Is watching livestreamed Sunday services in response to COVID-19 considered worship? If the foremost authority on worship Robert E Webber is correct, not necessarily. If livestreaming is to replace the Sunday service, it must be an intentional act of worship.
Webber defines four acts to worship.  We must: 1) enter into God’s Presence; 2) hear God speak; 3) respond with thanksgiving; and 4) be dismissed to love and serve. Most people who make effort in preparing to come to church and attend a worship service generally – though not always – make effort to go through each of these stages.
So why isn’t listening to a livestream Sunday service considered worship?
Many people watching a Sunday service livestream may not have taken the first step to enter into God’s presence. From anecdotal evidence, some wake up a few minutes beforehand on Sunday morning in their pajamas and turn on their computer. Then as they are watching the live feed, they are preparing and eating their breakfast. The danger of the prolonged use of livestreamed services is that our relationship with God becomes casual. Worship is no longer transcendent, but a side dish to Sunday morning breakfast.
If the livestreamed Sunday service is to remain an act of worship, then we must intentionally make effort to enter into God’s presence, give our full attention to God speak, then respond with thanksgiving and commit to loving and serving the world. Worship is a ritual process in which we must step out of the routine and enter into a liminal period where we are pliable and receptive to the work of the Holy Spirit. Only when we enter the liminal state can we there be transformation (see W. Jay Moon, Intercultural Discipleship: Learning from Global Approaches to Spiritual Formation, 2017).
So how do we do this? Singapore doesn’t have many disruptions to the schedule, but living in the US, there are times where we need to cancel service in the winter when there are heavy snows. In such situations, my family will either listen or watch a pre-recorded sermon or watch a livestream worship service. With our four children, we made effort to make that Sunday morning not just a mundane “snow day,” but something “extra-ordinary.”
On those Sundays, I’d wake up early to make pancakes, a treat usually reserved for holidays or birthdays. The smell of the griddle, bacon, and hot chocolate fill the house and serve to beckon my children out of their slumber. We have a good time to fellowship around the table, enjoying the special day where we are not rushed and could leisurely spend time with each other. Then, about half an hour before we gather to listen to the sermon or watch the livestream, we still go through the process of brushing teeth, getting changed, and then gathering together. We don’t need to be dressed in our Sunday best, but we do change out of our pajamas. We are, after all, entering into God’s presence. If listen to a sermon, everyone sits quietly in the living room. Kids aren’t allowed to lie down or play with their toys because we want to be respectful as God is present in our midst. If we are watching a live stream, then we will follow the worship leader to stand up and to sit down. Even in our living room, we are participating in – not just watching – service. Afterwards, we have a short time to ask each of them, “What did you learn?” and spend a short time to pray together. As we carry out each of these actions, in our home, we are able to follow through the four acts of worship.
If one is single, one still must go through the preparation to enter into God’s presence. Finish your meal, get dressed, then spend ten to fifteen minutes meditating on a psalm or other Scripture passage. Preparing physically and mentally as if we are going to church ensures that our heart, mind, and body are in the right state to worship God.
So as many churches are livestreaming – or have to livestream should we go to DORSCON Red – to ensure that we are immersed in the acts of worship during this time where we cannot do so by physically going to church, let us make effort to prepare for and walk through the four ritual acts of worship. It may require some extra work on Saturday night to get some goodies for the family – or yourself – and it may mean an hour or so less sleep, but let’s remember whose presence we are entering.
Sure, Jesus is always with us even if we are in our pajamas and as we munch on our breakfast. But then He’s just a bystander, not the focus of our attention.
If, however, we make effort to give Jesus all our attention, He will surely bless us by speaking to us to the extent that we will break forth with thanksgiving and a desire to love and serve Him. This is the promise that the apostle Paul writes about in Philippians 4:6-7. When the Lord is at hand because we have made effort to intentionally enter into his presence, we will not be anxious about anything, not even COVID-19, but with thanksgiving, knowing that He is present and hears us, can live in God’s peace daily.
 See Robert E. Webber, Blended Worship: Achieving Substance and Relevance in Worship, 1996).