Languages, Part 1
Our online video services are different than the worship style we’re used to in person. Whether you love them or find something missing, the reality is, they’re a change. We absolutely love all of you who take the time to comment and compliment us on the videos. We also appreciate those who have made suggestions. We do listen and we try to incorporate your thoughts when you share them.
Over the next couple days, let’s talk for a minute about why we do things the way we do in our online services. It’s an interesting study in convictions and priorities.
In Sunday’s sermon about Jesus feeding the 5000, I suggested that churches tend to focus on the “what and how” when undertaking projects more than “why, and for whom?” That comes into play as we worship too. We’re used to certain things, ways of speaking and acting that are familiar to us.
That’s just great! We do things in wonderful ways. Our “how and what” are beautiful! But what happens when the “for whom” changes? What do we do when we want the “we” to be bigger than just people already here?
Visitors are present at every in-person worship, but they usually comprise a small percentage of the audience. That means for the most part, we know who will participate on a given Sunday. The people in the building understand our conventions and way of operating. By walking in the door, even our visitors that they’re looking to understand us. Our audience is fairly well-defined and have a decent, baseline idea of how to connect with them.
That changes completely when the venue moves from our sanctuary to online. An audience that was once a couple hundred now grows to, in some cases, a couple thousand. The potential audience is even larger. We have no idea who will click that video. We don’t know their personal background, biases, or level of comfort/experience with religion.
Most importantly, the direction of travel changes. Instead of people coming into our space on a Sunday, we are thrusting into theirs all day, any day. When someone comes into your house, you’re free to steep them in your culture, tradition, and way of doing things. That’s why they came. When you go into someone else’s house, you don’t start rearranging their furniture so it looks like yours before you’ll sit down. You don’t insist they say your table grace before dinner. You move slowly, get to know them, and allow their practices to shape yours.
The “why” of our online service remains the same: to share God’s love, grace, and good news with anyone who hears. The language we use changes radically when the audience and venue change.
This concept is not foreign to scripture. At Pentecost, the apostles spoke and the audience heard the words in their own languages. Paul talks of speaking in tongues. Even Old Testament Balaam eventually learned to understand a donkey.
We may not have the supernatural gift of translation, at least not explicitly. We can still care about the language of others, taking a minute to consider and learn before we speak. We give the audience voice and power when we take into consideration their context and let it inform our interactions.
I do this as a pastor all the time. I’ll let you in on a secret: not every church person is noble and pure as the driven snow. Over the years, I have heard perfectly “good” congregation members say some perfectly awful things. How I react to them will depend largely on purpose and audience…on the why and for whom.
I distinctly remember sitting in the living room of one of my congregation members one summer afternoon. He was of advanced age, confined to his house. We were talking, and all of a sudden he uttered a completely offensive statement, totally out of alignment with the way I view the world and the things the church professes about how we view our neighbors.
At that point, I had a choice. I could counter what this man said, argue against him, stand up for something greater. 98% of the time, that’s exactly what I’d do. This time, I did not. I offered a simple, gentle observation to defuse the situation, then moved the conversation onward. I made this choice because of the purpose and audience. My visit was for him, in his home, where he needed to feel safe and cared for. I was the only witness to what he said. He would not be able to return to the church, or the world at large, to repeat his utterance…which in any case was probably the product of a lifetime of indoctrination that I could not undo in fifteen minutes of conversation. Under these conditions, I deflected and let it go.
Had the audience and purpose of that conversation changed, my reaction would have as well. Had another person been present—a stranger or a member of the congregation—the discussion wouldn’t be centered around him, but the community at large. The more people you add, the truer this becomes. That changes things. Had my congregation member said the same thing at an annual meeting, during church fellowship hour, or on the street, my reaction against his words would have been firm, public, and very loud.
Audience context shapes how we speak and the things we do. The “how and what” is supposed to follow the “why and for whom”. That was true of Jesus’ ministry, right up to the moment of his crucifixion when the “what” was purely awful but the “for whom” became everything. It’s supposed to be true of our ministry in his name too.
When we suggest there is a universal, sacred “how and what” that is appropriate for all occasions and audiences, we are suggesting one of two things:
If either of those things are true, why are we bothering to put a service online in the first place? This is one of the reasons we don’t just stick our regular service online, unchanged, and call it good.
Next time, we’ll talk about the specific conventions we use in our online service to take into account our new audience. We’ll also discuss the ways we’re evolving those services as time goes by.
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