even if, ultimately, freedom of speech and religious expression might be protected by courts (although this is becoming doubtful), the costs of legal defense and negative attention will be steep. Large churches might have the funds to fight these battles, but smaller churches will not. They will be forced to shut up or shut down, and the pastor and church trustees might face personal liability if sued.
In America at least, religious and political conservatives since the mid-20th century have traditionally been pro-market and pro-business (not the same thing), trusting the market rather than government to serve their interests. What conservatives need to learn from some on the old-school left, or left-anarchists, is that corporations can be just as dangerous, especially when wed to the police power of the state. In many respects, the governance imposed by the five big tech companies (Google, Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, Microsoft, Amazon) is more relevant to how we live our lives than the governance of entities that exercise geographically-delineated monopolies on the legitimate use of force (i.e., “states”). Facebook may be the “tsar” that matters, more than the tsar himself.
Corporate America, especially big tech, is not your friend. If you doubt this contention, simply follow the work of Rod Dreher, especially Live Not By Lies (2020).
Wise as Serpents, Innocent as Doves, Bold as Lions
These issues might not seem connected at first glance. The overarching concern is about the erosion of the barrier between spheres of our lives due to communication technology. In the last two decades, most of us have slowly allowed more of our lives to slide into online space, for the sake of convenience and the amazing possibilities–and COVID lockdowns have only accelerated this for many of us. But the downside is that our individual selves, our families, and our communal lives have become more porous. Human existence requires boundaries, just as our skin protects the inside of our bodies.
The concerns about performativity, privacy, and scrutiny are linked by this idea of maintaining proper boundaries between the bodies who are part of the church and the rest of society. Just as the skin barrier that (imperfectly) protects a physical body is sometimes breached in a sterile, surgical theatre for the good of the body–so also the local church should reserve its space to be a hospital for human souls. This means protecting the privacy of the vulnerable who come to the hospital for spiritual surgery. It could also mean more intentional efforts to respond to those who call for help in their homes (paramedics responding to emergency calls): visiting and ministering to those who are homebound (from whom “online church” can perhaps deflect our attention). Letting an unknown, broad, potentially-hostile online audience affect the church’s reenactment of the divine drama of redemption (i.e., worship) is like letting the hospital’s PR office dictate the mission, messaging, and priorities of the hospital organization: it may be useful for a hospital to do some broad public education about health matters, but the hospital’s primary mission is treating the sick and injured.
On scrutiny: maintaining the proper boundary of the church also means clarifying and focusing our message to those outside the church. Now, I don’t think that churches should hide what they teach. I appreciate when churches have clear doctrinal statements and confessions provided on their websites, and I’m a bit suspicious of those who don’t.
In 2014, there was a controversy when the first openly-lesbian mayor of the city of Houston, Annise Parker, in a moment of pettiness and insecurity, demanded that Christian churches in Houston turn over to the mayor’s office all their sermons and teachings about homosexuality and gender identity. This demand is a totally improper overreach of state power into the realm of the church–and ultimately, it didn’t go anywhere, legally. But if Mayor Parker’s office were really interested in knowing what churches taught about homosexuality, gender identity, the gospel, or any other issue–they could have simply visited those churches’ websites and watched or listened to their sermons (or even–gasp!–visited the churches’ Sunday services). I imagine that a large percentage of them posted sermons or full services online. This means that the purpose was to shame these churches, not to actually investigate whether legitimately hateful things were being said at those churches.
With Dreher, I don’t think churches can run from this forever. Soft persecution is coming, and it cannot be stopped in America or in Europe. Churches cannot (and should not) hide their doctrines or shy away from taking biblical stands on important cultural issues. Churches will increasingly become challenged to defend their unpopular positions on things like marriage and gender identity. Here on my website, it wouldn’t take anyone too long to chase down the official beliefs of the denomination in which I am ordained as a minister–I can’t hide from it, nor do I wish to hide.
But we can be smart about how and when we might endure this scrutiny when it comes. This means ensuring that only the gospel itself, and the core teachings of the Christian faith that stem from the gospel–not we ourselves through our imprudence–give offense. Pastors and elders, as individuals and speaking as councils who make statements on matters of import, are expected to be more measured and careful in our words than lay people. This means we should, in theory, be better prepared to stand up for the gospel when called to account for the words of the church.
I’m not a lawyer, but it seems useful to create severable institutions that allow the church to persist even if individuals or local congregational leaders are subject to soft persecution. If the pastor gets fined, sued, or arrested, or the church is shut down, the rest of the church should be able to continue on in a different form. I’m Presbyterian; if one church in my presbytery is sued and has to close, that doesn’t legally affect the other churches in the presbytery, which are legally independent entities. This is a legal firewall that can contain the damage in such situations.
My proposed solution for these issues is to return to a situation in which only sermons are shared online, perhaps along with liturgy text, scripture, and songs prepared for home worshipers. I’ve written about this here, so I’ll just connect this proposal to the concerns shared in this post.
Having only sermons online, subject to scrutiny, leaves the local church “on the hook” for only the official teaching of the church leaders–not off-the-cuff comments of a volunteer worship leader whose life might be ruined by doxxing, online shaming, or a zealous, opportunistic prosecutor.
By placing sermons online, along with other liturgies for home worship, the church is compelled to renew our efforts to live with one another in physical presence, maintaining focus on one another. This means 1) resisting performativity when gathered for worship; 2) fostering appropriate privacy within the church community; 3) consistent visitation and care for those who cannot come to church for various reasons.
This is not an “inward turn” away from the world, but creating a safe haven for refugees from the world, and strengthening our secure home base (Christ, of course–but also his body, locally gathered) from which to be sent out as witnesses in the world.