Online disconnect – the value of being present for religious services

I have been fortunate enough to have had some wonderful experiences of worship in a variety of places, and in each of them there was meaning in that worship, a richness of experience, and a sense of community with people I didn’t even know. There are several things that draw me into worship and offer that sense of meaning, renewal, spiritual enrichment, and engagement with my faith and myself. Part of it has to do with the way the worship service is structured and layered – from its physical layout to its liturgical form, from the preaching (almost sacramental in my Baptist tradition) to the prayers – and part of it has to do with the sense of community, of being with others around me in an attitude and posture of worship.

I think of these things in the light of a recent New York Times article on worship and live-streaming worship services. It has been suggested that I live-stream chapel vespers services for the benefit of those who worshipped in the University Chapel while students at Mount Allison, and who now live across Canada and around the world. I am of two minds. I know the value of live-streaming worship for those who cannot be present, but who are already part of the community and have experienced the wonder of worship in the chapel. On the other hand, it sounds like a way worship can be further reduced to a spectacle or performance that is witnessed by others, rather than being something in which they participate. It is in participation, rather than observation, that we are met by the divine presence and open ourselves to being changed.

In worship we approach the divine in a posture of humility, actually (in Catholic and Anglican traditions) or at least symbolically. We are humbled before God, before the divine majesty, before the Christ child. We are reminded that we are not the centre of the universe, that we can – and must – look beyond ourselves and our own desires, even our own pride and faults and anxieties and sins, and look to the object of our worship. I love watching people come into the University Chapel for the first time: a relatively small building, it has a ceiling over 50 feet high, and at the front a solid granite wall with a cross stretching almost 30 feet high, carved in grey granite. The architecture of the Chapel seems designed to draw people in, and almost everyone coming in for the first time has the same response: they stop, and look up. There is a humbling effect in this, emphasized in worship; we recognize how small we are in the grand scheme of things, and yet we are reminded of how great the love of God, even for those as humble as we are.

While architectural forms and liturgies differ from church to church, traditionally they have served the same purpose: to humble the worshipper. From soaring medieval Roman Catholic cathedrals, to the simple whitewashed and plain walls of Baptist and Mennonite houses of worship, the message is the same: be humbled and be amazed, so that you might also be lifted up and renewed. Worship invites us in to participate in this process of encountering the infinite and awesome divinity of God, not as spectacle but as that which changes us.

The signs of humility are significant. I have experienced these in Jamaica and Japan, in Israel and India, across Canada and elsewhere. Not available online, but in person, in the living, breathing worship of people gathered together, in the holy atmosphere of buildings stunning in their beauty or their simplicity, in the liturgies that remind us we are in the presence of something holy, and that we need to be careful, for we might just be changed. Simply showing up does count, and it creates an experience not available online.

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