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!
One of the elements that spoke to me in Sensing God Online is that the book “explores ways to facilitate the authentic divine encounter through digital means.” How is it possible to create and recognize an authentic connection online, let alone a divine encounter?
During the pandemic when we were entirely online, I began using a phrase at the beginning of worship: “Now let us pause and breathe deeply. Allow the space around you to become holy.” This communicates something which we often take for granted without realizing–we are always in the presence of God, but what we lack is the awareness (Richard Rhor). Ironically, to worship “online” puts us in the company of the mystics, the contemplative church fathers (and mothers) who frequently left the busyness and noise of society behind in order to more easily hear from and commune with God. They did so in nature, and frequently in silence and darkness. In my Doctor of Ministry project, participants (and church members!) were encouraged to take action rather than simply “watching” the service. For example, on Good Friday, I took cues from the ancient Tenebrae service and asked viewers to turn off all lights while watching the video. I distributed electric candles prior to the event, and viewers were instructed to have only the candles lighting the room as they watched the story of Jesus’ journey to the cross. At each “station of the cross,” they would then extinguish a candle, the service ending with a few moments of total silence and darkness. According to the participants, the action required of them and the immersive darkness really focused their attention and senses. This is one very specific example for one day of the Christian year, but the book offers other practical ideas which can be employed on an ongoing basis during church live-streams which I sense are become the norm in our post-pandemic lives.
You mention a variety of methods a congregation can use to reclaim all five senses, what would be your top recommendations as elevator pitch to hesitant churches?
Communion. I realize there are reasons churches do it with various practices and frequencies, but if you want to involved all five senses in worship, have communion as often as possible (my church does it about 8 times per year), and make it involve as much participation as possible. There’s something that engages more of the worshiper if they are required to stand and walk forward and tear off a piece of bread and dip it in the juice vs. picking it up off a plate being passed. The pandemic has made this more difficult, but be creative. It’s worth it.
For worship leaders, subtle cues in your language can transform practices which you already do. Introduce the hymns and say “Let us now lift our voices in praise as we sing…” When you pray and preach, talk about where you’ve seen and felt and heard God. They will start to sense it as well. The occasional object lesson offers a point of focus as well. For Ash Wednesday, we distributed clay for online worshipers to mold throughout the service, and one participant said, “As I shaped that clay cross with my own hands, it gave me a different feeling of responsibility.”
As with any progress, there are fears and challenges to such changes as facilitating an ongoing digital presence. What are the biggest challenges facing congregations as the pandemic continues and then, what if it possibly ends?
Cost and technical expertise are the biggest barriers to maintaining an online presence, but in the book I offer a solution which has my church live-streaming with multiple cameras and professional sound quality for under $1,000. What used to cost a fortune and required a small army to run can now be accomplished by one person with a $350 iPad.
What was the most meaningful or surprising experience you had in the process of writing Sensing God Online? How did the pandemic shift your thought and writing processes?
The more I researched and discovered a rich history and variety of practices throughout Christianity’s existence, the more I began to see a unified whole–while we are all different and have different worship “tastes” (just as our taste buds prefer different “tastes” while the food remains the same), we are all doing our best to worship God out of our lived experience. I find it brilliant that God’s presence might find it’s way into such a diverse collection of worship practices. I used to search for the “right way” to worship, but now I see that it is I who needs to get in the right mindset for worship, which the pandemic proved can happen anytime, anywhere–not just inside a church building on a Sunday morning.
Outside of your ministry, how do you enjoy spending your time?
My love of music extends beyond church music. I am an avid guitarist, and I love learning new pieces which challenge my skills. And because I made so many videos for church during the pandemic, I started a guitar YouTube channel where I share some of my knowledge.
Finally, how would you recommend we, as a people of faith, encourage and develop our creativity in connecting with God, our congregations, and our neighbors?
I’ve heard it said that within church life, “the only thing worse than something new is doing the same old thing!” I think it’s possible to be innovative without abandoning the traditional spirit and practices which you are used to. If the entire service (the space, the music, the content, etc.) looks different, that’s disruptive and does not enhance the experience. But if one element is slightly different and creative (a dramatic reading of scripture vs. one person reading it, for example), that calls all senses to attention and increases engagement, ultimately enhancing the overall experience. So start with small creative changes to what you already do. And now that so many more churches have an online presence, don’t be afraid to look to some of your neighboring churches for ideas and inspiration. There’s no use reinventing the wheel!