I love worship. I believe that it is sacred and holy. And I traveled a long way to be able to worship with 3,000 other preachers. I’ve given up in a week of my pastor life to be here. I’ve looked forward to this since last May, when I came to last year’s conference. This is, in many ways, the highlight of my years as a preacher—it’s my chance to have my spirit filled so I can go back to my community, ready again to be their pastor. It’s my chance to rest and reflect, my chance to have my passion reignited.
So I was primed for a great worship experience. But that is not what I found the first night. Apparently the venue was too small for all of us. But they knew that, so the organizers were ready with a live-stream equipped overflow space.
It turns out that watching a livestream is not the same thing as being in the worship space. We had no hymnals—and few were lucky enough to have bulletins. But it was more than that. We were not part of the worshipping community. The preacher was not looking at us, we couldn’t hear the fullness of the whole cloud of witnesses singing the praises of the Holy One. And all of us felt it. At first we tried to make the best of it—a few of us awkwardly stood for the hymn, but it just didn’t feel right. When the preacher spoke, the livestream focused on his bible, or on the faces of the crowd. The Word was an afterthought.
What was fascinating to me was how the mood changed throughout the worship service. I sense that most of us were excited to be there—we wanted to worship, we needed to be in the presence of the Sacred and to worship with each other. But as the night went on, not only the sense of palpable excitement of the community, but the community itself dissolved. Cell phones (including mine) came out—and we began to engage with other people outside the room. Likely most of us were complaining to others about the experience. At least that’s what I was doing.
I was dis-engaged with what was going on. And heartbroken too.
But now, it leads me to think about the communal nature of worship. What is it that makes worship worship? I know, I know… God is everywhere—and therefore, just as much in our living room as in a sanctuary. Well, yes. And, no. Because God is also present in people. If we are just seeing a preacher on a TV screen, we have one chance to see God—and that’s if the preacher is faithfully bringing the word. But when we gather in church with a community of people, we see God in their faces, in their eyes, in their hugs, in their songs, and in their stories. We were designed to be in community. Can we learn about God’s forgiveness in the privacy of our living room? Yes. But we experience it when we offer the genuine peace of God to someone with whom we have disagreed. Can we sing songs of praise in the silence of the shower? Sure. But we cannot hear the great cloud of witnesses singing together unless we are that… together.
And more than these things, our presence in worship matters because each of us is part of the community. Our presence changes the worship experience of those around us—and what we do while we’re there affects all those around us. Dis-engagement breeds more dis-engagement.
So my question is this: how do we create engaging, community building worship? Because worship is neither about the individual nor is it complete when there is no genuine community.