Presence, Piety, and Belonging: Intentional Digital Experiences during and after COVID-19

 [1] Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, it quickly became cliché to refer to “these uncertain times,” or “these unprecedented times.” It seems like every single email started out that way. But we belong to a tradition that allows us to think beyond these limited views. All times are uncertain, but we know that God cares for the birds of the air who do not plant or plan (Matthew 6:25-34). And no time is unprecedented; in fact, there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10).

[2] In an acute sense, yes, these times feel uncertain. And in nearly every living person’s lifetime, a global pandemic like this is unprecedented. This presentation’s topic is online worship and community during COVID-19 – something seemingly uncertain and unprecedented. But in order to make sense of things, to proceed as intentional leaders, we can find threads in our past to help us address the present and move thoughtfully the future.

[3] This attitude of continuity is inspired by Teresa Berger, a Catholic liturgical scholar at Yale who has written a work called @Worship (Routledge, 2017), which addresses digital religious experience. Her goal is to demonstrate that novel technologies are part of an ongoing continuity of tradition. Connecting modern changes to our tradition requires both study and creativity.


[4] In the 13th century, Clare of Assisi fell ill during Advent, and was bedbound by Christmas. As her sisters in the order went to worship in the nearby church, Clare herself saw, heard, and experienced the worship too. This experience is the reason that in 1958, Clare was declared the patron saint of television. It is no coincidence that Poor Clares are the founders of the TV channel EWTN.

[5] In the field of Digital Religion Studies, there is a commonly stated premise that ‘all worship is mediated.’ In fact, all experiences of God (except perhaps mystical union) are mediated. We use mediums such as language in prayer, sound in song, and water, bread, and wine to experience God. And the medium influences the way we experience the message.

[6] Digital Religion Scholars like to ponder questions like: what is the difference between using a hearing machine and listening to worship on the radio; or what is the difference between watching CC TV (closed-circuit television) from the nursery and tuning into a tele-evangelist from home?

[7] Many congregations have cobbled together some form of online worship in recent months. Necessity has forced the issues of whether or not online worship has a place in regular worship life. Of course, online worship has been around for decades, but it is suddenly a norm, even an expectation. Traditional in-person worship has been (hopefully temporarily) supplanted by streaming. Rostered leaders of our proper tradition have become tele-evangelists.

[8] The question of presence with these online mediums is something I ponder often. Does it make a difference if a worship service is attended synchronously (at the actual time, or live-streamed) or asynchronously (pre-recorded, such as on YouTube). I’ve experimented and experienced these in teaching and worship, and find that there is a difference in the experience.

[9] When a worship service is asynchronous, it can be accessed at a time that is convenient for the user. If someone is working or otherwise occupied during worship, they can still worship. However, asynchronous worship is – in point of fact – an individualized experience. Is it even appropriate to have a liturgy – a work of the people – that can be experienced alone at the time of one’s choosing?

[10] When synchronous, there is a sense of togetherness – a knowledge that others are out there doing the same thing at the same time. You are – at least in a sense – with each other. It feels more like a liturgy than a passive consumer experience. Some services, such as Zoom recordings and Facebook Live offer both options.

[11] When speaking of presence in worship, we cannot ignore questions that arise around the sacraments. Sacraments are mediated experiences of God’s presence. We experience the Spirit in the medium of water, and Christ is present in the mediums of bread and wine.

[12] But sacramental celebrations have been few and far between during the months of quarantine. I will not be addressing the topic of congregations who gather clandestinely or illegally during quarantine, as that is its own can of worms. (Since the original presentation, restrictions have been lifted in some places, but in-person worship is still limited by capacity restrictions and voluntary quarantines for health reasons.)

[13] Among those who have been following the quarantining rules, I have heard of drive-through communions, many of which use the pre-filled cup or those little single-serving juice-and-wafer combinations. Also, there is also what I call “micro-communion,” where a limited number of people are allowed to be present in a church. I prefer the term “micro-communion” because we would not dare propose “private Mass.” (There have been other solutions regarding communion, but the Lutheran tradition offers insight on the Lord’s Supper. For example, the chapter VIII of the Solid Declaration the constituent components of Holy Communion.)

[14] With these ad hoc solutions, we must be mindful of who is being included and excluded. Current opportunities are limited based on factors such as health, timing, and even the ability to sign up for things online.

[15] Beyond the liturgical questions, we must consider the online platforms we use. For example: Facebook requires an account to access most things, is notorious for allowing misinformation to be spread, and sells user data to third parties. Zoom has experienced controversy for censoring content that challenges the actions of their investors.

[16] When we worship remotely today, it is considerably more complicated than the mystical experience of Clare of Assisi.


[17] It might be showing my age, but one of the historical hypothetical questions that was in the air during my time in Seminary was, “If Paul were around today, would he use Twitter?”

[18] The conclusion was usually that Paul used his letters as a supplement, but not a substitute, for real relationships. Paul was relentless in his mission, and today might find a medium for evangelism in microblogging. Perhaps the question these days is whether or not he would have a TikTok.

[19] As leaders and witnesses today, how can we use communications technologies to supplement but not substitute, the relationships that we form as a church community. What types of resources and engagement can we offer to enhance the worship lives of the current community? And how can we open a door for new relationships through evangelism?

[20] Online worship and church life can enhance existing prayer life and plant the seeds of evangelism. I would argue that there can be at least some semblance of community formed through online interactions, but building and maintaining meaningful relationships in any form takes energy and intentionality.

[21] Some churches have been posting for years and have a massive archive of videos. Some have just started these posts recently. Some stream but do not record. Some retool their worship to make it suitable for online media.

[22] We need to consider the goals and potential consequences of whatever options we choose. What is the purpose of posting a service or a sermon? Is it a contextual experience meant for a certain time and a certain place? Is it a time capsule? Is it an evangelistic breadcrumb that a random denizen of the internet might find and follow toward a religious experience? I’ve never met a preacher who considers their own preaching mediocre, but merely posting sermons or services might not be as powerful – or even helpful – as a preacher might hope. Then again, Paul’s old letters have certainly found applications beyond their original context.

[23] Within the past year, leaders have had to quickly adopt these new modes of worship. The decisiveness required during urgent moments can come at the cost of intentionality. Criticizing the ad hoc solutions that have come out of the pandemic is unhelpful. However, since there has been time to establish new means and methods for worship, it is now appropriate to reflect on how these have functioned, and how they can be improved. Leaders should be considering the goals and intentions of various forms of online engagement.

[24] Like Paul, we should consider how we can supplement, but not substitute, the church community and experience with new media platforms.


[25] When the American colonies were expanding westward into native territories, church organizations lacked the funding and personnel to keep up. As a result, “circuit riders” famously rode from town to town preaching the word and administering the sacrament as well as they could.

[26] Back then, communities were rather discrete. The congregation was made up of the people who were in the church. If you were there, you were part of the congregation. You were seen. You were heard. You were present.

[27] What does it mean to “go” to church on YouTube?

[28] One problem here is the basic accounting for rostered leaders. It might seem banal, but it is not insignificant. Lutheran church leaders are acutely aware of parochial reports – where rostered leaders have to report membership, participation, and demographics. The metrics from these reports are used to help understand demographics and vitality in individual congregations, synods, and the ELCA.

[29] Active membership in the ELCA means being “confirmed, communing, and contributing once per year.” If memory serves, I have not personally communed since March 15, 2020, a full year ago. It is quite possible that me – and many others – might have technically become inactive.

[30] It is well established that we are living in unprecedented times, but how do we make an honest assessment of who is active? How do we know just how many of those “hits” or “views” are from unique users? And how do we know what individuals are remaining active? This is perhaps a bureaucratic-sounding conversation, but it reveals a deeper, more important question:

[31] Who is falling through the cracks?

[32] Who is underserved by our current practices? And even more importantly, how do we serve those who were underserved before the pandemic?

[33] Many tacitly assume that using email and YouTube is sufficient to reach all the members who were formerly gathering in person. But in reality, there are major discrepancies between those who have access to the necessary technologies to engage in online worship. Digital technologies reinforce systemic barriers of wealth, language, and age. Marginalized individuals and communities who were already excluded are further removed from connecting to their community by these barriers.

[34] But even this is not unprecedented. In first-century Corinth, rich congregants who had better resources and access took more than their share and neglected the needs of their poor neighbors. One was hungry while another was drunk; the “haves” were shaming the “have-nots.” The situation required intervention. (1 Cor 11:21-22)

[35] I do not suggest that there is contempt or malice among Lutheran leaders, but by focusing on online worship, there is a definite likeliness of oversight.

[36] As someone who has relatively good access and command of these technologies, I still struggle to keep track of everything through the flood of wordy and vague messages from organizations I belong to. These take time, energy, understanding, and access to keep up with. Quite simply, we all need to continue to focus on clarity, communication, and accessibility regardless of the way we worship. This might even mean going old school and snail-mailing resources and information. We should learn the lesson of Corinth, and instead be intentional about giving equal access regardless of class or capability.

[37] In summary, it is not difficult to imagine some of the challenges and shortcomings of digital worship. However, this has been a challenge for leaders, who have been forced to adapt to the new environment and adopt new skills.

[38] Now the challenge is to reflect before continuing forward. Leaders must remain thoughtful and purposeful as they try to meet the real needs of presence, piety, and belonging. As COVID continues (and hopefully wanes), how will we incorporate these new digital tools into the life of our faith communities? How can we intentionally enhance our community experience, our devotional practices, and our sense of church in the post-COVID normal?


Questions for Discussion:

  1. Would Paul have used TikTok to evangelize?
  2. Is it appropriate to have a liturgy – a work of the people – that can be experienced alone at the time of one’s choosing?
  3. How can we intentionally enhance our community experience, our devotional practices, and our sense of church in the post-COVID normal?
  4. Who is falling through the cracks?




Chris Suehr

Chris Suehr is an ELCA pastor studying Religion and Culture as a PhD student at the Catholic University of America.