Support our siblings affected by disaster, hunger and oppression through One Great Hour of Sharing.

Commissioned ruling elders and online worship


Webinar: Authentic online worship is both possible and meaningful

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — Having postponed until fall an in-person conference designed for commissioned ruling elders, the Synod of the Sun did the next best thing Thursday, broadcasting a lively webinar on authentic worship. Thomas Riggs, the synod’s communication and administrative coordinator, and the Rev. Tim Gray, co-pastor at University Presbyterian Church in El Paso, Texas, shared with participants some of what they’ve learned about providing effective authentic online worship.

“This is not simply a technical challenge,” Gray said. “It’s an adaptive challenge. It’s more than the simple recording and uploading of a sermon on YouTube or another platform, he said — it also requires “thinking about how watching this sermon on YouTube is worshipful.”

If people want to listen to well-rehearsed music on Sunday morning, they can do that, he said. “It’s called Spotify.” And if it’s polished, charismatic preaching they seek, “there are lots of podcasts and other places to find those sermons.”

“Our congregants are looking to be personally connected to their community and their God,” he said, “and so this is what we focus on.”

The Rev. Tim Gray

Many pastors and commissioned ruling elders are used to being in control, he said, from the temperature of the water in the baptismal font to whether scented or unscented candles are burned on Sunday morning. But during online worship, “people have the bread they have” for communion. “You can’t control people when they’re at home” worshiping, he said, “but we can control how we lead our people to understand these things as symbols. Make their experience participatory,” he suggested, “and talk positively about how symbols point to where we are trying to point.”

Many congregants are grieving the loss of the sanctuary as they worship from their living room or kitchen — “wherever the WiFi is good enough,” he said. He asks worshipers to set up their worship space with a candle, cross or picture. “Our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters have been doing this for years,” he said. “As good Reformed people we remind (congregants)” the worship items “are not idols, but they point us to God.”

Gray expects “permanent effects” to come out of current worship practices, even after it’s safe to once again worship in person.

“Some will say they are super happy to (keep) worshiping at home. Others will dust off their chair in the sanctuary and go right back to where they have been sitting for the last 15 years,” he said. “Some will find they like to take worship with them … I invite you to take some time to talk with congregants about how they are feeling and experiencing this time. Gather ideas together as leaders and use this information in session and committee meetings.

“The more you talk, the more you give space to worries and the things people are excited about. It will reduce the stress of challenges that are coming up.”

Thomas Riggs

Riggs said he’s seen several approaches to online worship. Some worship leaders preach in front of empty pews. Others “take the conversational approach,” looking straight into the camera. “Those of you in smaller congregations — your people might be more comfortable with that approach,” he said.

Preachers and worship teams seem to be getting savvier about the “rule of thirds,” he said, in which the preacher takes up just one-third of the screen in order to give the viewer an idea of the setting — a backyard patio table, for example, or the preacher’s study.

There are simple but effective tricks at the preacher’s disposal. A desk lamp pointed up without the shade can serve as fill light. A sock over the microphone can cut out wind noise.

The camera angle is an important consideration. A straight-on shot allows the viewer to look the speaker right in the eye. Point the camera up at the speaker and it makes her more authoritative. Point it down at her and it gives the viewer a sense of familiarity.

“Live into the thought that what you are doing is nothing short of offering the gift of worship,” Riggs said. “You are a blessing. The willingness to participate and to lead is a blessing.”

By way of encouragement, Riggs also recited “The Merton Prayer” by Thomas Merton, which begins this way: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?