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Faces on Faith: ‘Remote’ worship

By REV. BILL VAN OSS - | Jan 12, 2021

PHOTO PROVIDED Rev. William “Bill” Van Oss

If you are taking the time to read this, there is a good chance that you are connected to a community of faith. If so, you have probably experienced “remote” or “online” worship over the past nine months, and it is also likely that you have encountered any number of technical challenges with those experiences. Moving church online has been anything but smooth, even for someone married to a technically savvy, creative digital ministry professional. The experience is just not the same, and perhaps you are feeling like you are just not getting as much out of it.

Esau McCauley is an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. In an essay published in The New York Times the day after Christmas, he reflected on the experience of “going to church” online. He says the experience has given him a new appreciation of church and prayer:

“Humans disappoint, especially those we expect to share our beliefs and values. We see other believers fail to display the deep love for one another and the stranger that is commended in our sacred texts. We witness others compromise our deepest values, sacrificed for access to power. Integrity seems in short supply. We attend services where the people are unfriendly, the sermons aren’t great and the music is a struggle. Instead of encountering the transcendent, we bump against the limits of human talent.”

And yet we keep going. McCauley ponders why:

“We stay because attendance is not about what the church gives us; it is our way of offering something to God. It is a small rebellion, a way of saying that there is more to life than simply the acquisition of more. It is an attempt to become the kind of people who live lives of charity and service.

“The very inadequacy of church services, Zoom and otherwise, is a reminder we do not come into churches to encounter a life lesson on how to raise our children or to learn to be good Americans, whatever that means. Our aim is much more audacious. We are attempting to encounter God and, in so doing, find ourselves, possibly for the first time.”

I am really taken by McCauley’s last line. There are many ways to encounter the holy. As I write this, I am watching the sun rise over a beautiful, tree-lined canal. Precious white birds wade in the shallows. I feel a deep sense of peace and serenity. But I also encounter the holy in the messiness of church life, in imperfect people (myself included) coming together to encounter God and to appreciate who we are and who we are called to be. It is this experience of community — remote or in person — that shapes and forms us, smooths our rough edges, and inspires and equips us to reach out in love to our neighbor.

The Rev. William “Bill” Van Oss is the rector at Saint Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church.