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Participation or Association

Due to COVID-19, we made the switch to online-only services in March of 2020. For months, we gathered the worship team and any weekend speakers to prerecord our worship services. Even after we resumed in-person services, we continued to prerecord our online services on Saturday night.

I often said during this time, “Aren’t you glad this isn’t 1985?” In other words, we are fortunate to live in a time where technology allows us to stay connected. We can watch a weekend service in our living room, attend a small group via Zoom, and enjoy countless other ways of communicating.

But I have to admit, it was a bit weird preaching to a camera and an empty room. The camera never blinks, nods in approval, or appears confused (all regular expressions of a live audience!).

In other settings, like recording our small group teaching material or shooting a promo video, speaking to a camera didn’t feel weird at all. When our spiritual formation pastor and myself recorded a series of classes for our Discovering Mountainview growth track, it felt normal.

What’s the difference?

A biblical worship environment is about participation with God and each other. It’s not simple vertical, though God is definitely the object of our worship. If worship were only vertical, then any mountain or beach would be fine as long as your focus was on God. You could worship by your solitary self and not bother with other people (don’t be tempted!).

The biblical picture of worship is both vertical and horizontal. Does worship create community or flow from community? Both – and that is why participation with others is vital to spiritual formation.

When we worship together, it creates a sense of connectedness – what Paul calls being a part of a body (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12). Worship reminds me that I am not alone … or independent. Through Christ, I am joined together with other believers and am part of a family.

Worship also flows from community. There have been many times when my own worship has been lifted and energized by watching others worship. When I see someone fully engaged in singing — and I know what struggles they are facing — it moves me in a way that simply listening to a song cannot do.

When preaching in a worship environment, the idea isn’t to transmit information but to help transform lives. There is the emotional connection between preacher and listener that is forged through eye contact. Not just them looking at me, but when I’m able to look at them. As a result of that momentary connection, I have adjusted words or my tone of voice or even added a sentence or two of encouragement.

At this point, you’re probably expecting me to say, “In person worship, good. Online bad.”

Not at all, and here’s why: worshiping in person is not a guarantee that a person will participate in worship. AND … worshiping online may allow a person to participate who otherwise would not have the opportunity.

While each medium (in person or online) has its own advantages and challenges, the key to effective worship in either environment is this:

Value participation over association.

Participation requires involvement, actively engaging with the prayers, the singing, and the message. Participation is being on the field, blocking and tackling. Association is watching from the stands. Sure, every now and then a fan might yell or stomp their feet. But it’s never the same as suiting up and playing the game.

In Philippians 1:5, Paul thanks the Philippians for their “partnership in the gospel.” The word for partnership is the same word elsewhere translated as fellowship or participation.

Whether a Christian worships online or in person, I never want that person to simply be a viewer. I want them to be a partner, to feel like a partner. When they carry the responsibilities of partnership, it changes their attitude.

We gather to worship not to write a Yelp review but to engage with the living God and fellow believers. When we view worship as simply a matter of association, it will be tempting to think in terms of having many stars we might give it. When it’s a matter of participation, it’s not just about me – by default, it includes others (most importantly, it includes God).

Fostering a sense of participation and fighting against mere association is an ongoing challenge. But it always has been. Online church hasn’t created this problem. It has certainly added a few new wrinkles, but the challenge of participation has always been a challenge.

Regardless of where or how you worship this weekend, may you seek to participate and not just associate.

Experience and Background

  • Professor at Warner University
  • masters in business administration (mba)
  • presenter at the WFX National Conference
  • former president, Church Planters of the Rockies
  • helped start 2 for-profit tech companies

Sermon Videos

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