Author’s Note: I am no Jeremiah-like prophet of doom! (I suspect most of you know that already…) But I sounded that doom and gloomy when this article first appeared. I started by saying I had a touchy, even difficult message to share. And ended with “maybe online worship is the last nail in the coffin of the contemporary church?”
Oh, Lord! That’s not my message. Or even my thought (it’s a colleague’s quote). What I had written posted severely truncated. Something like this happened once before. Usually articles on WordPress update immediately, but this took over 12 hours. All the while, there I was on the internet prematurely predicting the death of Christianity.
So, here it is again. If you didn’t get to read the whole message. Or even if you did, you might reread it… It’s an important message.
We are over a year into hybrid worship. People at home regularly help lead worship, share their prayers, speak in worship to our congregation online and in the Sanctuary. Some people are mostly online. Some are mostly in the Sanctuary. And a few comfortably move back and forth.
With a year of experience, we are learning things, and maybe our understandings and behaviors need some adjustments? The full article is below. Please read it and think about what I am saying… and talk to me: I want to hear what you are thinking too. We need to figure this out together for the good of our community and the people we hope to serve.
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I have been trying to figure out how to share a feeling with the congregation for some months now. But I haven’t been quite sure how to put it. I don’t want to be misunderstood. Or get folks feeling sensitive. Or anxious. Or make people worry we are instituting some “separate but equal” dichotomy in the church.
Then I read Paul Krugman’s “Superstar Cities in the Age of Zoom” (published in the New York Times on Sept. 1). In his commentary, Krugman talks about ‘Economic Geography,’ the study of where (and why) manufacturing and business happen where they do.
It’s interesting how different technological innovations have changed how industry is organized and sited in our country. And how economic geography can explain expanding and contracting regional disparities in income across the U.S. I recommend the piece, if you want to read it.
Even if you don’t, I think Krugman offers us the metaphor I need in order to say and be heard in what I have wanted to share…
Krugman’s question is simply whether or not the possibility and popularity of “remote work” after the pandemic will disperse the concentrations of highly-skilled workers and the technology-intensive businesses that have formed in coastal metropolitan areas since the 80s. Does remote work spell doom for the superstar cities in his title?
Some are asking a similar question about the church and remote worship. A colleague even said to me the other day – exaggerating I hope! – that ‘maybe the option of worshiping from home will turn out to be the last nail in the contemporary church’s coffin.”
Krugman’s answer to his question – and the reasoning by which he gets there – was really helpful to me. And applicable for our post-pandemic situation at church, I believe. They offer us some new understanding going forward.
He points out that remote work has been possible since the advent of high speed internet. But it didn’t catch on until the pandemic made working at home preferable (to office culture which suddenly felt like a petri dish for developing and sharing viruses). How many of us have thought since the pandemic about all those flu seasons we’ve been singing our lungs out and shaking each others’ hands?
He also acknowledges real reasons remote work can be attractive – perhaps most simply, cutting from one’s day the time, hassle and expense of commuting. There are other aspects people like too — like working in one’s pajamas and being close to one’s own refrigerator.
But Krugman then explains that the emerging data suggests fully remote work will remain a fairly small niche in the total work force. The larger trend that is affecting – changing – where and how we work is a hybrid model — where one works from home two or three days a week and in the office the rest of the time..
To quote the sentence that I found most important for our situation: “Both employers and workers are increasingly seeing the value of the informal interactions that come when you go into the office, at least some of the time.”
Church, I think we have recognized the benefits “remote worship” offers, both when we were on zoom exclusively and now that people participate in worship together on site and online. (Though, I’d prefer the phrase “online worship” because I don’t think the worship experience online needs to be either ‘remote’ or ‘at a distance’! Just as I prefer “on site” to “in person” — because I think people at home are equally in their person!).
The most dramatic benefits of online worship to me are:
- Including people who cannot be physically in the Sanctuary, on account of distance or physical ability. It’s great to have Steve from the A.E.U., Cheryl from Florida and the Robinsons from the farm. Or people much nearer for whom getting out of the house and to church is just too hard. We used to lose them. Or simply send them the bulletin after the fact. This is much more ministry. And I still get a bit teary every time someone in the hospital or rehab joins us online.
- Bringing people face to face in worship. It’s really been a game-changer, the apparent physical intimacy of zoom’s “Hollywood Squares.” One of you, reflecting on the monitors in the Sanctuary, explained, “Sometimes, I feel more connected to the people at home who I see on the t.v.s, than the backs of the heads of people a few feet in front of me… or the people I can’t see behind me.” (This is one of the reasons we worshiped in the round all summer — to mimic online worship!) Secondarily, zoom gives us peak into each others’ homes.
- Creating conversations that everyone hears – there aren’t any secrets on zoom and no one is speaking behind others’ backs. And quieter people on zoom often find a voice to speak in front of everyone as if they are just speaking to one other person. I loved when we were first online, how in just a few weeks, intuitively, this congregation learned how to pace and take turns talk to the whole on zoom.
We have recognized the benefits of online worship, and have tried to build on them. But can we speak about the advantages of on site worship? Like the employees and employers who have recognized the benefits of the interaction which take place when workers are in the same physical space, I want to name certain benefits to being in person:
- Body heat! Hugs are a great way of supporting one another. Handshaking – despite the germs – is also a powerful form of greeting and acknowledgement. Passing the Peace is nicer when one moves around the Sanctuary to greet people individually. Coming up to make your offering, or to receive your communion involve your whole body, your whole self. On site adds a whole other dimension — space and physical movement in relation to others.
- Kids! No one ever said that zoom church was better for the kids! On site church just works better with the children and our ministry with them. And church is an experience that parents and children can have together.
- There are things one just can’t do online. Helping to set up for worship happens on site. And though we “broadcast” the church wedding reception for Leo and me, we haven’t figured out how to include the “onliners” in coffee hour or potluck luncheons. Zoom can’t deliver food or even smells yet! And serving others probably finds more possibilities on site and in physical proximity.
- There are some conversations that are more appropriate between individuals, or at least fewer people. Often people “catch me up” as pastor on something going on in their lives at church on Sunday morning. Online, they may not want to share with everyone what they have to say to me. And most people don’t call after zoom to tell me what they might have said in person. I think these missed connections get multiplied over and over by all the more private conversations between people that don’t happen on zoom.
Where’s this leave us? Well, I want to suggest we change our understanding of “hybrid worship.” We have used the term mostly to reference how we are ‘delivering’ a participative worship experience in two different modalities – on site and online. I think that usage reflects the steep incline we faced getting the technology to do what we wanted and the church’s commitment to making the experience at home as equal as possible to the experience in the Sanctuary.
What if a year into this, we imbue “hybrid worship” with new meaning, something akin to Krugman’s “hybrid work”? Instead of talking about how the church offers worship, could it reference more helpfully how individuals choose to attend worship? It’s not how the church shares its message; it’s how church people participate in worship. Do you get the distinction, and why it matters?
Much like employers and employees are recognizing that a mix of “from home” and “in the office” works best – what if “hybrid worship” came to signify for us the advantage in experiencing worship both online and on site. (As one of you said to me recently, “There’s never ANY excuse to miss church anymore!”) Why not aim for a both / and, so we can take the best of both worlds?
Some people are not “techy” and are only going to worship with us in person. Some people are unable to get to the Sanctuary building and will only worship online. Amen and amen. We are still committed to making both ways of participating in worship as rich and meaningful (and equal!) as we can.
But for most of us, we could begin to think of “hybrid worship” as finding for ourselves the right mix of online and in person participation? And since church participation is never simply about what one gets from the experience; but also has to be about what one gives, we might also ask ourselves what mix of hybrid worship serves others, the other people in our community and those we hope to reach?
See you “in church” (whether online or onsite),