July 9th: Adapting to New Moments
A recent denominational survey of churches found that, for more than half of us, attendance at worship has actually increased during the quarantine. This is not surprising. In spiritually trying times, people have an acute need for comfort and inspiration. We need to reconnect with community and to hear true hope in a world of shallow happy talk, magical thinking, and downright dishonesty. With our online worship-services, our churches have made it easier for them to find that word of hope.
Visiting a church in person can feel awkward and intimidating. For many, attending church feels like a risk. Some seekers wish to put their toes in the water of faith rather than taking a full baptismal plunge. Many people who grew up outside the church do not know our unwritten rules and codes of dress and behavior. We know they have nothing to fear. But if people are too scared to give it a try, how will they ever come to know? We might wish they would put in a little more effort, but at least to begin their pilgrimage, why erect barriers to entry? Our online worship services have offered that easy entry point to people who have spiritual need — a great blessing.
A number of churches have already decided to keep up their online ministry after the quarantine. Until then, we have an opportunity to practice these online skills. We can begin now to plan for post-COVID worship as a hybrid of online and in-person, building upon what we have learned. But we need to keep learning.
For example, I fear that if we simply put a camera on a stand in the back of the sanctuary and livestream a service that is designed for an in-person congregation, we will lose what we have gained. The camera at the back of the sanctuary makes everything look small and distant, while zoom has gotten us used to “up close and personal.” Or, if only those in the pews have the bulletin and the hymnal, how will those online fully participate? Online, we can put “amens” and prayer requests in the chat bar of our worship, sharing information “sideways” while participating “frontways” with the video stream. That is a gain. We have developed new, fruitful ways to share joys and concerns, to lift up points of emphasis, and to engage in true dialogue in worship. How will we come back to in person worship without losing these online advantages?
There are many ideas we can consider as we make our plans:
Post the bulletin for worship, including the hymns & songs, online and by email, so that both people present and people remote are working from the same material. Also, use the bulletin to form a powerpoint you can “share screen” during the service.
Dramatically increase WiFi capacity in the sanctuary, so that those present in person can have the same enriched experience as those present online. Instead of frowning on smartphones in worship, we could be using them to share the good news of what we are doing, posting our worship pictures in real time or starting the Sermon Talkback in the midst of the sermon. If the pastor is worried about what people are saying behind her back, she can have a tablet in the pulpit to see the running comments too.
Figure out ways to provide inexpensive tablets (as low as $50) to our most technologically challenged members, pre-loaded with apps and ready to go.
Upgrade video and sound equipment and tailor it to the needs of webcasting as much as to the needs of in person amplification. This may need help from AV professionals.
Devote a screen in the sanctuary to post the real-time comments from the chat bar or from text messages. This includes, of course, appointing a “digital moderator” for worship who can screen the messages for lurkers, zoom bombers, and other mischief.
Use any open time we get in the coming months to pre-record our musicians and dancers in performance in case of a return to quarantine this fall and winter. This might be particularly important for special worship services having to do with the holidays.
We need to start thinking and planning about this now. The region is designing ways to help. We have some resources to offer, and are searching for more.
Church Technology Grants: We are creating a second category of emergency relief grants for the upgrade of technology. We are offering grants of $1500 for unbudgeted online-ministry-related technology equipment, software, and services. These funds are not unlimited, but will be distributed according to looser requirements than govern the Emergency Relief Grants. Contact an ARM or Rev Gregg to request funds.
Online Ministry Consulting: Ms. Amber Naylor, our regional administrator has extensive experience with a number of online resources. She is available to consult with churches about online worship, social media presence, online donations, and other tech resources. Request support at firstname.lastname@example.org
#BingeWatchABCMC: As those of you present at the annual meeting saw, a number of our churches are doing innovative worship. Using this hashtag, you can do a quick survey of what other churches are doing and pick up new ideas in their practice.
Clergy Retreat: As I begin to plan our clergy retreat for this coming winter or spring (God willing!) I am thinking to center our continuing education component on the topic of hybrid worship, both online and in-person. I would welcome any suggestions you have about an expert we could enlist to help our learning and conversation.
The evangelistic genius of Christianity has always been in its powerful ability to adapt to new moments of history, new technologies, and new cultural opportunities. It was no mistake that the first printed book was Gutenberg’s Bible. Today, it is heartbreaking that the innovators in online messaging are political trolls and consumer product advertisers. These resources are available to us too. Now again we are discovering that our timeless Gospel can be communicated in many new ways.
Rev. David Gregg