Liturgy refers to how church worship is conducted. Churches establish a program outline for their liturgy and follow it week-to-week without much variation.
Much of the liturgy in most churches could be discarded without substantially affecting the worship experience for most congregants. This is because many congregants consistently arrive at the primary worship service just prior to the sermon. Those who arrive on time are often there as participants in the liturgy or because they are connected to participants in the liturgy. Should the fact so many choose to forego most of the worship experience inform how we organize liturgy?
The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has forced churches to close and move their worship services online. Most churches I have seen online during this pandemic seem to be trying to duplicate the experience of actually being in the church building. This attempt employs a liturgy that includes almost all of the elements many attendees routinely avoid.
Some churches are conducting the primary worship service in the church parking lot. To maintain social distancing, congregants drive up and watch from their vehicles and listen on their FM radios. I do not know whether congregants are consistent in their pattern of arriving just in time to hear the sermon. So, I do not know if adjusting the liturgy would be more effective in this context.
Other churches have opted to move the entire worship service online. It may be less effective to include the entire liturgy employed in the church building if for no other reason than the ability of people to tune out until the portions of the service they really want are aired. The context has changed. People are in their homes with their hands on the remote or the mouse. If it is true most congregants prefer to avoid most of the elements of the liturgy we call preliminaries, it may be counterproductive to include them during the online service.
Less is more in the online church context where no one has a captive audience. So, it may be helpful to identify the most important elements of the liturgy for the congregant and provide them with excellence.
For me, the most important elements that should be included in the online liturgy are: 1) Prayer; 2) Music; 3) Sermon; and 4) Giving; not necessarily in that order. This liturgy could be streamed with excellence in a thirty minute time slot. Very little talking is needed to transition between elements because technology allows information to be conveyed on an overlay or in the description under the video of the service.
An advantage of this abbreviated liturgy is people can remain more engaged in the service with fewer opportunities for distraction. High quality, smoothly presented content can be more inviting and satisfying than presentations with glitches and rough transitions.
Another advantage of an abbreviated liturgy is the ability to continue engaging congregants during the week. Planned discussions via various media, e.g., Faithlife Groups, Facebook, etc., around the sermon can be very beneficial to the fellowship and spiritual maturity of those who participate. It also helps those who plan the worship experience to think beyond weekly single events to an ongoing process for discipleship. Worshipers may also be more inclined to tune in to other programing during the day if the primary service is brief.
Tradition may pull us toward providing the normal liturgy during social distancing. But in this context, less is more.
Some pastors and worship participants are traveling to the church building to provide live services. This is required if services are being held in the church parking lot. It is also required if the pastor desires the worshipers to have a “church feel” watching the worship service. There are advantages and disadvantages to streaming services live. The primary disadvantages are all of the typical risks associated with live broadcasting. But some believe these risks are worth the reward of being truly live.
Alternatively, the service can be recorded in advance and streamed “live” at a particular time. When the service is prerecorded, correcting technical glitches and eliminating lags and fluff before airing the service can provide a higher quality and more engaging viewing experience. To enhance the feeling of the stream being live, a person can interact with those who are viewing the service in real time via chat. There is more control over the final product when the service is prerecorded.
No one knows how long churches will be required to meet online due to the pandemic and social distancing. If churches do not adjust the worship liturgy to address the current context and the preferences of their congregants, they may find people opting out of the experience all together over time. When congregations return to church buildings, people may choose not to attend or continue the pattern of arriving just before they think the sermon will be presented.
Life has changed because of social distancing. We may need to change, too.