Online Worship (may not be) the Answer You are Looking For

As many of us are doing, I am spending time each day keeping up on the moment to moment changes with COVID-19 and the pandemic. As the senior warden in my Episcopal parish, seminary professor, and online educator, training current and future pastors in discipleship and spiritual formation, my days are being spent brainstorming (and Spirit-storming) responses for this current season of worship and prayer in the life of the Church and seminary.

One decision I have read about repeatedly these past few days is the move to “worship on-line” once a congregation can no longer safely gather. Many churches are investigating streaming services for communities who have not streamed worship before and attempting many new virtual options for gathering together while under social distancing interventions.

I would argue that moving worship online rapidly is not the first place to put our energies, especially for communities not already experienced in providing such worship and prayer options.

Start with one person. Make a call. Send a text. Ask: How are you doing?

Building community online requires much more regular contact to achieve the same felt sense of connection that in-person gatherings create. It is more than streaming a liturgy.

Uncertainty prevails right now, and removing familiar patterns of support (Sunday worship, small group gatherings, community meals, personal conversations), while extremely necessary in this current situation, adds to the general anxiety. Adding new, unfamiliar activities and new technology can also increase anxiety for many of our congregation members, rather than encourage a sense of connection.

The online world can be a great place to connect. It can also deepen a sense of isolation.

When we consider the interactions among those who gather for worship, it is not simply the liturgy or the songs or the sermon or the sacrament, but a constellation of those experiences, plus brief connections between people: a nod, a smile, eyes connecting, a hug, a short verbal exchange about the kids, or the job, or the sick friend, a shared prayer, or laughter at a long-standing private joke. These kinds of shared interactions cannot be captured or manufactured in online worship.

Instead of spending these next days getting the latest tech and streaming options set-up, I would encourage communities to start connecting with congregation members personally, consistently and regularly, using analog/old school options first. Then, turn attention to new tech and online options.

Focusing on the simple 1-to-1 or small group connections of phone call, text, and single recipient email (rather than email blast) will:

  • Help people feel visible even when they are not physically present at a church gathering;
  • Give them an invitation and means to speak about their needs, prayers, and hopes, and a chance to be heard;
  • Provide people with ways to connect about how they are seeing God in their lives;
  • Ease the anxiety caused by loss of the familiar and living in uncertainty, by providing a new consistency: regular contact.
  • Ease the fear of being left alone if they get sick.

Finally, this kind of connection will be a reminder that no matter if we are physically present with each other, we are connected by the Holy Spirit, and incorporated into the Body of Christ. We are never alone, but always persons-in-community, part of the great cloud of witnesses past, present and future, connected in Jesus Christ.

Ask each congregation member in multiple ways: What is the best way to contact you? Update phone numbers, addresses, ask whether they have texting capability, email, etc. Keep trying — don’t let lack of response prevent connecting. If your church is still meeting, gather this information now, when you can still connect with people in person.

Using this information, start checking-in briefly and regularly, especially at first, and be available to listen to fears and ease concerns. Ask what would be most helpful for your people to feel connected to the church community. This requires a lot of time, but it is more important initially than focusing on recording a sermon or crafting other large group-focused offerings. Start with one person, not the entire congregation. Jesus regularly engaged individuals in his ministry. Be like Jesus.

Invite others to help with check-in. The leader of a congregation cannot do it alone.

Write cards. This is a higher contact option, and may at some point not be advisable, but receiving a hand-written letter in this age of digital communication is almost sacramental! A tangible sign of love and care and something to be cherished.

Designate congregation members to take on maintaining these brief but regular connections, if church leaders become ill.

Once the basic connecting plan is in place and working, begin to explore new options:

Ask each congregation member: Are you familiar with Zoom (or other group meeting tool)? Are you interested in meeting in an online group? If no one has used Zoom or something similar, then start where they are, rather than expect them to learn a new platform. If there is interest in an online group, start with a group text or email.

Be aware of congregation members who find visual or audio media challenging or impossible to use. Ask for their preferences. Connect with them in the ways they need, rather than expect them to adapt.

Offer the Daily Office through-out the week. You can do this via text. You can do this as a conference call. You can set a time for people to pray and then come together for texting reflections after. During the the first days of not meeting as a congregation, schedule times to pray Morning or Evening Prayer, or Compline, with individuals through the day as part of check-in, depending on their schedule and interest. It could be as simple as praying a psalm together. There are lovely 1 page daily prayer liturgies in the Book of Common Prayer, 136-140.

Encourage established small groups to keep connecting via whatever means works for them. (They will probably already be doing it.)

Invite your Millennials and Gen Zs to help brainstorm connection ideas and share their own experiences. What helps them feel less isolated? Give them a voice in your congregation to help with their particular social networking expertise.

Set-up prayer partners among congregation members. This practice shares check-in and also gets people connected to each other and not just to the congregation leaders. This will strengthen the bonds between the congregation members.

Post to the apps and platforms that people in your particular congregation are already using (which means asking them what they are using)–Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Snap Chat, etc. Become a presence on those social media platforms that are most in use by your congregation.

Post regularly on your church’s Facebook page: prayers, scriptures, encouragements, photos. If you do offer the Daily Office via Zoom, YouTube, or Facebook Live, advertise it on the page. This will reach more people than your congregation.

Ask those congregation members who are able to record video to share a one minute reflection of where they are seeing God today, and post it to a Facebook group or other platform, or send it as an email. This is a great project for the youth to run with.

Invite people to send photos from their days to share on the church page, church Instagram, or Facebook group.

Be a bridge. Find ways to connect with your neighbors who are not part of the church, using any of these options. Being the Church, the Body of Christ, is not just inwardly focusing on our experience of worship (and how that is changing), but turning our focus outward to ways we can help our wider community get connected and provide assistance to people who are not connected to any communities of care.

For many congregations, online worship and online offerings are the way to walk through this season, but it is not the only way. If you are a congregation looking for ways to strengthen your bonds and show God’s love during this season, you have all the tools you need to stay in contact.

Start with one person. Start now. Make that call. Send that text.