“Online worship has deepened Saint Paul’s connection with one another in profound ways.”
That’s how Dr. Casey Sigmon, Assistant Professor in Preaching and Worship, and Director of Contextual Education, describes our weekly virtual chapel services at Saint Paul School of Theology. Services take place on Mondays from 11 to 11:45 a.m. Central time.
Before the advent of online worship, congregations would worship separately on two different campuses, one in Kansas and the other in Oklahoma.
“But now,” Sigmon explains, “the whole seminary can worship together. Oklahoma students with Kansas students, yes, and our growing body of remote students as well!”
Bridging the Gaps of Time and Distance
Virtual worship brings us closer to God across the miles. Services are led by Sigmon, who also serves as Chapel Coordinator for the Kansas campus, and Rev. Jen Logsdon-Kellogg, Chapel Coordinator for Oklahoma. Each week, worshippers receive a Zoom link through the Campus Messenger student newsletter. Previous services are available for viewing through the Saint Paul YouTube Channel, as well as on our Facebook page.
“Online worship has given us an opportunity to gather with people who are physically distant, find new ways to be present to one another and collaborate together in creating and holding sacred space in a digital format,” says Logsdon-Kellogg.
Interactive media give us the tools and resources to enlarge our faith community in new ways and extend the invitation to worship beyond traditional boundaries. Logsdon-Kellogg believes that online worship represents “a reflection of the way God is constantly expanding the circle of grace beyond the boundaries we imagine.”
Sigmon further notes how participants from multiple time zones take part in each service during this holy time. “I think online worship has strengthened the connection of our community not only through COVID times but through our growth away from an exclusively residential student body.”
Crafting a Unique Worship Experience
“First and foremost, people can expect to worship God,” Sigmon says when describing online chapel services. “Our leaders are very intentional about holding sacred space for the gathered community to pause, breathe, and pray.”
Each service features a different guest preacher and is planned by a worship design team that includes Sigmon and Logsdon-Kellogg, along with Morgan Harrison and Cortney Lemke.
Guest preachers come from across the country, often including alumni who otherwise would not have the chance to connect with the Saint Paul community. “We do our best to listen to what the Living Word is stirring in them,” Sigmon explains, “so that we can design a liturgy that flows with the core message from beginning to end.”
The worship team designs the service around the scripture and message the guest preacher feels inspired to give. The result is that each service has its own “flavor,” with components customized to reflect that core message, according to Logsdon-Kellogg.
“Each new voice that is invited to preach or lead worship in our virtual sanctuary brings a unique message of God’s good news,” she observes. “This diversity of worship style and message also helps us to think creatively about leading worship in our own settings, whether as current or future clergy, or professional theologians who serve in lay leadership.”
Finding Faith in a Variety of Ways
Each online service includes a time of centering, liturgy, the proclamation of the Word and an opportunity to respond. Worshippers encounter the Holy and spend time in community with fellow students, faculty and staff. They also hear a message that was thoughtfully crafted by the worship team and the preacher listening deeply to the Spirit.
“We encourage a variety of preaching and worship styles,” Logsdon-Kellogg explains, “so the experience varies week to week.”
For example, sometimes the music is live, and sometimes it is recorded. Services may combine traditional hymns with more contemporary pieces. At other times, the worship team will choose a secular song with a relevant message.
Scripture readings may be live, recorded in various voices or even accompanied by visual imagery. Preaching styles also vary, from traditional sermons to interactive conversations to spoken word poetry.
Navigating Challenges for Learning & Growth
New forms of worship require new skills.
Flexibility and a willingness to learn are key when navigating the virtual realm. “It takes time and experimentation to master the various hardware and software components,” Logsdon-Kellogg notes. “No matter how much testing we do ahead of time, glitches still catch us off guard.”
She warns against getting discouraged when those glitches take place. Every so-called “failure” is an opportunity to learn and grow in one’s own proficiency and in our reliance on the Spirit and the community.
To that end, Sigmon is currently writing a textbook on the subject of online worship. One example she offers is how a liturgist should pray from a script: “If our prayer posture is to close our eyes and bow our heads you as the leader should have the text down where your keyboard is located and not read the prayer from a doc file on your device’s screen.”
She also points to managing the challenges of congregational singing due to the lag time that is common with online connections. Sigmon recommends appointing readers and asking other participants to remain muted during the service. Because worshippers cannot all hear one another, “It’s an ocular intimacy rather than auditory.”
Sigmon always switches to the gallery view on Zoom during songs in order to see the community singing and engaging with the service in different ways.
One last lesson Sigmon offers? “Less is more online. We are weary from screen time. An hour is too long to sit still.”
To that end, faith leaders should streamline the liturgy and invite participation. Adding visuals to scripture readings also helps to break up the Zoom box space.
All who are interested in joining the Saint Paul community for online worship are encouraged to check our Campus Messenger or Saint Paul Connection newsletters for Zoom information. You can sign up to receive the Saint Paul Connection newsletter at https://app.donorview.com/Pq5ln. If you have questions, please reach out to Rev. Dr. Casey Sigmon at firstname.lastname@example.org or Rev. Jen Logsdon-Kellogg at email@example.com.
Finally, Sigmon offers a special invitation:
“If any of you reading this have wisdom to share, please reach out to me or Jen so that you can be a guest preacher in chapel! Location is no longer a limitation! We would love to collaborate with you.”