I was fascinated when, after a colleague posted a question in a sizable group forum for campus pastors asking, who in this group regularly streams worship, a significant majority of the campus pastors who commented responded that their worshiping communities were not streaming worship.
It may come as a surprise to some that the oft-repeated idea that streaming worship will be necessary in the post-pandemic church has failed to gain traction in many communities centered on ministry with digital natives. But it shouldn’t.
Although, as Sociologist Hartmut Rosa, puts it, “the screen has become a kind of bottleneck through which our experience and appropriation plays out,” the leading platform for worship streaming, Facebook, has been hemorrhaging youth and young adults for years now (Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World, 91). According to internal research, young adults think the network is “boring, misleading, and negative.” Despite the fact that Instagram, Facebook’s second platform, has done better in this regard, the ubiquity of Sunday morning streaming on both platforms over the past few years did nothing to reverse the overall trend.
Regardless of the platform, streaming worship just isn’t the type of screen-time young adults are looking for.
It’s not that digital natives are abandoning social media; they’re simply moving to platforms like Snapchat and TikTok that are inhospitable to Sunday morning services (even shortened ones).
Nor is it that campus ministries lack the big-budget cameras and tech to do it well (much of the media college students engage is low-budget video shot on cell phones).
When a keynote presenter, at a conference I recently attended, quipped that more people attended Easter services in 2020 than in any other year in the history because services were available online, I guffawed too loudly. I imagined congregations racking up “views” as Gen-Z and Millennials watched an Easter service for 5-10 seconds before swiping to the next service.
This may sound cynical, but these habitual thumb-and-eye movements views aren’t a metric that really counts as worship attendance.
Before I go any further, I should clarify that a critique of social media in general is not in the scope of this blog. Nor am I arguing here that streaming worship is an inherently bad idea. I’m not piling-on already burned-out church leaders.
Church leaders have made truly valiant efforts to make worship accessible amidst something unprecedented in their lifetimes.
Streaming worship was and is a part of that. Some congregations have done streaming in remarkably good and faithful ways that have given digital worshipers the experience of being in touch with God and the world. This is a good thing.
Rather, because I believe campus ministries reveal a leading edge of the church, I want to raise the question of why those who work directly with digital natives seem to be abandoning streaming in the late stages of the pandemic? What might this suggest about post-pandemic practice?
Although, like most other congregations, the worshiping community I serve at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was quick to adopt online forms of worship in the Spring of 2020, including streaming, we were equally quick to abandon streaming once our community could gather with relatively safety with social-distancing protocols in place. (I say this recognizing that due to variation in local conditions this is not the case for all worshiping communities.)
Our primary reason for no longer live-streaming was rooted in the active leadership of several LGBTQIA+ students who were not out to their parents, some of whom who were using different names in the community than their names assigned at birth. We didn’t want to accidently out our students. We made the decision that caring for the most vulnerable in our community needed to take precedence over the possibility of someone discovering and engaging our community before they swiped to the next discount televangelists on Sunday morning Facebook.
As I read through the aforementioned group forum, I saw a similar rationale present in many of the posts. Describing worship contexts where worshipers were invited to open-up, campus ministers cited concerns about student vulnerability. Others shared concerns about personal information being broadcast into the void of the internet. Some talked about how streaming was almost impossible because the orientation of the worship space was a circle rather than a room with a ready for video point-and-shoot focal point.
These comments imply an interesting set of value assumptions about worship itself. The worship described by these campus ministers is relatively small, non-hierarchical, intimate, inclusive, and intentional about providing worshipers space to be vulnerable with one another.
In these spaces, students have room to question and to claim creative agency.
For these campus ministers (and campus ministries) worship itself is a place for ministry and care, to be seen, a place of concrete accompaniment — things not easily transferred to the medium of streaming.
In the introduction of Ryan Panzer’s Grace and Gigabytes: Being Church in a Tech-Shaped Culture, Panzer offers a helpful distinction between tech-using and a tech-shaped culture (1-12). Panzer argues that rather than merely finding technical solutions, “What the church needs is the capacity and will to transform our ministries to engage a culture whose ways of thinking, decision-making, and relating to one another have certainly changed,” (12).
...Digital natives have learned the value of asking questions (think Google search). They’ve always been able to search for information about anything and get answers (both good and bad.) Where does worship open up brave spaces for questions?
...Digital natives are accustomed to creating media, not merely consuming it. They’ve had power and agency in the creation of the spaces they inhabit. Where does worship invite this creative impulse while taking seriously the vulnerability it creates?
...Digital natives seek connection and collaboration wherever they can find it. They seek relationships and spaces that offer belonging. How does worship foster this sense of shared embodiment and community?
What Panzer suggests is that humans formed by a tech-shaped culture deeply value being in touch with the world in particular ways. Rosa agrees, writing:
[W]hen we check to see whether our latest post or blog entries have elicited reactions in the form of comments or “likes” … what we really concerned with at bottom is being noticed, seen, addressed, contacted—being in touch with the world.” (92)
The irony is, for many digital natives, the digital streaming of worship is a woefully poor fit for the actual needs and values of those most formed by a tech-shaped culture. It is largely passive and hierarchal. It provides a medium for seeing, not for being seen. It is the repackaging of older values into a digital frame — the proverbial old wine into new wineskins.
Of course, not all tech-shaped values can be so positively framed: insofar as, the digital-age names the realities of social acceleration and run-away commodification, in-person worship potentially represents a form of deceleration (a temporary respite) or at least disruption of hyper-efficiency, speed, and individuality, too. In an era when screens have become a uniform medium for relating to the world, indeed, worship has the potential to open up a radically different channel for being seen and known.
Indeed, for many college students, worship has become the place to put away their tech.
I wonder what clues this might provide us as we continue forward in this late-modern/late-pandemic season — both digital and analog.
Undoubtedly, we are in a time of unprecedented changes in the Christian church that the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated significantly. And digital hybridity in ministry and in worship is likely here to stay. Nevertheless, I am convinced as we enter into this late-period of the pandemic that simply streaming worship is not really an answer to what comes next. What will make worship compelling to those whose lives are already too crammed with good things to do will be the way in which worship discloses a ministering God — a God who continues to show up in the flesh-and-blood of questioning, creative, vulnerable communities.
A couple of months into the fall semester on a college campus, it seems analog places are all the rage this season as they represent a break from our screen-mediated relationship to the world. As it was once said, “Digitization is the peak of convenience, but vinyl is the peak of experience,” (Jay Y. Kim, Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in a Digital Age, 27).
Rev. Adam White is the Campus Pastor at The Lutheran Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) and an Adjunct Instructor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.
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