In June 2017, I began my first round of intensive classes in St Paul, Minnesota, as part of the Doctor of Ministry degree in Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary there. It was a daunting prospect to travel to the other side of the world to undertake post-graduate study, yet I was excited to stretch myself in a field of ministry dear to my heart.
One aspect of the study was to write a thesis and I had begun to home in on an area of research. For many years I had been watching online preaching to learn the craft. On the way to St Paul, I travelled to Nashville and met with the production manager of a church whose streamed sermons I had been watching for several years. I wanted to know the motivation behind streaming sermons to multiple campuses and to discover what their joys and disappointments were.
As the thesis research project would need to be contextual, I shifted my focus to the streaming of worship, which has been happening in the Lutheran Church of Australia for many years. I met with Pastor Richard Fox of Lutheran Media and asked whether I could conduct an exploratory case study into the experiences of users of worship streams from St Michael’s Hahndorf, in South Australia, and Good Shepherd Toowoomba, in Queensland.
I was interested to discover where people were accessing the streams from, and whether there was a sense of community and connection with the congregations and pastors providing the streamed worship. My thesis title became, ‘Reaching the Diaspora: Streamed Worship in the Lutheran Church of Australia, Cultivating Koinonia and Ecclesia’.
One key finding of my research was that while people highly appreciate being able to access Australian Lutheran worship online, they desire to worship in person. We are a sacramental church and this is an aspect of worship missing online. At the time of my research, it was difficult to find doctrinal statements that addressed the challenges of receiving holy communion in the virtual realm. But soon every denomination needed to have a document stating their position.
As I read and talked with people in preparation for thesis writing, I discovered that most people considered that building community and connections in the online space was difficult and not ideal. Many also considered that gathering virtually was not true gathering.
I submitted my thesis draft in the week of 30 March 2020 – coincidentally when most churches around the world were forced to close due to the global pandemic. Pastors everywhere were rushing to find a way to deliver worship to congregations which could no longer gather in person.
Suddenly millions of people had become ‘diaspora’, dispersed from their traditional form of worship – face-to-face – on a Sunday morning. Of course, for most people, this was an alien experience. Most had never considered online services to be legitimate worship. And yet what we have found in these past months is the sense of connection and community that has been maintained, or even cultivated, through online worship. It is still probably not most people’s first choice, but many congregations have discovered people who have connected to worship in the online space and whom they have not seen in the physical worship space for some time. Some have never worshipped with the congregation before.
I think people are feeling vulnerable and in search of reassurance. It is much easier to step inside a virtual church than to face people who then want to talk to you. I know at least one of my fringe connections has engaged every week online, while in my seven years as pastor here has never attended in person other than perhaps for annual social events. For people like this, we need to continue to provide the streaming option.
I was blessed to have spent several years preparing my understanding of online worship being legitimate. In February 2019, I attended the funeral of a former work colleague from my mining days at Roxby Downs in outback South Australia. I sat at my desk in suburban Melbourne and connected via live-streaming to the funeral in Adelaide. I felt connected, both to the mourners present at the funeral home hundreds of kilometres away and to others with me online. My personal sense of being in community with those people again after almost 20 years was strong. At that time I wondered whether the same could happen for regular worship.
What I have seen in these COVID days is that people, who were perhaps not even aware that online or streamed worship existed, have been thrust into a space they were not ready for, and yet so many have accepted it and even thrived in it.
A couple of years ago I asked the seminary whether it might be possible to defend my thesis via Skype, then fly over for graduation rather than remain in the USA for the whole six-week process. I was told this could not be done.
But at 1.30am on 11 May, I successfully defended my thesis, from the other side of the world. Then on 31 May at 3.00pm US time – 6.00am on 1 June in Melbourne – I stood in my tracksuit pants, hoodie and ugg boots in my lounge room as I was ‘called forward to receive my diploma’ (on my TV screen via YouTube streaming).
What was once considered impossible was now a reality – I had defended my thesis and graduated with a doctorate from the other side of the world. It was legitimate and it was real. How quickly attitudes and realities can change when necessity becomes the mother of invention.
In a recent survey of my congregation 75 per cent were happy to continue to worship online. We have quickly learned that online worship is a legitimate option and the Holy Spirit is at work wherever we gather. It may not be perfect, but it is what we have. Praise the Lord!
Dr Tim Stringer is pastor of Victoria’s Greensborough Parish in Melbourne’s northern suburbs and a member of the LCA/NZ’s General Church Board.