The New Normal (4) — Virtually a Church

Virtual reality church
The church of the future

This is the fourth post in a series to do with the ‘New Normal’ that has been thrust upon us by the pandemic. The posts consider how people of faith and churches are being affected by the changes that are taking place, and also the opportunities for church leadership that these changes provide. An assumption behind all these posts is that there will indeed be a ‘New Normal’ — the ‘Old Normal’ is not returning. We cannot suddenly lay off more than 22 million people in just a few weeks in the United States alone and expect our economies simply to snap back to where they were. Moreover, we have to keep in mind that the pandemic is still in its early stages. Some communities may believe that they have peaked, but there is every reason to believe that second and third waves of the disease could follow. (Some of the economic issues to do with the pandemic are discussed in a parallel series of posts entitled ‘The New PSM Normal’, where the letters PSM stand for Process Safety Management. The first post in that series is The New PSM Normal — Deflation.)

The distress, anxiety and economic devastation created by this pandemic provides an opportunity for the church to provide leadership. As we will discuss in future posts, science and technology seem to have met their nemesis – a new type of leadership and way of living is called for. But it is also interesting to see how the pandemic has affected the church in just a few short weeks, and to think about what the church of the future may look like. Therefore, in this post I would like to consider the sudden and unanticipated rise in the ‘Virtual Church’.

I am a member of a medium-sized Episcopal church. In response to the pandemic our church, like so many others, has totally reorganized its worship services and the manner in which it conducts its internal meetings. Services are transmitted using Facebook Live; meetings are held using Zoom or equivalent software. Our bishop, Susan Goff, has been ahead of the curve from the beginning as described in the post The New Normal (3) — Thrift, Frugality and Fasting. Now the diocese has now instructed us not to use our church premises at all. So, video services (such as this one) are now transmitted from the priest’s home. Participation from the music director and lay readers has been through the use of pre-recorded videos or audio clips that are spliced into the order of worship. (The videos are recorded and edited by the priest’s wife, so there are no physical distancing issues to worry about.)

Rock Higgins noonday service at St. James the Less, Ashland, VA

Virtual church services are not new, of course, but the pandemic has suddenly made them a near-universal fixture. So here’s where we (and so many other churches) stand.

  • Our Sunday morning service is transmitted live from the priest’s study. It  recorded so that people can view it later.
  • Our regular Wednesday morning service continues in the same manner.
  • Each day, except for Sunday, we have a shot noon-time prayer service, also transmitted live.

As we started this effort I anticipated that “attendance” at these services would go down; worship depends interaction between people, community singing and on the physical eucharist. I expected that, if people could not meet other people and physically participate in the service, then they would drift away. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. Attendance at our virtual church services is much higher than it was when people had to physically show up. An informal review on the internet suggests that our experience is not unusual, many other churches have seen an increase in participation.

I am both encouraged and somewhat surprised at these results. One of the reasons for my surprise is that many of our regular attendees are toward the older end of the age spectrum and so, I would have thought, are not so adept at using video technology. This point of view may be incorrect. Many of these older members have children and grandchildren scattered around the country so they have been using video services to meet with their families for years.

Doubtless many people will be conducting formal studies that examine how the church has changed in the last few weeks. Here are a few initial thoughts.

No Going Back

I started this post by saying that we will not return to the ‘Old Normal’. What the ‘New Normal’ will look like is anyone’s guess, but virtual worship in one form or another is an integral part of our future.

In recent weeks, many organizations have found that working from home is viable for much of what they do. Those organizations whose policies required people to show up at the office are going to be under considerable pressure to reconsider those policies. The same applies to church services and meetings. Until now, virtual church services have, in general, been something of an add-on to the physical service. That will no longer be the case — indeed the opposite may happen. The church building will become more like a studio than a traditional church.

Quality vs. Quantity

Although we can count the number of people who are participating in our virtual services, it is much more difficult to assess the quality of that participation. When someone is sitting in the pews they may not be paying much attention, indeed they may be day-dreaming, but at least we know that they are present. When they attend a virtual service we do not know what else they may be doing. Is he or she also answering emails, playing a video game or browsing the news channels? We don’t know.

The person leading the service can also see which parts of the service are the most popular and meaningful by keeping an eye on the people who are coming and going at different times.

Reduced Expenses

As the church community has shrunk many churches face a chronic challenge: how to finance the maintenance of large buildings that are too big for today’s smaller congregations. Virtual services may provide an answer. Churches will be able to maintain their service and mission to the community without needing those buildings. The church can move into a small office, and conduct its business from there.

Convenience and Practicality

A virtual church can attract those who cannot attend a physical church. They include the disabled, the house-bound, those traveling on business (not such a large group these days), shift workers, caregivers and those without transportation.

The Unchurched

The pandemic is causing many people to think about more fundamental values. Such people may be reluctant to enter a traditional church building — indeed, for many of them such an environment brings back bad memories. But they may be willing to join a virtual service, especially if they feel that they are not just being preached at.

Age of Limits

The posts at this blog are to do with the long-term effects of what we refer to as the ‘Age of Limits’ — resource depletion, climate change and population overshoot. The current pandemic has reminded us that we are not in control of the natural world; indeed, “Nature Bats Last”. Yet many aspects of our ‘Old Normal’ have not changed in recent weeks. For example, we still have the electricity we need to power our virtual devices and the raw materials such as lithium that are needed to manufacture those devices are  in supply. If the time comes when resources such as these are not provided then our virtual church will have to shut down, and we will have to revert to physical meetings.

Galilee

Just before the virus hit we toured Israel. Part of the visit was to drive around the Sea of Galilee. This was the area where Jesus conducted much of his ministry. We also visited Qumran and saw the desert areas that are part of the Bible story. As I looked at the hills from which Jesus would have preached the Sermon on the Mount and at the desert areas where he fasted I wondered what he and the other religious leaders of biblical times would have thought about how we are worshiping now. It’s a long way from there to the modern virtual church. Are we doing the right thing?

The hills of Galilee
The Hills of Galilee

Spring is Sprung

We are trying to practice what we preach. We have cut some asparagus this spring. Here a picture of our first fruits of 2020; two radishes. The lettuce, cabbage, peas, potatoes, leek, onions, blueberries and (in the greenhouse) bush beans and tomatoes are looking great. Just don’t tell the critters in our neighborhood.

Radishes community garden


Masks

Home-made masks

If you are making masks, we found the plan provided in the New York Times (and other newspapers) to be useful. We used old pillow cases for the fabric. Medical-quality masks have a metal strip at the top. The NYT design does not, but we found that a pipe cleaner inserted does the job well. (If you don’t smoke a pipe but do have children you may find that they used pipe cleaners in some of their projects.)

Rumor has it that there was a Virginia law that prohibited anyone from wearing a mask when entering a bank, and that they have had to change the law. It turns out that the rumor is not true; nevertheless it is still a good idea not to be masked like this before going into a bank.

Author: Ian Sutton

Ian Sutton is a chemical engineer who has worked in the chemical, refining and offshore oil and gas industries. He is the author of many books, ebooks and videos.

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