Worship Online: Putting Up Walls that Make Disciples
By Lisa Hancock
In the first Worship Online article, we looked to the tabernacle (Exodus 25-40) to help us understand how a mundane tool like the internet can be used to create sacred space. Not unlike online and hybrid worship services that use Facebook and YouTube, the tabernacle is made of ordinary materials set apart for sacred purposes in the midst of the ordinary, everyday spaces of the Israelites’ lives. In our second Worship Online article, we considered the false assumption that online interactions are disembodied and anonymous, recognizing instead that online encounters and participation in worship are embodied, albeit differently than in-person or offline worship. Now we turn to consider:
How do we create sacred space online where embodied people can worship, connect, and grow in their faith?
Let’s look again at Exodus 40. After all the preparations are complete, God tells Moses it is time to set up the tabernacle. As Moses set about this task, he didn’t begin with the Ark of the Covenant or Aaron and Aaron’s sons who would serve as priests. The text tells us:
“In the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month, the tabernacle was set up. Moses set up the tabernacle; he laid its bases and set up its frames and put in its poles and raised up its pillars, and he spread the tent over the tabernacle and put the covering of the tent over it as the Lord had commanded Moses” (Exodus 40:17-19).
Moses began by putting up walls—not walls meant to keep people out but walls that delineate between the mundane and the sacred, between everyday activities and the worship of God. By themselves, the walls have no power or import. What the walls contain and make possible—in this case, the worship of God—gives the walls their meaning.
Whether we’re talking about the tabernacle or an online platform used to stream worship services, the “walls” we use to create space for worship function not as fortress walls keeping people out but as boundaries that give shape to the way we gather. In her writing about boundaries, shame researcher and world-renowned author Brené Brown writes that “boundaries are a prerequisite for compassion and empathy.” Healthy boundaries not only help us navigate our interactions with one another, but they do so in ways that encourage us to honor and connect with one another.
I had one of my first conscious experiences of this after I attended my first Chicago Cubs baseball game at Wrigley Field. I like to say I am a Chicago Cubs fan by marriage, or at least, I liked to say that up until the summer of 2015. As we rolled up to Wrigley Field, I was impressed not just by the stadium but by the atmosphere. Thousands of people were congregating on the north side of Chicago to do one thing—watch baseball together. By the end of a well-played game that the Cubs lost right at the end (to their rivals the St. Louis Cardinals, no less), I was a Cubs fan not just by marriage but in my own right. As we got on the bus to ride with other fans back to our cars, we found ourselves commiserating about the loss and talking about what a good game it was with fans from all over. There was a kinship in that bus that came from sharing in that time and space together.
But what would have happened if one of the fans had decided she didn’t want to be a fan anymore and jumped on the field to play shortstop instead? Or, what if none of the fans agreed to sit in their assigned seats and spent the whole game fighting over the seats behind home plate? Imagine if the players had decided they didn’t want to play by the rules anymore such that none of us knew who won or lost! That bus ride to our cars would no longer be a space of connection but of confusion, frustration, anger, and disappointment. The boundaries of the space and the game created the conditions for connection to occur, even when we were not fully aware of those boundaries at work. None of us questioned that we needed to sit in our assigned seats (even if we were waiting to see if someone would claim the empty seats five rows in front of us), and no one thought for a minute that their place was on the field instead of the stands. And even if you’re like me and you still ask questions about the rules, not a person would have been happy to come to a baseball game only to watch a croquet match. The rules—which are themselves boundaries—make the game fun!
The same is true of our churches. If we want our worship spaces to be marked by compassion, empathy, and kinship, then we need boundaries. While we have generations of boundaries and reworked boundaries around in-person worship and church activities, many of us are in new territory as we consider how to establish boundaries in online/hybrid worship spaces. Because of the differences between offline and online space, the boundaries delineated by the physical worshiping space do not always translate to the online worshiping space. For instance, when we gather in a sanctuary, having a conversation about the pastor’s sermon in real time with friends across the aisle causes a distraction for others who do not wish to participate in the conversation and prefer to listen intently to the pastor’s words. Yet when we gather online, conversations can happen in the comments section during the sermon or any other part of worship without inconveniencing others who do not wish to participate. In fact, commenting during the sermon may be encouraged as a form of participation for online congregants.
Because of the differences between offline and online space, the boundaries delineated by the physical worshiping space do not always translate to the online worshiping space.
So, how do we start putting up boundaries to delineate and set apart sacred online space? First, remember that, as in any other aspect of the church’s life, we do not do this work alone. Establishing boundaries to demarcate a church’s online space is a we endeavor. You need the input and backing of clergy and lay leadership to articulate boundaries and determine how your community will enforce those boundaries. Consider having a small group of leaders develop a draft that they then present to the administrative council for input and approval. As you gather a group to write the boundaries, incorporate people from all areas of the church’s life, including those who engage with the church’s online community on a consistent basis.
Further, as tempting as it might be to begin with a list of “don’ts,” the place to begin is mission. Whether your church has its own mission statement written for your particular context or uses the mission statement in The United Methodist Book of Discipline, how you articulate your church’s mission and purpose as a family in Christ influences how you serve God and create community together. When we let our mission guide the creation of boundaries in online and offline spaces, the boundaries support and nurture our identity and mission as the Body of Christ.
Allowing mission to guide the creation of boundaries also points to how boundaries are as much about what we do as what we don’t do in a space. Boundaries that focus solely on restriction do very little to create the conditions for meaningful relationships and community to form, even as some restriction is needed to help participants understand what is and is not acceptable in a particular space. To begin, then, ask: “What boundaries do we need to help us fulfill our mission? How can our boundaries contribute to making disciples for the transformation of the world? How can our boundaries reflect the values of our community? What virtues would we like to cultivate with our boundaries?” Helpful boundaries in online spaces invite us to be the best version of ourselves in our interactions with others.
To that end, setting boundaries also means preparing ahead of time for enforcement of those boundaries. Once boundaries have been approved by church leadership and clearly posted in online spaces, we must expect that those boundaries will be tested. For some, this will be unintentional, while others will be more overt in challenging the boundaries. By planning how to enforce boundaries in advance, church leadership can be proactive instead of reactive when someone inevitably crosses a boundary. How we enforce a boundary is part of discipleship. Proactive planning helps us respond to challenges to boundaries with grace and charity, while also remembering that firmness and consistency are part of being gracious and charitable with one another. We teach these virtues and values by living them with one another and correcting one another in love when we falter.
In addition, thinking through enforcement strategies can help clarify the boundaries themselves. For instance, let’s say your online boundaries subcommittee wants to add a boundary that no person can post a comment about cats. On the surface, this might appear to be a silly but not detrimental boundary. Yet, when you start thinking about enforcement of this boundary, you realize banning statements about cats means no one can post a prayer request about their cat or share spiritual insights they might have gained while caring for their cat. Or, what if the pastor uses a cat illustration in a sermon? Does that set a double standard between the online and offline space with regard to cat comments? Though a prohibition on all statements about cats is probably not a priority for most churches, notice how thinking about enforcement helps clarify the benefits and/or downfalls of a boundary.
For further inspiration about establishing boundaries for your online community, we recommend the following resources:
- “Courageous Conversations: Sample Guidelines” offers several examples of recommended guidelines that prepare a space for participants to have a courageous conversation about a controversial or difficult topic. Many of these guidelines are great starting points for creating helpful boundaries in online spaces, as well.
- “How to Create Community Guidelines (Examples + Template)” is written from a secular perspective and offers helpful tips on thinking through the goals of your online space and how community guidelines can help achieve those goals, as well as best practices for the creation and dissemination of community guidelines. Notice, too, how they use the language of “community guidelines” instead of “boundaries” and consider whether this is a more inviting way to present boundaries in your online space.
- “Our social media community guidelines” from the Church of England offers an excellent example of how to clearly state values, expectations, and approach to enforcement of community guidelines in an online space managed and maintained by a church.
As you, like Moses, prepare to put walls up to set apart online space for sacred purposes, remember that you are not alone. The walls or boundaries we put up in online space are not the object of our worship. We gather in online and offline spaces to worship the God who dwells among us, who nurtures and shapes us in community as we grow more and more into our identity as God’s people. The walls you erect create space that is safe and brave—the safety we need to form empathetic relationships and the bravery we need to grow as compassionate disciples. May you be blessed in the construction and erection of these walls, that they may house the holy and sacred work of worship and discipleship online and offline.
 Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Connection (New York: Random House, 2021), 128.
Dr. Lisa Hancock, Director of Worship Arts Ministries, served as an organist and music minister in United Methodist congregations in the Northwest Texas and North Texas Annual Conferences, as well as the New Day Amani/Upendo house churches in Dallas. After receiving her Master of Sacred Music and Master of Theological Studies from Perkins School of Theology, Lisa earned her PhD in Religious Studies from Southern Methodist University wherein she researched and wrote on the doctrine of Christ, disability, and atonement.