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Online worship is ‘not a show that you consume’


An Oklahoma pastor and church session make online worship work by working at it

November 21, 2020

This behind-the-scenes photo taken in March 2020 shows the initial setup for streaming live worship services from the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church in Claremore, Oklahoma. (Photo courtesy of First Presbyterian Church). INSET: Remembering a full sanctuary in a photo taken in July 2019 during the Rev. Josh Kerr’s installation at First Presbyterian, Church. (Photo courtesy First Presbyterian Church)

Social media is an engaging tool for talented extroverts like the Rev. Josh Kerr, who you can see making viral dance moves on TikTok or advising, “Don’t burp in your mask. Trust me,” on Facebook.

Kerr, 37, amuses, educates and inspires people of all ages — even those who seek pastoral care and discernment. However, what is not fit for a stage, says Kerr, is worship.

“Worship in our (denomination) is not a show that you consume,” he said from his office at First Presbyterian Church in Claremore, Oklahoma. “I think that’s why a lot of churches in our tradition have been hesitant to go online.”

A deep-thinking theologian is as much a part of Kerr’s identity as preacher, pastor, father and husband. He credits wife Tara for making possible his pandemic work schedule.

Tara Kerr is a school counselor. Their son Kellan is 9. Both are excellent foils and partners to Josh Kerr’s antics and earnestness.

“This (online worship) is a whole new thing to me,” Kerr confided to the computer on his desk on March 20, two days before the first live broadcast of a worship service. He noted that some churches have all that figured out. “But for us it’s going to be a big change,” he told those early listeners.

In the first two months of the pandemic, that video, originally seen live by a few church members, has been viewed nearly 700 times on Facebook. Big changes indeed.

Even while technical details buzzed, Kerr and the session turned their attention to those in the 160-member congregation who are less connected. They divvied up 14 unconnected households for regular phone contact. Kerr occasionally makes porch or garage visits, toting his own lawn chair.

Neither social distancing nor rain has dampened those outdoor visits. Once, an older couple under the edge of their garage urged their pastor to head home when a downpour interrupted the conversation. Instead, Kerr grabbed his umbrella, sat back down and continued visiting.

“No, we don’t feel left out,” said Andy Hogan, 80, about not participating in the church’s online community. “It’s more of a time out.”

He and his wife, Jan, are content to use their phones for calls, texts and emails, not going live on video. Hogan, who aims to be a member well into his 90s, says he is very cautious about venturing into public arena.

Dave Ashbaugh said that he and other session members call members such as the Hogans each week to stay in touch. He and his wife, Sherry, “attend” worship every week. They download the bulletin and afterwards log onto Zoom, the video meeting service, for fellowship time with up to 25 households.

“We are more than ready to go back to church,” said Sherry Ashbaugh. “But Josh has provided a more than wonderful worship setting.”

That setting was hard-earned theologically and practically “I’ve been somewhat critical of online worship as a primary means of worship,” Kerr said. “My concern has been (the congregational) context in preaching.”

As the body of Christ, incarnational theology is a guide to being and doing “church” live if not in person, he said. Since March, First Presbyterian Church in Claremore has sprouted many new and renewed connections. Even after the pandemic subsides, Kerr is a big fan of continuing live worship broadcasts for people unable, hesitant or shy about attending in person.

Shane Whisler, Special to Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus:  Online Worship

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Carla Sutton, Presbyterian Foundation
Joe Tackett, Presbyterian Foundation

Let us pray:

Gracious God, we give thanks. Thank you for those who reach out to friends in need, demonstrating God’s gifts of hospitality and grace. Together may we be students and stewards of your Creation. Amen.

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