Will We Really Sing Online?

This weekend, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed almost every church in the country online. Ian Paul has these observations about ordinary services broadcast online.

  • When we are physically present, there is a whole range of stimuli (sight, sound, smell, the wider environment, those around us) that hold our attention and keep us engaged. When we are looking at a screen, the screen itself is only one part of our environment, and it is much easier to be distracted.
  • When we are physically present, there is an implicit accountability. When viewing online, we can easily go off and make a coffee, do something else, or disengage. One ‘participant’ in our online service who later visited us noticed that the numbers logged in were quite a bit lower at the end than at the beginning!
  • Speech and action need to be different online than in real life. You can see that by comparing dialogue in plays on radio and TV with real life—real life is much more chaotic, because we are immersed in it and can disentangle the different elements, whereas in scripted plays everything is much more orderly. In moving from church IRL to church online, we are moving from the first to the second. This whole process will both demand and develop broadcast skills in those leading services in future.
  • Participation is not the same online as when gathered. Are we really expecting people to sing out loud in their own homes, either on their own or (perhaps worse) with one or two others when we are leading songs? In our service, we had a really good process of intercession, where the person leading online left just the right amount of space after each petition so that we could either pray silently or out loud where we were—quite different from what we might do in a large congregation.
  • There are practical aspects to participation too. A video of words on a screen will usually be illegible, whereas structured subtitles or whole screen words work much better on an inevitable quite small screen.
  • Then there is the question of sharing Holy Communion. The idea that a priest celebrates whilst we watch from a distance will strike many as a return to a pre-Reformation era, and seriously undermine what ‘Communion’ is all about. The bread and the wine are the remembrance of a meal in which, theologically, we all participate, not something ‘magical’ offered or done on our behalf by the priestly caste!

Let me offer some observations from one of the services in which I participated this weekend. Yes, “participate” is the right word. The worship bulletin was available online, which made it possible to say the responses, pray the prayers, confess the creed, chant the Psalm and sing the songs out loud. We even stood, bowed, knelt and made the sign of the cross at the appropriate times. I wasn’t the least bit self-conscious at this point. I think liturgical congregations may make this transition more easily. We are accustomed to the Lord opening our lips in familiar words and patterns, so that our mouths can declare his praise.

UPDATE: If you are using an interactive medium like Zoom or Go to Meeting, everyone needs to be muted during the common liturgy. You won’t hear each other. Because of latency and feedback, all you will hear is a cacophony of echoes. For this to work at all on an interactive system, you need a robust connection to the worship leaders and a low-latency platform. For large (or even medium-size) groups, broadcast works better than interactive.