When the reality of not being able to meet in person hit almost a year ago, the small staff of our small Baptist church did what most small churches were doing —we started winging it. As a second-year seminary student at the time, I had a front-row seat to classmates, professors and alumni who were all in the same boat and just slightly adrift in fairly rough, dare I say it, “uncharted” waters.
As we fell into a routine of prerecorded services and weekly Zoom meetings, I realized I had a unique opportunity to visit as many churches each week as I had the patience to search and stream. I figured if I could use YouTube to faithfully follow an engineer/musician from France building a marble music machine, I also could make time to connect with the larger community of the online church. And as it turned out, I’m learning a lot from visiting about 50 churches so far in the past year without ever leaving home. Here are five of those things:
First, at its core, church always has been about effective communication. Whether it was a letter from an apostle, a papal bull, bulletins nailed to a church door or weekly radio shows, the church historically has relied on effective communication from skilled communicators.
The pandemic has highlighted something we always have known but too easily forgotten: the deeper work of communication in the church goes beyond skilled preaching, trained theological rhetoric or announcements about times and places of events that no longer could happen and focuses more heavily on interpersonal communication and connection.
The more distance we have between us, the more deliberate we need to be to stay connected. Church communities around the country that already were heavily invested in the process of communicating with each other have been better poised to make the transition to this new medium of online church. What has stood out in the messages I have heard is the effort pastors and staff are making to personally connect with people who are more isolated than ever.
Second, the audience is global. In some cases, this may truly mean reaching individuals around the world, but at the very least we need to recognize, and celebrate, the idea that even the smallest church has the potential to reach most anyone, most anywhere, most anytime.
“Even the smallest church has the potential to reach most anyone, most anywhere, most anytime.”
An essential element of communication in churches that translated successfully into online spaces is recognizing that their audience has grown beyond the local community who all speak with the same shorthand. One particular announcement sticks out in my memory. The older gentlemen standing behind the podium in an empty church casually stated: “It’s the last Sunday of the month, and you all know what that means. We will be downstairs from 5 to 6, and you can still drop your stuff off.” Since my inquiring mind wanted to know, I dug through their small website and learned that the last Sunday of the month traditionally is a food drive for the local food bank. Since supporting these organizations has become even more critical during the pandemic, this would have been a great opportunity to call attention to this global need, right alongside the local reminder of the time and place to make donations.
Third, it’s not just about slick production. With an extensive background in audio and video production, dating back to when we actually “rolled tape” and “processed film,” I welcomed the opportunity to bring those skills to a church that had just weeks before installed video monitors in the sanctuary. During the pandemic, our worship director and I have encouraged our pastor as she learned to edit her sermons with iMovie before uploading them to our GDrive so I could stitch together the songs, Scripture readings, welcome and announcements being generated in homes across the city into a cohesive service.
What quickly became clear was that people are more interested in hearing readings from familiar voices or our own choir virtually singing together than they are impressed with the smooth transition I created using just the right musical bumper and a full three-second dissolve between the images. (That’s much more worshipful than the default second-and-a-half dissolve, by the way.)
When visiting a random online church, I feel an immediate connection to a reader who is clearly someone’s aunt or uncle, perhaps a retired schoolteacher, or a willing accomplice from the youth group. While these individuals rarely have well-trained radio voices or news-anchor-like camera presence, and some of them insist on submitting videos in portrait instead of landscape orientation, their presence is always familiar — even in the most unfamiliar spaces.
Fourth, it is a little bit about good production. No matter how endearing Aunt Margaret may be or how adorable the Hendersons are reading Scripture with their seven kids, if we can’t hear what they are reading, we really have missed the point. Of all the churches I’ve visited, the most common reason I would not finish a service was not because I didn’t like the music or was bothered by a message; it was because I couldn’t understand what was being said.
“The most common reason I would not finish a service was not because I didn’t like the music or was bothered by a message; it was because I couldn’t understand what was being said.”
I frequently found myself asking, “How low should the bar go?” Not all churches have the budget, staff or experienced volunteers to create a polished program week in and week out, so what is the bare minimum that can be expected of an online church? The answer: I need to hear you. All the other bells and whistles can blow and ring around that one essential production element.
Fifth, I am truly anonymous. While in-person visits make space for occasional anonymous worshippers, it is the default in most online spaces. I often wonder, as I watch a service from a small church in some small midwestern town, if I trigger any questions or conversations by adding one more view to a usual steady number. When they normally have 10 views every week and know who those 10 individuals, couples or families are, is there ever any curiosity sparked by the mysterious number 11?
Several pastors I have talked to note that they do sometimes see an unexpected jump in online views. Most of us don’t really know how those numbers are generated and what exactly they are counting, let alone have any way to know who is watching. Short of deploying sophisticated artificial intelligence to identify them, connecting with those “visitors” is almost completely reliant on their initiative.
As a visitor, I will occasionally make my presence known in the comments or with an email or other electronic message thanking the church for the time and effort put into the service. Those messages require a staff person or volunteer to monitor the various sources and respond. If that’s not built in to routine communication cycles prior to the pandemic, it would be an easy thing to miss in a season where tasks and roles already have been disrupted. In fact, the response rate to messages I send hovers right around 50%.
My overall takeaway from all the visits: Church never should be the same again. In many places, church will be the same. Once restrictions are lifted and all are safe, many of us will quickly pour ourselves back into the comfortable molds that have, for so many Christians, defined the boundaries of church for the past decades and centuries.
“The tragedy of the year will be fully realized, however, if we don’t take the time to ask ourselves the tough question, ‘Should church be the same?’”
The tragedy of the year will be fully realized, however, if we don’t take the time to ask ourselves the tough question, “Should church be the same?” The pandemic has given us the opportunity to see the importance of communicating with people instead of simply delivering messages, the value of building community beyond the limits of city or county lines, and the need always to be ready to adapt who we are and how we function to the always-evolving needs of the communities we serve.
Churches over the last year have had the opportunity to see themselves as more than bricks and bannisters, more than parking and pews, and to refocus on the hearts and souls of the hearts and souls that surround us. From the teachings of Christ to the Great Reformation, change in religious communities most often has been a call away from the institution and back to the people. My hope and prayer from this adventure of 2020 and 2021 is that we, the church, are similarly changed for the better.
Laura Beth Buchleiter is an author, speaker and advocate for LGBTQ people in faith communities. She currently serves as student minister at University Baptist Church in Bloomington, Ind., while in her final year of a master of divinity program at Christian Theological Seminary. Learn more at www.laura-bethany.com.