Discovering beauty in virtual worship by Rev. Katy Shevel, Fairmount Presbyterian Church

On Maundy Thursday, an Episcopal parish where my aunt attends worshipped via Zoom. As the service began, the priest’s cat started meowing loudly in the background. The priest kept leading the liturgy. Her cat kept meowing. Again. And again. Suddenly, the cat sprang up onto the table. Without missing a beat, the priest picked her cat up and set it back down on the floor. The service continued. The cat jumped up on the table again. The priest picked her cat up and set it back down. The priest barely flinched. She kept worship going, even while she and her cat did this odd synchronized dance together. All in all, it was a lovely service: cat included.

My husband and I respectively serve as ministers of small congregations here in Newton Presbytery. Like so many of you, we have found ourselves thrown into this endeavor of leading online worship. We’ve recorded services at home and in our sanctuaries. We’ve adorned our kitchen steps with palm fronds for Palm Sunday. We aren’t televangelists. We don’t have the resources, budget, or production crew to put together a high-quality, cable-worthy program once a week. (Or ever.) We aren’t shooting on a closed set. Distractions abound. Interruptions are plentiful. We do the best we can.

Those of us from a Protestant background tend to have a very open interpretation of worship. Worship is not confined to Sundays— nor to a sanctuary building. As Presbyterians, within this Protestant tradition, we believe that worship and praise of God is something we each are called to do in our daily lives, wherever we are. Worship is often regarded as something inward and personal. Physical environment is secondary.

At first glance, it may seem as though our theology of worship uniquely predisposes our congregations to transition easily to virtual worship. If physical environment is secondary, then it shouldn’t matter where or in what form we gather! Yet it is precisely because our tradition emphasizes such an open understanding of worship, that every church community—and every individual—has developed their own normative expectations of how worship should “look.”

Perhaps even more so than other forms of worship, virtual worship heavily emphasizes the visual. Clergy and worship leaders work tirelessly to set a particular scene, to fit as many liturgical elements into the shot at once, and to create a worship setting that inspires, comforts, and unifies, even while we are miles apart. Yet when congregants tune in online, they may not always like what they see. Their visual experience may not comport with their expectations of what they believe worship should look like.

Theologian Serene Jones states, “To do aesthetic analysis is to engage in an examination of a topic’s quality as beautiful or as appealing and tasteful.” Jones speaks of two phases of aesthetic analysis. The first explores the beauty in a topic. The second is a deep dive into what specifically makes that topic appealing or not, and why? Naturally, aesthetic analysis is a highly subjective undertaking. What is aesthetically appealing to some, may not be appealing to others. As a theologian, Jones uses aesthetic analysis primarily as it relates to topics of faith. I find her framework as a very helpful tool for understanding how we view worship.

As Protestants historically hold a very open and personal theology of worship, we more or less have each come to an individual understanding of what specifically appeals to us. What draws us in? What engages and inspires us? What nourishes our souls? We each have a different vision in our mind’s eye of what we believe worship should look like and what makes worship beautiful.

Confession time: I don’t close my eyes and see my ideal vision of worship as gathering around a computer screen at home in my pajamas. Most of us don’t envision our pastor preaching to us remotely from her office via Zoom, or live from an empty sanctuary. We probably don’t imagine a cat jumping up on the table during the Maundy Thursday service…

Virtual worship may not be our “ideal” vision. But is it still beautiful?

As we uphold social distancing and sheltering-in-place guidelines, our sacred traditions have, at present, become blended into the “ordinariness” of daily life. In virtual worship, a local church minister invites her community into her home on Sunday mornings. She speaks directly into the screen with a compassionate smile. It’s as though she has a message of God’s grace to share personally with you! There is a beautiful vulnerability in this very open and intimate form of worship.

Now that we’ve suspended all the pomp and the frills of traditional gatherings, we’re left with this very raw and honest time spent leaning on God’s Word. Yes, virtual worship is messy. Technological glitches and user error drive wedges in our capacity to connect. Presbyterian sanctuary buildings are historically bare, simple, and clean to limit distractions in worship. Now, distractions are plenty! Disruptions are frequent! (My house is far from clean!) But there is grace to be found in the chaos and technological malfunctions. We have to trust that the God of creation, who brought order to the formless void and the darkness over the face of the deep, will bring order to our worship even when we cannot—and will lead us lovingly by the hand in this period, distractions and all.

Someday, our churches will be able to physically gather again. Maybe at that time, we will close our eyes, envision our “ideal” worship service in our mind’s eye, and see elements of virtual worship. The personal connection, the honest vulnerability, and the freedom to try new things and make mistakes…

I have discovered beauty in virtual worship. I hope you have, too.

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Sources of reference:

William A. Dyrness, Senses of the Soul: Art and the Visual in Christian Worship.

Serene Jones, “Glorious Creation, Beautiful Law,” in Feminist and Womanist Essays in Reformed Dogmatics, pp. 19-39.