Westminster Reopening FAQs
August 10, 2020
When Worship Turns Virtual, Chapter 2
Peter Larson, Elder for Worship
vir-tu-al (adjective): almost or nearly as described, but not completely.
We live in a time when screens are everywhere. Our desks, our living rooms, our kitchens, our billboards, our pockets, our hands. Not only are screens unavoidable these days, they have become essential in our work, in our play, in our connections, and in our worship. While we know that screens can be incredible tools, we also recognize that they are "virtual”; that is, they are only almost, only nearly and not completely a substitute for real-world, rich, in-person social engagement and connections.
Our decision to continue to hold worship virtually, either by live-streaming from our Sanctuary or by pre-recording from our homes is not made lightly. We recognize that no matter how good, how imaginatively and compellingly we create screen images, there will always be something missing. We long for the time when we can see, greet, sing, and worship in person. But we also care deeply, very deeply, for each other. And in order to care for our congregation, the guidelines and restrictions we would follow during an in-person worship service would result in an experience that would be empty and disappointing.
Last week, our fellow Presbyterians at 4th Presbyterian in Chicago sent out a document that details their session's decision to indefinitely suspend in-person worship. In it, they listed the following realities:
- In-person worship could be a super-spreader event
- We would have to turn people away due to capacity limits and safe-distancing
- We would have to determine who could be in the sanctuary: oldest members? first-come, first seated? Would we turn away visitors?
- Entry to worship would become procedural, lining up 6 ft apart, health testing, assigning seats/rows, taking temperatures
- There would be no bulletins, no hymnals, no Bibles, no offering plates
- Worship leaders would focus on cameras as much as to those present, since many would still watch from home
- There would be no congregational singing, no choir, no processionals
- Ushers would become not greeters but safety monitors, insuring everyone is properly distanced and is wearing a mask
- There would be no time of fellowship after the service, people would need to leave the sanctuary immediately and by rows
The session at 4th Presbyterian concluded that during these times, in-person worship would ultimately be "an exclusionary spectator activity that is at once impersonal and isolating." You can read their entire document at: “The Foreseeable Future” An Update from Session.
So we continue to live into our reality of virtual worship. We also continue to refine our on-screen worship experience at Westminster.
We often focus on the hardware that is required to create our services - the how. While interesting and essential, the real focus is on the structure, the flow, the design of the service and how that comes across on a screen - the why. Our challenge is to design our virtual worship to be adaptive, involving, interactive, and not just passive: to involve and connect with our viewers as much as possible. To that end, every Sunday we make decisions about who stands where (and why), which camera do they look at (and why), why is a camera on a close-up or a wide shot, why and when do we switch to a different camera (and when not), when do we go to a text slide, how many words are on that slide, are all the words spelled right (a mis-spelled word is always a distraction) and so many other details.
During the sermon we will typically stay on one camera for the entire sermon - why? - it allows the preacher to maintain a connection to the viewer - we've all seen how disruptive is it when a camera switches to a side shot of someone talking but they continue to face forward. Since we do not have a congregation in the Sanctuary, we are able to place the cameras where they give us the best possible angles of the lectern, pulpit and chancel steps. At some point we will permanently mount the cameras, allowing the in-person congregation an unobstructed view, but resulting in a slightly compromised angle for remote viewers.
On Sunday mornings we rehearse the entire service with the tech crew, making sure that the cameras are preset with all the different shots and angles, that all the graphics are in sequence, that everyone's microphones have fresh batteries, the computers and equipment are all ready and all the little but important technical details that it takes.
So, will our virtual worship experience completely satisfy our longings for real world, rich, in-person connections? Probably not. Will virtual worship be enough to sustain us until we meet again? Honestly, we don’t know, but we certainly hope so. What we do know is that our commitment is to continually revise and refine our on-screen worship experience. We will continue to offer opportunities to connect virtually over platforms like Zoom, because they are adaptive and interactive, and they actually can be somewhat rewarding. We recognize that our way forward will be filled with starts and stops and ups and downs; we will continue to consider ways to offer creative opportunities for social engagement and making connections.
When life’s perils thick confound you,
Put his arms unfailing round you.
God be with you till we meet again.
Definitely a temporary setup.
Jen, ready for her close-up.