What's Tony Thinking

Churches Go On-Line


Yesterday was like many Sundays. We did our particular getting up rituals. We had breakfast. We showered. I shaved. We got dressed, nothing fancy but a little better than our usual these days. Then we sat down at the dining table, faced a computer and went to church.

Via ZOOM we joined the congregation of Bethel Congregational/ United Church of Christ where our daughter, Laura, is the pastor. Bethel is located in White Salmon, Washington, in the Columbia River Gorge. Almost all churches are now in the process of discovering the new on-line world of being church and of worship.

Later in the day both Linda and I tuned into other services. I watched one from Rhode Island, while she went to Honolulu. And there were lots more options if we wanted them.

Mainline Protestantism has been slow to embrace new technologies. Evangelicals and Pentecostals have made the move to various electronic media and platforms more rapidly and successfully. Partly, that’s because those tend to be oral culture churches. Mainline Protestants have, on the other hand, been heavy on the written word.

But now the mainline are being hustled into a new technical world and reality over night. I’ve experienced essentially two kinds of on-line worship. One is pre-recorded, available at an outlet like YouTube or the church’s website. You hear the pastor’s voice. You hear the organ. You see visuals that go with the Scripture reading and sermon. Some are videos, some photos.

The other is more like joining a live video conference call, which in fact it is. You can select “Speaker view” to get the pastor or lay leader or musician who is leading at the moment. Or you can opt for “Gallery view” and see smaller shots of everyone who is tuned in. And of course you can alternate between the two.

I’m sure there are other options I’ve not yet experienced.

As this is likely to go on for a while, these shifts may have a lasting impact. One of those impacts will be that the lagging mainline Protestants will acquire greater comfort and capacity with new technologies.

Will this signal an end to the live, in-person, gathered worship in a church building? I doubt that. But what I do think is likely, or at least an opportunity created by this necessity, is that congregations like those of my daughter may develop two congregations; one that is there in person with one another in the sanctuary, and a second congregation that is on-line, watching and participating from afar. There will be overlap between the two congregations, but they will also be different.

I think an opportunity may be missed if churches think of this on-line venture as simply something they are doing “in the meantime,” until we can get back to life as usual. While I don’t think the in-person gathering will ever be, or should be, replaced (to be the Body of Christ, we need to come together in the flesh) I think it may be the case that more congregations do continue, when this is over, to have both. Both in person and on-line options.

Many of the new start congregations of the last twenty years have begun with an individual or small group that has a vision for church. That individual or team invites their friends. And a church is born, sometimes grows and thrives.

Now people have the chance to reach out to their family, friends and friends of friends with their on-line experience/ worship service. A new type of of church, not geographically defined, or not primarily so-defined, may be born out of this new experience of keeping our distance.


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