I’m afraid I’ve lost my ability to worship in church.

It started innocently enough. I got to school early in middle school, a product of riding with my parents, who were teachers. The eighth grader who ran sound for chapel saw me loitering and asked if I wanted to learn. He taught me the basics, little more than “this knob makes it loud,” but one thing he was sure to impart was that even while running sound, I was still a part of worship. Everyone could see us off to the side, so we were sure to stand to sing and bow our heads when praying.

The line between work and worship got a little more muddled in high school. I still ran sound for chapel, but the board was behind everyone and separated by a window, a border in between participants and facilitators. I also started volunteering at church. I liked it and they needed more volunteers, so it felt like the least I could do. I was using my God-given gifts and talents to help people worship, and it felt good. The moments when something went wrong in the middle of a service and I fixed it created an unequaled adrenaline rush.

When the pandemic arrived, my church didn’t jump to livestream immediately. Instead we published hour-long videos assembled from archived recordings of congregational singing, our pastors preaching to a camera, and various members assisting with other pieces of the service. I was one of two people who assembled these videos, which drastically diminished my capacity to worship through them. It’s hard to worship when you know everything that’s going to happen from the moment your family hits play. It’s also hard to worship while mentally taking notes on ways to improve for next week, or when your family looks at you when there are tech problems with the video even though it wasn’t your week to edit. At the same time, I didn’t feel like I could stop editing, because there was only one other person doing it, and it seemed selfish to stop. You’re supposed to share the things you’re good at with the Church.

I’d be tempted to write off these faults as unique to me if I hadn’t seen them exhibited by other tech workers. Once I attended a retirement lunch with two of my former supervisors and watched them mentally solving the audio problems plaguing the mic setup when they should have been enjoying a delicious meal and celebrating a colleague. I don’t know how pastors and worship coordinators do what they do every week without it losing the luster.

When my church did move to livestream, they asked me to join the team. Everyone else working toward it was burned out by that point, and again, I didn’t feel like I could say no. Every week I built a cue sheet detailing exactly how everything would flow from the camera angles to the archived recordings of congregational singing (because we still couldn’t sing) to when the powerpoint would be shown. With each successive week the love for what I was doing lessened. The worship became work.

I don’t begrudge my church for this. Churches are built on the service of members, be they musicians, nursery attendants, coffee servers, or youth group leaders. I’d think everyone who participates week after week experiences the same feeling of loss, but I don’t see conversations about it. It feels like a taboo topic, particularly because it’s about things happening in the place of worship.

Amidst this loss, I’ve sought out other ways to worship, and I’ve found it most consistently on the edge of my comfort zone. When I started looking for new ways to worship, I went on a hike in the woods, and was able to connect with God through creation in a new way. The more I do that, the less it works. Maybe I know those particular woods too well. An unexpected activity I’ve found sacred is cooking. Preparing a meal helps me feel connected to creation, especially using fresh produce from the garden. This is particularly true if I’m trying a new recipe or preparing a meal for others.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to experience worship in a church again for a while. Attending a church where I don’t work has helped, but I feel the urge to ask about helping to run sound. If I don’t volunteer, I feel selfish or like I’m hoarding my gifts, but if the cost of helping others worship is my own ability to participate, is it worth it?

3 Comments

  1. James

    Thank you, Sam, for expressing so well something I have experienced. God is pleased with our sacrifice, I think, but I wish we had churches that did not need it. Maybe the answer is simply less production.

    Reply
  2. Alex Johnson

    Did I ghost-write this? I still can usually get into the worship groove these days when I’m running sound or Powerpoint, but sometimes it is hard, and I feel you on the early pandemic video editing!

    Gifts are given for a reason, but there’s also a reason that the Sabbath was written in the law. It’s hard to balance in an imperfect institution like the church, but I guess we just have to keep trying.

    Reply
  3. Karen

    I know the feeling. Once I asked a pastor friend if he was able to worship while leading worship. He gave me some good advice: it helps to keep the goals in mind – not production or performance, but connection with God and with fellow congregants (even that word, instead of “audience” helps me remember that I’m supporting corporate worship, not putting on a show). I also find it very helpful to be part of a team that takes turns, so we’re not all leading/producing every week.

    Reply

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