Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Can a Relational Faith be Online?

For the first time in the almost four years that I have been actively preaching in Unitarian Universalist Churches, I presented a sermon at a church that podcasts its services… so there is now an audio of that sermon online. I have listened to the podcasted and streamed sermons of others for years, and I have kept the texts of my own sermons online for much of that time as well. (With the exception of a few that really did not need to be preached in the first place… we live and we learn).

I have a curious resistance to putting audio and video of worship and sermons on the web. It is curious, because I am, in most other ways, very technology focused. I was a church webmaster for many years. I ran an online discussion forum on Deism for many more years. I maintain Celestial Lands as a repository for my own writings and an online outreach for Unitarian Universalism and Liberal Faith. I sponsor the UU’s in the Military and UU Military Ministries websites. I think I own a total of 5 different domains, unless there are one or two I have forgotten about. I have been giving thought to how to build community between military UU’s using the internet for several years.

And yet, I have a curious resistance to putting audio or video of sermons on the web. Not just mine… anyone’s.

I realize that this resistance makes no rational sense, and so when the webmaster of Unity Temple asked if he could podcast my sermon, my response was “yes, of course”. But, I have learned that when I find such resistance to something in myself, it usually points to something valuable that I need to dig out.

Unitarian Universalism has been, and continues to be at the forefront of religions that use the internet to bring people to our churches. The number one response when churches ask visitors how they found their church is “the internet”. Almost every UU congregation has a website of some kind, and many of those websites are quite sophisticated. Many UU ministers maintain websites or blogs separate from their churches, and so do many lay Unitarian Universalists. There are even websites out there that specifically protest Unitarian Universalism! Depending upon their seriousness, they do a great favor for our liberal faith movement. “Ya ain’t nobody till somebody protests against ya!”

So, with my continuing love-affair with web design and technology, with my certainly being of the “internet generation” (even if I am one of its elders), and with my evangelical drive to share our saving faith… why do I continue to have a resistance to putting audio and video of worship on the web?

There is the obvious answer for someone who works for a church… I worry that if we put the worship service on the web then people will have less reason to get out of bed on Sunday morning and come to church. But I have found the obvious answer is rarely the real one for me, and that one seems to smack, just a little bit, of my old conservativism…

I think the key to this lies in the different experience I have had participating in the Sunday Morning Worship of General Assembly, the annual conference of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. In 2005 I attended that service in Ft. Worth, along with over 3000 of my fellow Unitarian Universalists. I was deeply moved by Rev. Robert Hardies’ sermon, which called us to catch fire for our faith. The music was uplifting, the readings were wonderful, and most importantly, I was in religious community with those around me. Together, we turned a concert hall and auditorium into a sacred space. I was not a consumer of the service, but an active participant in worship.

Move that one year ahead, to 2006. I was unable to attend General Assembly as I was deeply involved in my hospital chaplain internship (CPE) at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, TN. I had just completed an all night shift in the trauma bays, but not a busy one. I got breakfast, went to the office, turned on my computer, and watched the service online, while eating my breakfast.

Now, admittedly, I should have entered into the service in a more sacred way that having my breakfast. I should have made some sacred space for myself before turning on the computer… but how likely is that? If I, a seminary student and chaplain did not think about that, how likely is anyone else too? I remember little to nothing about the service in 2006… but the service the year before profoundly affected me. That is not a critique of the service, but of my level of personal participation in it.

What is important in our worship is not the words spoken, or the music sung. What is important is that it happens in sacred community, touching each other both physically and spiritually in sacred ways. What is important is that it is time, taken out of our busy lives, that we are together to experience our shared humanity. What is important is that we are willing to risk relationship to find relationship.

What is important is that we are together… and I don’t see how we are ever really together through computer screens and keyboards. Used in this way, the internet does not facilitate real relationship, but is a crutch that keeps us from having to find real relationship.

Others will disagree with me… and I am not advocating taking sermons and worship off the web. I have been following the progress of the First UU Church of Second Life with some fascination, as, even more than the Church of the Larger Fellowship, they are attempting to create real relationship in a virtual environment. I am doubtful of their success, but willing to admit I could be wrong… we will see.

No, what I am advocating is that, when we place such worship and sermons on the web and online, that we do so in ways that encourage people to get out of bed on Sunday morning and come to church, to enter into real, personal relationship with their faith and with those who share it. I think this must be done intentionally, and that we should place such online sermons and worship materials in our “newcomer’s” section… not in a form of “online chapel”. Perhaps we should wait a week before a sermon is posted…or a month. Perhaps the sermons should also be rotated on a regular basis.

If we are providing full services for those who physically can not attend our services, then let’s put them in password controlled sections of our websites, so that those who can not attend can still have at least some connection to the service, and then let us find ways to bring the relational aspects of our faith to them outside of Sunday morning.

Perhaps the newcomer’s section of a church website could have one podcast of a whole worship service, so they can experience a little of what one is like… but each week only put up the sermon (a week later). Information on attending a service should be in each podcast.

These are just some ideas of what a faithful and responsible online worship outreach might look like for a church… because the true power of worship in our free faith cannot be digitized and sent over the web… the feeling of sacred community, of loving relationship, of care and trust, of compassion, of commitment, of purpose. All of that you can only feel when you enter the worship space with your physical, not your virtual self.

Yours in Faith,


3 Thoughts on “Can a Relational Faith be Online?

  1. It is certainly your right as a preacher to decide on the context you want others to hear your words. But I do have to share a particular perspective in which I am very grateful that some minister friends of mine have decided to share their words via the internet. Listening to their sermons on podcast is very sacred time for me and helps me to stay connected to a community I was once a part of, but have moved away from geographically. I have found myself in tears or laughing out loud, or deeply inspired while listening to a sermon on podcast given by the ministers of my former congregation. I feel that a community that once supported me is still with me on my spiritual journey; this has not hindered me from making new connections in a new church, but helps me to recognize that the circle of community is wider than geographical limits might allow. Sometimes when people can’t be together physically, technology can offer us a piece of that connection.

  2. I have found myself in tears or laughing out loud, or deeply inspired while listening to a sermon on podcast given by the ministers of my former congregation. I feel that a community that once supported me is still with me on my spiritual journey; this has not hindered me from making new connections in a new church,

    Thank you for your comment… you raise the issue that is at the heart of why I am still looking for a way to do this kind of online worship sharing in a healthy way, instead of not doing it at all. You have been an active part of congregational life. You are still an active part of congregational life. Therefore, you are able to use these online worship media to supplement your congregational involvement, not supplant it. My concern is not that you can interact with online worship opportunities in a healthy way, but rather that for those who do not have a continuing congregational connection these media can prevent them from finding one.

    I’m still quite conflicted in my thoughts on this, as I hope the article showed. I hope that more people engage with me on this idea… I think that having worship materials presented online can be done… but we have to give some serious thought as to how to do it in healthy ways, both for individuals and for our congregations.

    Yours in Faith,


  3. Hello! Thanks for your thought-provoking post. I agree completely that nothing can compare with being physically present at a worship service. For me, my worshipful intention begins in the shower on Sundays when I make sure to use fragrance-free shampoo and soap in honor of those with chemical sensitivities.

    My church does live stream our Sunday services, which is great when one is homebound or out of town. After that, only the sermon is available via audio — and the sermon is such a tiny part of the entire worship experience! There is really no comparison between listening to a sermon online and being present for the entire Sunday morning experience.

    The one time it was very important for me to have access to our live webstream was when it snowed a lot a Sunday morning a few years back. My spouse and I decided to take the bus to church, but the bus service was cancelled. At that time, my church did not have a snow policy (we have one now!), so our associate minister walked in and preached a shorter service to an empty room. It was so meaningful, because the first thing he did was invite us to get our home chalices and light them while he lit the one at church. Once we had our chalice flame, that worship service became real to me.

    A member who moved far away makes these live webstreams real by printing the order of service, propping up our photo directory and singing along with all the hymns. It isn’t the same by any means, but it makes her feel connected.

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