When the coronavirus lockdowns first hit, churches scrambled to live stream their services. In April of 2020, microphones, cameras, mixers, and computer HDMI adapters were either impossible to find online or prohibitively expensive. Most churches went on to figure things out and live streaming became commonplace, but how useful have they been in strengthening the faith of the flock? From my experience, live streaming the Divine Liturgy hurts more than helps.
I was in charge of setting up live streaming for my Armenian church before joining ROCOR in May 2021. The task was more complicated than my home setup because, for the Armenian Liturgy, there were four different locations that needed a microphone: the priest, the deacons around the altar, the reader in front of the altar, and the choir pit. In a complicated setup that involved dozens of feet of microphone wire, I ended up using two mixers, five microphones (including two wireless microphones), one camera, and one computer running Streamlabs software.
Once our live stream was up and running, I began to receive many thanks from the community for allowing an average of 20-50 people each week to watch the Liturgy from home in decent quality. I felt like I had done a good deed, and was proud of myself, but in hindsight I realize that I may have inadvertently damaged the spiritual development of the parish.
The first sign I knew something was off was when my Armenian mother remarked that she kept the live stream running in the background while cleaning the house and doing laundry (she did not regularly come to church with me). She never made comments on the priest’s sermon, but instead asked me questions about who the tall man was, or who the lady in the hat was. During the live stream itself, I saw comments in the chat of people asking me who was singing in the choir. There were also complaints about the sound or video. “It’s not loud enough!” “I hear static in the background!” The first thought in my mind when I encountered them was, “If you want high quality, you should come to church!” There were some individuals who did not come for many months on end but would often watch at home.
Attendance was heavily depressed for a year. There were many people who watched the live stream but stopped coming in. Unless they met with the priest privately, they did not confess their sins sacramentally through the Armenian Church’s public confession process, they did not receive the Eucharist, they did not participate in communal prayer, and they did not receive spiritual guidance. The live stream was the excuse that allowed them to stay home and still feel that were close to the church. Instead, they were deepening their dependence on technology and the comfort of an easy Christianity where their fears and anxieties about a pandemic were indulged, and I say this not only of the Armenian parish I was in, but all Christians who may have used live streams as a pretext to stay home instead of claw tooth and nail into the church to heal their souls by taking the Body and Blood of our Savior and then participating in fellowship afterward.
Does the live stream hurt the faith or does it merely reveal those who are lukewarm? I would guess a bit of both, but if the live stream wasn’t available, at least those who are lukewarm would feel a tinge on their conscience that they should be in the church. With the live stream, however, they can rationalize their lack of attendance by watching the Liturgy on their phones and deceive themselves that they are an active Christian who is “close” to their parish.
A couple of days after I was received into ROCOR at the monastery in Jordanville, New York, I caught a cold. I asked my godfather, a monk, if I could still attend the Liturgy even though I was sick. He replied, “You need the Liturgy even more when you are sick!” And are we not only sick in body but also in soul, in need of continual healing and grace? I can think of very few valid excuses to ever miss the Divine Liturgy on Sunday. To believe that an electronic simulacrum of the Liturgy can be a suitable substitute is the height of folly.
The parish I currently go to does not have a live stream. Not coincidentally, it’s usually packed, and sometimes I hardly have enough space around my body to do the sign of the cross without whacking the person beside me. I don’t go to Church to feel spiritual, or to be a Christian for only a couple of hours, but to participate in the healing sacraments and draw nearer to God. I go to engage in dialogue with my fellow Christians in a state of post-Communion grace, which I certainly cannot do from home.
If the current head of my parish asks me to set up a live stream, I would probably obey, but first I would warn him that it will likely decrease church attendance, enable a lukewarmness of spirit, hurt fellowship, and for some, trivialize how they view the sacraments, because if you really believed that the Body and Blood of Christ come forth from the chalice, how could you miss it because of the fear of catching what for most people is no worse than a cold? I had one whole year while in the Armenian Church to witness how live streaming ultimately bore no fruit that I could discern, and should be rejected by Christians as a suitable means of worshipping our Lord God.
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