Thursday, April 2, 2020

Mediated Worship and Spirituality: a Media Theory View

By Sherry Coman

In this era of COVID-19, conversations about doing worship online have been flooding our feeds since church closures have forced pastors and parishes to find alternative ways of gathering as communities in Christ. As someone who teaches film and media studies, and also film and theology, it occurred to me that a media theory point of view might be helpful. This blog intends to offer some of that perspective into the mix. Rather than write essay style, which seeks to prove a thesis, I have instead gathered thoughts together as talking points, in the hope that they might widen our conversation and also be bite-sized pieces that can be reflected on when there is only so much time in a day. I also hope, eventually, to offer footnotes which offer secondary resources. Each section has been written in such a way as to stand alone, as well. It is also my hope that it can offer a bit of an understanding of why we may have become burnt-out by internet media faster than we'd thought, or hoped. In a crisis that has no immediate end, we need to take special care of our mediated selves in order to survive well. I offer these notes as a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, but I am hopeful that they can speak to other church contexts as well. I am in formation to become a deacon in the Eastern Synod of the ELCIC, where my call will be focused on spirituality and internet outreach. I am grateful for the ways I am already learning from others as I prepare for this ministry!

'Mediated', more than 'Virtual'
Let's start with some terminology. ’Virtual’ is lingo that has become vernacular for ‘anything to do with computers and the internet’. In reflecting on worship in online streaming formats, it is therefore tempting to refer to what we are offering as a ‘virtual’ experience of church. Using this language, while appearing to stay within common usage, is not always helpful. The word ‘virtual’ has the technical meaning of ‘almost’ or ‘nearly’. It carries an implication of comparison: we are comparing the thing we are doing now, to a thing we would otherwise be doing if we could. ‘Virtual’ implies that it is simulated rather than real, that the experience lives in an altered reality that is not fully accessible in ways we are familiar. While we may feel some resonance with these definitions right now in this moment of crisis, what we are doing in offering online worship is neither new nor a simulation. My preference is to use the word ‘mediated’. It is a Communications theory term, and simply refers to anything being represented on a form of media. There are many terms that are used in media theory to describe the ‘reality’ that we are capable of having in digital formats, including (but not limited to) ‘virtual’, ‘augmented’, ‘mixed’, ‘mediated’ and ‘multi-mediated’. They all mean different things. Mediated worship has been taking place for up to thirty years in a variety of contexts and expressions.   

An addition, not a replacement
When we worship together in live stream, we are doing something new and different that has its own value, but we are also continuing a practice we have engaged for a long time in other forms of media. Before the coronavirus, we readily accepted the idea of an audio recording of a worship service. In my home church (a rural Lutheran community), worship services are recorded and brought to those who are shut-in. An audio recording made in this context is considered a pastoral engagement with a parishioner: its credibility as a way of experiencing worship is not generally questioned. This may be because most people, in normal circumstances, have the capacity to worship in person together. But for the shut-in person, this is their worship, it is all they have. It can be helpful, therefore, to think of online worship as an ‘also’, not as a ‘replacement’ of gathering in a church building, just as we have always thought of audio recordings that way. Because we are unable to gather in a church building right now, it is easy to see how a ‘replacement’ sensibility can emerge. We are no longer able to choose, except to choose whether or not we will worship online. Because of the relative inexperience of the church to a mediated form of worship, we are forced into comparing it to what we normally do. But this is not actually fair to the online experience, and also puts us in a way of thinking that can unintentionally prevent growth in online ministry.

The difference made by adding video

The main difference in our current context is video: now we can both hear and see what is being represented. Despite their immense similarities, a live-streamed worship is more controversial than a cassette-tape, or MP3 recording, or even a live audio feed of a worship service. Video effects the ‘personal’ in the mediated relationship between participants more than audio does. We are able on video to see facial expressions, and sometimes, familiar aspects of the worship space. Parishioners are not sitting in their favourite pew, but doing something else altogether. They see and hear what they already know, differently. There is a three-dimensionality that echoes our lived experience in a church building, thereby pointing up the differences. But technically, we have only added video to an audio recording.

Perceived Visual Authority
The reason why the inclusion of video in a recording increases a sense of controversy has to do with the presence of a camera on someone presiding in worship. The camera gives an authority to that person that is unique. In reality we know that there is no difference in how much authority the pastor has than when they are in a church building or on camera. Or both! But in our church buildings, we have the option to gaze at, and be edified by, church architecture, decorations, floral arrangements and how we observe each other. In a live stream or pre-recorded worship, the camera takes the place of our eyes from the pew: it chooses for us what we see, and it allows us a close-up view. We may therefore feel restless because we have less options. The lens of a camera effects, without our input, a chosen narrative, in which we will see first this, then this, then this. It chooses for us our position in the scene and as a result, lends emphasis to what it sees. It also allows us to feel present, because the camera immerses us in the scene. In fact, despite the lack of viewing options within the live stream itself, online worship may prove to be an even more personally enhanced experience for some, than they might have in a church building. 

As a comparison, a dilemma was raised by the music community when opera broadcasts began to be popular. The concern was that the audience in a movie theatre watching a live performance is experiencing a very different version of the opera from what the composers intended or the production staff designed. The ambient experience of being in an acoustical theatre is missing, despite the presence of enhanced sound. Audiences, however, love it, because the camera and a movie theatre's projection brings an intimacy to the experience that they crave. This is largely about the presence of video in the space, which creates a three-dimensionality and selects for us what is on view. More recently, the opera broadcasts have themselves moved online. This effects a different further kind of new experience. Neither the internet experience of an opera broadcast nor the movie theatre version is the same as being in an opera house, but we can also say with equal significance that an opera house experience is not the same as a broadcast/movie theatre or internet experience. Because one of these ways of knowing opera came first, does not affect the importance or the quality of the other kind of experience. This is how 'replacement' thinking can inhibit us. We don't think of a tv as replacing radio, or of the printing press as replacing a writer's spoken words. They all exist alongside each other. 

Zoom and Facebook/Youtube live streaming as worship experience
Zoom is a software resource that enables many people to attend with each other at the same time. It allows the faces of other people to be visible: it presents a gathering of faces. Sometimes it can be helpful to have Zoom gatherings within worship experience, as we have the chance to feel connected through the video images with the people in our congregations that we miss. Zoom worship is quite different, however, from live streamed single-camera or even split-screen presentation experiences. With Zoom, the host is not able to control how the participant chooses to arrange their screen. Participants can line up all the participants in “gallery” view, thus creating equal number of small boxed faces, or they can choose to focus only on the host with several other faces additionally visible. Zoom also allows participants to change their backgrounds to present images or associated environments different from where they are actually situated. Zoom can in some ways be more satisfying for the host, who is able to see and respond to those who are present. But it can also be more distracting. The sense of presence as a presider can be diminished by the sheer number of faces equally present. And, as will be discussed below, Zoom runs a greater risk of spiritual exhaustion when engaged too often or in larger numbers of participants.

At the same time, a presider in a Facebook or youtube live stream is unable to see the faces of those who are gathered. Pastors will present an expression of worship, and know that others are watching/engaged, but cannot see or feel that presence in the moment. This can be a potentially alienating experience for a pastor, used to gazing down on a sanctuary filled with people. The solo presenter who pre-records also has the same experience. They are recording a message as if engaged in the moment with the viewer, despite that their recording is not live. It can be helpful to remember, however, that when the intention and meaning is present for the one who is recording, it is the same as if they were live. What is being created will be experienced as 'real' and 'present' by the viewer when they see it. Media exemplifies the 'in the moment' quality of experience and in this regard, there is no hierarchy of media approaches. Each one offers the sacred in both the moment of presentation, and the moment of being viewed. Each will be experienced by the viewer in a unique way.

Authority for practice
The presence of mediated worship is going to be a vivid experience for many people going forward in a crisis that could be with us for many months. We are being forced, very quickly, to do work that the church has not been able to do yet, which is come up with a sense of authority for practice. I know that the interest and the willingness is there, but we have not perhaps had the language for it. No one predicted the situation we are now in, but in the absence of that governing vision, many people will offer their own authority from within their own areas of expertise. This is part of the reason why, for instance, debate arose quickly around how and even whether to offer Holy Communion online. Because of the dynamic and intensely personal aspect of internet media, the sense of needing to express opinion quickly escalated. This will only continue and move on to broader issues of being church. 

Before we are done, we are going to see many versions of how worship can be done and many reactions and commentaries about how effective these versions are. 

In this regard, we need to be careful to draw as many kinds of experience into that dialogue as possible, otherwise what we are doing is not an actual dialogue. Any professor knows what it is like when you stand in front of a classroom of equally bright minds, only to have a handful of people take over the dynamic, exchanging largely with each other. Despite how interesting and valid these voices may be, a dialogue is only a dialogue when an invitation is issued to others to respond or to offer their own points of view. Otherwise, it is a monologue. We run the risk, in broader topics of church worship online, of having a series of monologues presented in juxtaposition to each other. Articles and essays do not always engage the others who are speaking to specific topics: they mostly express personal point of view. And always, there are hidden voices who are not expressing themselves, who are reading and listening instead. But they too are talking, just quietly on private social media threads with each other.

As the church finds its voice online, much of what we do will be creative and exciting and we can rejoice in our diversity of expression. But there will also be conflict, if not always open, then behind scenes. In order to keep a true dialogue that is not only respectful and courteous, but transparently engaged with others, we perhaps need to be more invitational. An example of a private voice that listens to and responds to existing voices, but also invites others to participate, is “Corona and Communion", published by Rev. Dr. Allen Jorgenson on his blog stillvoicing. We can all do our part to encourage listening and inviting others to express themselves. When Bishop Mike Pryse tweets “it’s not a competition”, this is an excellent example of using authority to keep the conversation open. We cannot all be right. And until the church knows its heart on matters of online worship, we can exchange ideas, while seeking to live in, and make peace with, the cloud of unknowing. 

Internet media and particularly video are more personal than any other media

The space between our bodies and the screen of a device is a dynamic living space. Everything we experience online is intensely more personal to us. The processing of experience and information is happening in what Marshall McLuhan called an ‘externalized central nervous system’. The personal device is often cultivated by us to be an extremely personal space that we then use to make our identity in the world. 

As a result, we are going to have a lot of personally expressive presentations of worship online. It is part of the dynamic of mediated worship. Internet media ‘ramps up’ the underlying nature of personality. We may know someone in our in-person exchanges to have a certain sense of humour or style of expressing opinion. Those qualities may be intensified by internet media. We must take care to make sure, in the coming months, that we are able to sustain these versions of who we are, and that we can reassure each other without necessarily passing judgement on the practices our colleagues are engaging in. While this suggestion may seem patronizing (“of course we respect what they’re doing”), the nature of the personal in internet media often blinds us to more objective thinking, without our even being aware. In faith-based online experiences, we have to work harder at being open.

Call to patience and listening
Because our reactions are faster and more intense online, we as faith communities have a unique opportunity to experience our discipleship in a new way, which is to remember the ways in which we are called to learn from others through patient listening and caring consideration of what is being said. I say 'new way', even though this isn't at all new, because the nature of internet media is not set up to help us this way. The chances are good that all of us have been guilty of a quick response to something seen or posted online that we later wish we had phrased differently. Because the space between our bodies and the screen is both intense and immediate, we are less likely to think before responding. The world of internet media tends to lend authority to what is immediate. From news headlines to Twitter trends, what we see first often feels as if it is the original truth, from which all conversation flows. We might therefore feel that we have to get our word in so it will be taken seriously. This is a natural human reflex. On the other hand, we have going for us a tradition that encourages us to think of the 'priesthood of all believers'. We have built into our faith practice a sense that all share in the voice of the church. We may need to draw out, and share, the voices of the church that are less seen and have more patience with those voices we don't necessarily agree with. Rather than become disaffected, it can be helpful to try to reflect on why we respond the way we do. It might also be helpful to have forums where we can safely share some of those responses.

Spirituality distinct from worship
The ‘spirituality’ of online encounter needs to be carefully nuanced from the experience of worship online and doing business on social media gathering platforms. Online spirituality has to do with the way in which our spirit is affected by what we encounter on the internet. It has to do with how we then process and express our experience back to others. The intensely personal space that exists between ourselves and a screen can also be a holy space. We make it sacred with our intention and with our activity. We can pray together online and feel something taking place among us that we cannot quite describe. We bring our spirit to everything that we do on our digital devices and in our online experience. Everything.

When we use 'replacement' thinking, we tend to value-judge the degree to which we have become dependent on media. We compare it to face-to-face and often find it lacking. And sometimes this feeling is exacerbated by the way social media works. Some platforms, like Facebook, shuffle comments and voices to rank prioritize 'most relevant' or 'top comments'. This can cause us to be feel lost in the mix, unheard and unresponded to. In truth, this happens at church building gatherings too. We see someone in the coffee hour we want to talk with but they are being held in conversation by someone else. Our request for some time with the pastor feels like it's being ignored as they enjoy connection with other people. It just feels much more personal online. The temptation is then to value-judge that online experience.

But what if we were challenged to think differently? What if when we watch someone on a bus or a subway, we allow ourselves to observe the special intensity of that engagement. People are not just looking at something in their hands, they are engaged in a media experience that captures their minds and souls. Rather than see this a a sign of how disconnected technology makes us (and that is certainly a good conversation to have), we might reflect on what is engaging the other. If we stopped to imagine that all of the people we see on their devices are praying, how does that change our value perception of what they are doing? We have a chance to observe how the spirit of individuals is moving on their face, in their eyes and in their interactions. It has never been possible before the digital age to have this kind of intimate connection to the private space of others. It can be a gift. What do you notice about the engagements you see?

Right now, our spirits are being flooded with terrifying news and realities. Online ministry offers a unique opportunity to offer/provide healing, so that the spiritual space between the body and the screen can include what is holy and life-giving. As an example, when Bishop Susan Johnson sings to us, it soothes that space between the viewer and the screen. We need to be thinking about how and what we can offer that is spiritually nourishing, alongside how we do worship.

Self-care for being online
Going forward, we might also teach ourselves more about how to differentiate between the screen experience of business, and the screen experience of personal engagement. Meetings that occur by Zoom or Skype bring this complex webbing of the personal and the professional forward. Although they seem like an efficient way to do business in the absence of a room in a building, they are actually more demanding of our spirit than a conventional meeting room is. In a conventional meeting room, we have opportunities to divert our gaze and we are not always on show. Online meetings are more exhausting to that space between the body and the screen. In small numbers they can increase a sense of intimacy. But in larger numbers, they deplete our spiritual energy. We need to learn how to carefully conserve and preserve our spirits as we do the business of the church online, by spreading meetings out in a day and not always putting every person on view. We also need to think about what is lined up in our digital day: if we are Skyping a family member, our capacity for intimacy will be different from what we bring to a Zoom board meeting. We might be encouraged to notice the differences in how we engage, in the way we feel, and try not to schedule the different kinds of experience too closely together. This is similar to what Marshall McLuhan has called practicing an 'ecology of media': choosing our experiences in a way that allows a diversity of ways we share and gather information can also help to diffuse a feeling of over-extension. We will go farther, and longer, if we exercise some self-care in this forced-to-technology time. Otherwise, we can become disaffected and overwhelmed. Indeed, that may already be occurring in some ways.

One helpful way of taking care of self is to notice, as one might in a meditation exercise, each aspect of how you are approaching the online business meeting. Are you excited to see people? Will you be entering with energy? Are you wishing you could hide, did you only dress from the waist up? What happens while you are listening? When are you engaged and when are you distracted, or tempted to check your phone, subtly, off-camera range? How do you experience the way in which others appear distracted when you are talking? All of these moments happen in conventional meeting room gatherings too. But the online experience of each of these is more acute. We are funnelling our sense of identity into a small space. We can feel exhausted from the effort.

It might help to reframe the experience as we might think of meeting up in a lunch room or a local cafe. We notice the crowd, who is gathered, but we don't attempt to take in every single person or what they are doing. We are aware of one person who is speaking to us, we may glance at the others. On Zoom, we have the option to turn off our microphones and even our cameras. At the start of a meeting, a consensus might be asked as to whether everyone wants to be on view today, instead of assuming they will be. The same care we might take to make others feel comfortable we can do in this mediated space as well. We don't have to do what the technology is set up to do. It works for us, not the other way round! 

Involving lay voices
As the conversation continues about mediated and online worship, it would be helpful to have a forum of exchange that allows a greater voice for lay leadership experience. When we reduce the conversation exclusively to rostered leaders, we risk missing much insight. Gathering some lay folks together to assess the online worship experience will be an eye-opening and productive experience, as it is for them that we make decisions. It is an act of exclusion to speak on behalf of those we believe we are speaking for, but who are not given a chance to speak. The whole nature of online media is that it democratizes freedom of expression. My hope is that we can somehow, in a constructive and carefully considered way, fling open the doors of conversation and ask church congregations who have experienced online worship, what they think before establishing strict guidelines. We are destined to be enlivened by what we find out!

All kinds of gatherings are gatherings
However we gather online to worship, that gathering is a gathering. It is not virtual, it is real. We can accept this when we bring our family together on FaceTime or Skype in multiple locations. We know we are ‘gathered’. It has its own qualities of experience to relate to in this way. When we are able to set aside ‘replacement’ thinking, we will be able to fully embrace the possibilities. May the Holy Spirit guide us all as we continue to live into the mission of the church in this new and potentially exciting way.

Sherry Coman
Creator/Curator, Lutherans Connect
Adjunct Faculty, Martin Luther University College
Professor, Film and Media Studies, Humber College
Diaconal candidate, ELCIC

Image of online worship by Rick Ritz -- used with permission and thanks.