The Church and COVID-19: When one-way broadcasts are good, but not enough
The Church and COVID-19: When one-way broadcasts are good, but not enough.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on every aspect of our lives and work. In terms of the church, this is a seismic-level event that will change aspects of church life, possibly for generations. Church historians may one day study the church’s response and how this crisis reshaped church as we know it. But, for now, we are still in the middle of it.
When churches began to realize just how serious this version of the coronavirus was and as cities and states began to issue shelter-in-place orders, church leaders scrambled to find ways to connect with congregations. Some churches were fortunate enough to have live-streaming capabilities already in place. Others struggled to find solutions to either stream or pre-record full worship services or at least sermons. Some of the most creative video solutions were created in the weeks following the initial cancellation of Sunday services. Smartphones, iPads, and webcams were put into service to get the message out and give people a chance to worship.
Over the following weeks, churches have been slowly working to improve their broadcasts. Some have upgraded equipment, others have rearranged their worship spaces to create a more intimate setting. Still others have just found improvements through practice and experimentation. Overall, churches have done a remarkable job broadcasting sermons and worship services, often with little to no experience or equipment. However, no matter how good the quality and execution, these one-way broadcasts are good, but not enough to get us through.
This Won’t Be Over for a While
Just a few weeks ago, most of us were working under the assumption that our live stream broadcasts would be a stopgap measure to get us through a few weeks. They worked very well for that. But, even as some churches reopen with capacity limits, we realize that this is going to be going on for a long time. When we get the all-clear to resume worship and other activities as usual, some will wait much longer to return. Those who are especially vulnerable due to age, immune system compromise, or other health issues, may be avoiding large gatherings until a vaccine or effective treatment is ready. And they may not be the only people staying home. Some church members have found worshipping at home to be a much more practical, enjoyable, and fruitful experience. We can debate at another time the pros and cons of people choosing to remain home, but some people will likely keep worshipping at home.
Many churches are also discovering something else during this time. Churches that had pre-existing live stream ministry are realizing that they have regular worshippers who have never once walked into their churches. Live streaming is, but nature, global. That means that any church has the potential to have “members” from other cities, states, and countries. So, no matter what we do, unless we just shut down our broadcasts, we are going to have people worshipping. This will become the new normal for some, and for others, it already is.
So What is Missing?
Every church has people who come in, sit down, “watch” worship, and then leave. While we would never discourage anyone from worshipping with us, as the church, we want more for people. Worship is just one piece of the community life of the church. We also encourage our people to dive into more in-depth bible study, fellowship and community, and service within the church and community. While these are things that people can do on their own, the church has long been called to facilitate these things. The church has done this by offering interactive bible study, fellowship events, and hands-on service opportunities. Even the worship service itself is meant to be more than a spectator activity. When people sing and pray aloud, they do these things together and can see and hear their fellow worshippers. Given all of this, a one-way broadcast will only ever address one piece of the church experience. The longer people are only invited to watch, the more disconnected they will likely become.
The Old Approach Won’t Work
If you spoke to church leaders about this issue just a few weeks ago, many would have given you the same response. Most saw the live stream as an alternative for the occasional Sunday morning or as a way for newcomers to “try out” the service. But so many pastors always saw this as a temporary state. When people were able to come back, they would. When virtual guests became convinced that the congregation was a good fit, they would come in person. There was always a fundamental flaw in that thinking, but now it is clear to see. For those who won’t be able to safely return to church for months, for those who opt to primarily worship from home, for those people who never worshipped in person in the first place, this approach will leave them without a chance for depth or interaction. That is unless we change our thinking.
What Can We Do?
Responding to our new reality is going to take some creative thinking. Fortunately, there are two ways in which we already have a head start. First of all, this is an exciting time for technology that connects us like never before. Second, many people in education and business are already experimenting and offering possible solutions. Unless you were born into this digital era, you could have never imagined anyone could talk with anyone else anywhere in the world for free via video. We certainly couldn’t have imagined we could invite a virtually unlimited number of friends and family members to join us. We likely never would have guessed that we could participate from a computer, phone, or tablet. Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, and Facebook Messenger are more popular than ever. More options for two-way interactive communications seem to hit the market every day.
The church won’t need to reinvent the wheel to make these things work. Some people have been doing this for a while. Businesses, schools, and even some churches have been experimenting with interactive distance classes and meetings. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, some churches have been able to begin offering virtual Sunday school for adults and children via video. Others are arranging small group meetings and fellowship gatherings via video conferencing. We will likely see new, innovative approaches spring up every day.
We Can Do Better
Even with some churches taking the lead, we have a long way to go to provide the presence of the church in the life of those still stuck at home. How can we use technology to allow worship to become more interactive and participatory? Once more people can return to church, how will we bridge the physical and digital? How will we help those at home connect to those in the building? How will care for those people that we don’t physically see? How will we be the body when the body is dispersed? That is what we are about to find out.