An Oklahoma pastor and church session make online worship work by working at it
by Shane Whisler | Special to Presbyterian News Service
CLAREMORE, Oklahoma — 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.
The unconnected shall be first
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 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.
Worship is for participants, not spectators
“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.
The Rev. Shane Whisler is searching for good news from ministries throughout the Synod of the Sun that are making connections with their congregations and their community. Do you have an idea to share? Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Categories: Communication, Congregational Vitality, Faith & Worship, Matthew 25
Tags: bible study, coronavirus, covid-19, fellowship, first presbyterian church claremore oklahoma, online worship, rev. josh kerr, shane whisler, synod of the sun
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