As vaccine dissemination makes us more hopeful about a return to some normalcy in our worshiping communities, one of the persistent questions has been how the paradigm of “normal” will change. The small church that I serve has not met in person since March 11, 2020. We didn’t know until March 13, 2020 that we were moving to online streaming. The learning curve was steep and I was thankful that I had the good luck to marry a techie guy and give birth to a kid who sings a nice soprano in the two-person choir.
I also have the good luck to be in touch with college friend, Dr. Paul Djupe, Political Science professor at Denison University in Ohio, who conducted a survey in late October (with approximately 1,800 respondents) about online worship presence among churches. Djupe reports 35% of attenders said their congregation offered worship services online before the pandemic. (By religious tradition, 32.5% of mainline Protestants, 39% of denominational Evangelicals, 51% of non-denominationals, 30% of Black Protestants, and 32% of Catholics were providing online worship opportunity before the pandemic.) 61% reported their congregation offered online worship during the pandemic, including 70% of mainline Protestants, doubling their online presence.
That’s a huge change very quickly (which in itself is unusual for churches) and, I suspect, one that will stick. What’s become clear from live-streaming worship out of necessity is that (1) it’s opened the door for wider inclusion to the worshiping body and (2) it’s here to stay.
Since my small church has not had internet access or wifi (and previously didn’t need it), I’ve been streaming services out of my dining room the last year, thankful to have a piano and pianists willing to mask up and come inside. But once we’ve safely returned to in-person worship, besides figuring out the equipment (which is apparently the new toilet paper), there are many questions related to how this will change our paradigm of worshiping community—not to mention how we will fill out our parochial reports. The following discussion list is compiled with thanks from church folks around the country who provided input.
- Though it’s hard to discern from analytics how many people engage in online worship from prelude to postlude versus 20-second drop-ins, many of us have noticed our online numbers are higher than our in-the-pew numbers before the pandemic. Is that because people are searching for meaning and community during a pandemic and time of unrest or is it because they like sitting in their jammies on the couch drinking coffee? When the pandemic is completely over, what happens if healthy, mobile, near-by members prefer to worship online instead of in-person?
- How does it change our sense of community to have regular online worshipers that the rest of the corpus might not ever meet? Joining my streaming worship are relatives and friends of myself and members, former members who have moved away, and other people with no obvious connection. Are we cheating local churches out of potential members or sheep stealing in a new way? Or during this time of declining church affiliation, should we consider it a win for evangelism if people are attaching to a church at all?
- When I preach at my little church, I’m preaching to people I know and love. Tackling tough and timely subjects in sermons is something I’m known for doing, but it feels very different preaching to people who know you, disagree with you, and love you anyway than putting those sermons online for trollers to catch. Will our prophetic word dissipate from fear of pushback?
- A few clergy friends have stated that there are important differences between in-person and online worship, thus they should be differentiated. Should we consider people not present in person as “watching” worship or “worshiping”? This gets especially complicated around Holy Communion. For ELCA congregations guided by The Use of the Means of Grace, the meal is to be shared at the fellowship of believers, so many of us have been abstaining from communion. What are the ramifications for having a section of our worshiping body that isn’t communing? Most churches have what we previously considered a low bar for membership—communing or giving annually. What happens when some of our members are permanently worshiping with us out of state or overseas?
- How will we manage privacy concerns? Praying for a parishioner’s delicate conditions in your faith community is inherently not the same as broadcasting it to the entire earth. If there’s one camera, is it close to the worship participants or showing the gathered congregation? Are children’s sermons broadcast online?
- Similarly, announcement time at my little church can feel like conversation among friends. Do we keep our witty banter if it’s confusing to those who aren’t physically present and can only hear one side?
- Some clergy are pre-recording a worship service apart from “regular” worship. Most of us don’t have a lot of extra time, so what gets cut from the schedule?
- Since having at least a few members not be able to worship in person year-round is universal, why weren’t more of us providing online access before?
- One pastor noted we may be creating a competitive worship environment. When parishioners worship online with a congregation with very different resources and wonder why we can’t do that at our church, then what?
- Many church budgets went red when stewardship decreased as parishioners experienced financial hardships. How much financial investment is necessary for quality video and sound? How important is a quality “production?” Will clergy and worship leaders risk becoming entertainers? Do I need to start wearing make-up?
- I’ll sin boldly here and add one more: when a stomach bug has taken up residence in-house and I rise like Lazarus to preach Sunday morning with absolutely nothing to say, are previous desperate measures like pulling a homily from the Greatest Hits file off limits? Or as one friend noted, is the habit of utilizing former parishioners or church situations as sermon illustrations done forever? Come to think of it, who can we use as sermon illustrations anymore?
It’s a lot of questions. And at this point in our unique time, we don’t yet have the answers. But, like the Hebrews standing on the edge of the sea, we’ll find out soon enough. Keep the conversation going with your congregation, think through these questions together, and be excited that you get to lead the way into how the future church will reflect the love of Christ in new ways for a new era.