Justin Bishop currently serves as Associate Pastor of Heritage Fellowship (a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregation) where he leads worship and manages the church’s social media presence. He is pursuing his doctor of ministry degree at Mercer’s McAfee School of Theology where he also earned an MDiv. Justin taught high school English the north Atlanta area with his wife and two sons.
How did you come to write a book centered on the digital presence of worship? What were you hoping to achieve with your new book, Sensing God Online?
I began my Doctor of Ministry project to see if including sensory elements in worship “enhanced” the experience, but midway through the project, the COVID-19 pandemic made it necessary for our church to meet entirely online for over a year. So I began to think more about how to make worship in a digital arena more immersive. After all, when you’re sitting in church, your mind might wonder, but you are at least committed to the space for an hour or so. But if you’re just watching something on a screen, it becomes infinitely easier to become distracted. You can walk away or click away at any time, and because it “feels” different sitting in your pajamas in your easy chair vs. sitting in the pew in your Sunday best, you don’t experience the music and sermon in the same way on a screen vs. in-person. Can sensory elements overcome this obstacle? Does having something to hold…actually hold your attention?
I experimented with 4 special services during Lent and Holy Week to see how online worship might be enhanced by including more “sensory elements”–that is, things which can be seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled. Digital media actual makes it easier to improve the sight and sound because you can utilize pre-recorded material. For example, I obtained permission to use video clips from The Jesus Film Project and displayed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as the scripture was being read. As you can imagine, taste and smell are difficult to pull off, but I managed to prepare “worship packets” with food which were distributed prior to the broadcast of our Maundy Thursday Seder meal. What I hope to offer are creative ideas which might help small churches one a budget make the best use of digital media in order to take the authentic local church experience into an online arena. The pandemic made it necessary, but the result of the project was a revived live-streaming experience which we employ weekly. My experience as a high school video production teacher came in handy along the way, and I hope to offer practical advice in utilizing affordable technology.
What is the power of “sensing” in our various forms of worship? How do the senses make the “divine tangible, perceptible”?
Every Sunday, I walk to the back of the church and shake hands with congregants as they leave. We talk about all kinds of things during that brief interaction. It does not always happen, but some services end with several people telling me on the way out, “Wow! What a great service today!” or “I really felt the Spirit today.” I think the senses have something to do with creating this type of service. It’s hard to articulate what makes it different or better or more resonant with congregants, but you know it when you see it because you’ve felt it. God in those moments seems more real than ever. I grew up with hymns and a sermon in a Baptist church, so seeing and hearing were about the only senses employed. Then I went to my first Anglican service while studying abroad at Oxford University…wow! What a difference! I loved the beautiful stained glass windows, the ornate stone carvings on the wall behind the lecturn, the elaborate dress of the priest and choir, the smell of the incense in the air, the sound of the organ which could be felt as well, and the taste of real wine (a shock to my Baptist system!) when I actually had to get up and walk down front and kneel to take communion. It was sensory overload for me, and I loved it! But the traditional Baptist liturgy does not call for these elements on a weekly basis. So what can be included occasionally that enhances the service without disrupting the liturgical status quo? That’s what I offer in the book–ideas for what can be sensed in worship, even online!