The times, they are a-changing. This is typically the lament of the elders, a group in which I’m pretty sure I’m now included, and it certainly rings through the halls of every church I’ve ever encountered. Nobody likes change, and especially change to the institutions and experiences that provide structure and stability in a changing world full of upheaval.
One of the ways our society has vastly changed in just the last 15 years has been the creation of an alternative world, a digital world, and we’ve been trying to assess its impact on relationships and institutions ever since we realized it wasn’t going away. The church’s engagement with the digital world is no exception, and per usual we’re falling behind the curve in most cases.
In my world, much discussion has ensued as we try to bring the familiar way we know to be the church into some meaningful engagement with the digital world. Our church has tried to do this in various ways, some more successful than others. One significant way we’ve experimented with has been through livestreaming worship. Though we now have as many or more watching services online as we do sitting in the pews on Sunday, there seems to be a lament about loss of relationship. How do we connect with people who are sitting at home on the couch in their pajamas watching worship through a screen?
I’ve found that it’s helpful to approach this strange new world with familiar vocabulary. We all have lived through a time when “evangelism” was the term we used for extending the walls of our churches and inviting people in in new and innovative ways. Using social media, online streaming, and other digital tools to engage an outside world is a new expression of evangelism, plain and simple. By thoughtfully engaging the digital world, the church can and will expand and deepen human connection.
I know this first hand because of an experience I’ve had over the last three years since I came to be senior minister at The Riverside Church in the City of New York. Early on in my tenure as pastor I received an email from a woman named Rose. She wrote to thank me for a sermon she heard online and to offer some reflections of her own. I wasn’t sure when she first wrote whether she was a member of the church whom I hadn’t met yet; in fact, I didn’t know who she was at all. But I answered her email just because I thought it was kind of her to take the time to write.
As it turns out, Rose wasn’t a member of my church after all. I soon gathered that Rose is a very devout Catholic who lives outside the city and somehow stumbled upon Riverside’s services — first on the radio and then via livestream. For three years she has sent me occasional emails — usually once a month or so — offering reflections or words of encouragement, sharing questions and spiritual struggles, always thanking me and the church for including her in our corporate worship experience.
When I asked Rose why she wrote to me at all, this is what she said: “For me it is important to validate the gifts of God that I experience through others. Via livestream I have always felt the presence of the Holy Spirit working in you and through you to reach me. As time has passed the connection I feel to you and to Riverside has grown and deepened … which is a great gift from God.”
Last week, Rose and her husband came to church in person for the first time. During the passing of the peace she introduced herself and the hug we shared was hard and full of deep gratitude. In that moment I recognized true relationship, one of the best gifts of being the church together. Our friendship was forged through new and modern digital means, but the bonds were as familiar as a hand clasped at the door or a hug in the narthex or a moment of connection at the communion table. The words of our children singing in worship rang in my head in that moment: “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together!” — even via livestream.