Letter to the Editor:
February 17, 2022
I am grateful to the many people who responded to my opinion piece, “A Cautious Case Against Livestreaming Worship.” The readership for this less than 800-word piece far exceeds any of my academic publications. It appears that my voice hit a nerve that I did not realize was quite so sensitive.
Allow me, then, to respond to what I perceive to be the main concerns with my position on livestreaming worship services.
First, however, I begin with a bit of theology. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:9-12 are central to my understanding of God — the God revealed to us in the person of Jesus the Christ. Paul writes, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.”
I live every day with the awareness that, like Paul, I do not see God clearly in this life. Rather, I see though an ancient mirror made of bronze that does not produce a perfect reflection. The reflection from a bronze mirror is more akin to the image we see when we peer into a steamy after-shower bathroom mirror. In other words, I live every day with the awareness that I could be wrong — about anything, about everything. Even as I recognize I could be wrong, I am pleased that my voice — a minority voice — is now accessible. Right or wrong, I have thought long and hard about this issue.
My concerns with livestreaming worship flow from my conviction that the most important task of the church is the worship of God, the gathered worship of God. We have, here at First Baptist, a robust benevolence outreach. We assist many people who live in poverty — people who, though invited, likely will not gather with us for worship. Christian Women’s Job Corps meets in our Fellowship Hall on Friday mornings. Our church owns a house that we allow Christian Women’s Job Corps to use as a transitional house for women and children.
As supportive as I am of these mission projects and others, it is the worship of God that gives the church of Jesus the Christ its distinguishing mark. If not for its worship, the church blends in with other charitable organizations. Our atheist friends and Muslim friends and Jewish friends and Hindu friends will join hands with us in serving the poor and vulnerable. It is the worship of God, through Christ, that gives us our unique place in the world.
A foundational critique, which I expected, concerns the use of the radio to broadcast our worship services. Why is the radio acceptable, but livestreaming is frowned upon?
The worship services of the First Baptist Church of Ahoskie have been broadcast, and until recently broadcast live, for many years over the radio. I would not try to take that away. First, it would not be a wise move as I desire to build upon what is, after five years of service, a uniquely rich pastor-to-congregation relationship.
Second, in our context, I do not have the same concerns about dilution of the worship experience with the radio as I do with livestream. Our people talk differently about how they engage with worship over the radio. It is mostly our elderly I hear from. They are unable to be in sanctuary worship due to health issues. Most of them do not have internet, so livestreaming is out of the question. If not for the radio broadcast, they would have no contact with our community at worship.
The radio broadcast also serves those, perhaps not elderly, with health issues that keep them from in-person gatherings.
By the way, I had one perfectly mobile couple inform me that I would see them more in sanctuary worship if we were not on the radio. So, my concern that livestream facilitates human laziness is valid with the radio as well. However, I simply do not hear many of those types of experiences with the radio.
I should say that some of our people have informed me that they do not care for livestream worship because it plays to their lazy side, and because they have a difficult time resisting distractions (more so than with gathered in-person worship, thanks for making that point in your critiques). This scenario is like this, I do not want to eat too much candy; but if it is available, I will.
In church leadership discussion, as to whether it was best to discontinue livestream now that we have a safe and highly effective vaccine, we saw the radio broadcast as middle ground, as a compromise of sorts. The radio broadcast can be heard from anywhere in the world where there is an internet connection. Even so, many of our people cozy up to an old-fashioned radio at their kitchen table!
Furthermore, we do post video recordings of the sermon each week — just the sermon, not the entire service. The sermon is instructional. It is something that often can be lifted from the day’s worship context without too much disruption. Again, we feel we are providing some virtual access (thus using and not neglecting technology) without giving everything away. The posted sermon is particularly helpful for those whose work, such as a doctor in our congregation, keeps them from sanctuary worship on Sunday mornings.
Perhaps this strikes you as inconsistent. It all works in my mind and at this place.
I do want people to miss something when they do not gather in-person with their church family, whether they choose not to gather due to neglect of the church or they cannot gather because they are sick or because they must work. No matter the cries of, “It is not the same as being there,” you do not miss as much if you have audio and video access along with all the comforts of home.
Because Christian faith is incarnational, Christian worship needs to be too. I hear you — but if every church took my approach, outreach opportunities would be forfeited. My response: If First Baptist Ahoskie were the only church with the ability to livestream worship, I might feel differently. However, the avenues for internet worship are almost endless.
In my previous piece, I referred to my training as a historian of early Christianity. And, indeed, I am inspired, as a modern-day pastor, by the handling of worship in the early church by pastors such as Augustine of Hippo, Cyril of Jerusalem, and John Chrysostom. In addition to my academic training, I suspect the fact that church is not my mother tongue contributes to my convictions about livestream worship and abuse that, I believe, livestream can do to worship.
I was baptized at the age of 18 by Black Creek Baptist Church, in Mechanicsville, Va., in a neighborhood pond. My first serious engagement with the church, then, came in young adulthood. Although church is not my mother tongue, I am now fluent in a couple of different dialects. And, indeed, I strongly believe that the pearls of worship should be handled with holy gloves. As one who neglected the church in the past, I do not see this view as elitist or narrow. I see it as proper.
I conclude with the observation that livestreaming worship is nothing new. Churches were engaged in this form of outreach before the pandemic. Livestreaming is, simply, a more accessible form of television broadcasting, which has been done for years and years now.
I understand that people want so badly to find something good in the last two-year COVID agony. And, I believe good for the church has come and will come out of this two-year stretch. I shared with our deacons just this week that I believe our church could be in the midst of a mini-revival. As for me, however, I conclude that, in addition to repackaged technology, there are richer gems yet to be discovered.
Paul R. Gilliam III, Ahoskie, N.C.