As Christians we believe that out of death has come new life. This is what we are celebrating during these easter weeks. However due to Coronavirus our celebrations have been very different, we have not been ‘in Church’. However I would comment that you have been ‘in church’ it’s just that you have not been in a church building.
At the beginning of the current lockdown we would have been hard-pressed to believe that out of this terrible pandemic new life could arise for churches. Yet that’s exactly what’s happened. Take church buildings, for example. Their size, shape and cost have shaped worship, ministry and mindsets for millennia. They have been both a blessing and a burden.
But once church buildings had to shut down, congregations found something quite surprising. People were suddenly freed of the constraints of their buildings, and the nature and scope of worship changed.
Throughout my ministry I have found that the most powerful group in any church has been the Property Committee and with its close friend, the Finance Committee, the maintenance of a building has become the de facto ministry the church, a concept Bishop Robert Schnase of the UMC calls a shadow mission. (‘Just Say Yes’ – Robert Schnase, Cokebury Press, 2016). When our buildings control our ministry, it can be difficult to break free of historical precedents. The ghosts of worshippers past (and present!), as much as the structure of the building, play a part in reinforcing the ‘we always do it this way’ attitude of many congregations.
But the coronavirus has done for many churches what they could not do for themselves. Not only have congregations been forced out of their buildings, the size and scope of worship has changed. Congregations are now moving from building-based worship to relationship-based worship.
Worship has become a distributed experience, and is no longer centralised in one building, worship is being reinvented. Whether we are worshipping with, emailed orders of worship, pre-recorded videos, Facebook Live, or in some other fashion, worship takes on a new feel. Instead of being solely building-based, worship can become both more intimate, more immediate and more geographically dispersed.
All of a sudden, it’s no longer the building that gives shape to worship, but the relationships. Those relationships include both person-to-person and person-to-divine relationships.
Worship has become more interactive. Often there will be a comments screen alongside the live link where people share greetings, comment on the message, offer prayers as the service progresses and they share them with all attending not just mutter to those next to them.
Worship is more authentic. When you livestream worship, gone is the distance between the pulpit and the pew. The immediacy of a camera means the message must be more authentic, and more relevant, to connect with people. Especially people whose experience of accessing and processing information is based around technology.
The shutdown of churches has forced rapid changes on congregational life. There is no guarantee that these changes will automatically translate into permanat culture changes in the life of the church. In fact when the lockdown is lifted there will be a major pushback from those who feel they have lost control of ‘their’ church during this period. How do we intentionally transform these quick shifts into positive, sustainable culture changes?
First, we must speak of the online experience in positive terms. Yes, there have been issues and glitches along the way. Yes, we may be missing each other greatly. Yes, we may miss our building. Yes, we may miss the freedoms the pandemic has momentarily taken from us. However, framing the online experience with gratitude will help us keep this option alive once social distancing has been safely eased.
Second, we must expand our options. Once people have online options, they treasure them. Online worship means that people can participate in worship while traveling, indisposed, sick or even feeling lazy. Even when face-to-face worship is once again available we must consider live-streaming worship or prerecording a simpler act of worship for those unable to attend.
Thirdly, we must extend our options. Unlike starting an additional worship service in church, which depends on a certain number of people to attend to be considered viable, recorded online worship has a completely different shelf life. It can be experienced hours or months later and still be fresh.
For many of us who are leading worship most Sundays the expansion of online worship has been amazing. I now ‘go to church’ every day as I access worship from many different sources and am greatly blessed.
May you find blessings wherever they are to be found at this time
God bless and stay safe,