Van Ens: Online worship feels like blowing kisses
Parents tucking children into bed share tender kisses with their offspring. This intimate physical touch makes little ones feel snug and secure. In contrast, ill parents hover over their sleepy child and blow kisses from the doorway, not wanting their youngster to catch their sickness.
Does online worship using streaming platforms such as Facebook Live and the social media platform YouTube feel like blowing kisses? The Apostle Paul signs off correspondence with Christians in Rome, urging them to greet each other “with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16). Don’t wave. Or hurriedly blow a kiss as you brush by a neighbor. But give them an actual, real kiss, advises the Apostle, as a sign that you cherish this person.
Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, what online worship does is bless viewers who crave personal touches with a kissing emoji as a less-than-satisfactory substitute for the warmth that kisses, hugs, and handshakes bestow. These compassionate touches have evaporated, like alcohol in the hand sanitizers we use to ward off COVID-19.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), the Puritan preacher whose sermonic images connected with his congregants, memorably expressed the difference between blowing kisses and receiving honied lip-to-lip kisses. “There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness,” taught Edwards.
Tasting honey delivers a different sensation from merely observing bees making honey. We purchase honey at a grocery store and read about its contents on the outside of the jar. But “the proof is in the pudding.” We open the jar, smell honey, and savor its sweetness in a mug of hot coffee sipped on a chilly evening. Knowing about honey does not compare to tasting it.
Recently retired teacher of preachers Professor Thomas Long laments missing vital Sunday contact with parishioners in a sanctuary. He longs to return to a “taste” of person-to-person contact.
“I believe that one grace of our season of separation [during the pandemic] will be a heightened hunger for congregational worship,” Long predicts, “an underscoring of how gathering together for prayer and being present to and with one another, which we have often taken for granted, is a deep expression of the incarnate [physical] reality of the Christian life.”
Long grows impatient with staying apart in worship because such distancing “does make the heart grow fonder” for worshippers reuniting face-to-face. Long finds elbow bumps and blowing kisses poor substitutes for actual hugs and real kisses that convey affection. He concludes, “Christian worship is far more than can be realized by watching other people speak and sing on a computer screen. It involves coming together [in person] ….”
Of course, blowing kisses is better than offering no kiss. Remote worship has its strengths. It has evened the playing field in respect to worship’s effect. A small church alongside a corn field on the Great Plains may rival a cathedral’s worship splendor in Manhattan because the cost is minimal for using same online platform that connects with worshippers.
Online worship has challenged preachers to utilize creative settings in which to worship. I have viewed a pastor who broadcast from Colorado’s gorgeous Red Rocks amphitheater. Another time she preached a sermon standing before Clear Creek’s cascading currents. Rushing waves sang to virtual viewers, making them feel as if they were refreshed by mists from this merry mountain stream.
Some worshippers have increased their viewing of online services. After preaching at an interfaith chapel nestled in Colorado’s fly-fishing mecca, a parishioner said my sermon was the sixth he listened to that weekend. He watches remote services beamed by a clergy niece. In addition, this viewer samples remote services offered by churches he formerly attended in California.
Other worshippers tune in because, instead of preparing to go to church, they roll out of bed and experience church coming to them online. The first week I viewed remote worship, I put on a shirt and pants before tuning in. By the second week, I sat before the screen in lounging clothes.
Some preachers favor remote worship because they show up relaxed in an empty sanctuary mid-week to record the service. They cherish the luxury of not responding to a thousand demands on Sunday morning when hectic schedules make them tense. These preachers enjoy Sundays by sleeping in while their prerecorded online service is aired.
In an August 22, 2020 Reformed Journal blog, a tongue-in-cheek Calvin University professor based in western Michigan wonders “if the ranks of clergy will be permanently thinned after this [pandemic] is all over, since newly relaxed pastors will refuse to return to Sunday mornings characterized by high-anxiety performance jitters.”
Preaching professor Tom Long has collected compliments from pastors who innovatively broadcast online worship. “In this crisis, they say, God has called us out of the old patterns of worship and into the new and creative. The toothpaste cannot be returned to the tube. We will never go back to what we were.”
Will churches return to the way Christians for centuries gathered for worship in familiar sanctuaries, not isolated 6 feet from a friend? Or will worshipping remotely be widely accepted so empty sanctuaries on Sundays are converted into broadcast booths for online worship?
Will blowing kisses in worship replace “real kisses” from congregations who laugh, sing, pray and encourage each other when meeting up-close and personal?
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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