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Doing church digitally – what we are learning

For many churches across the UK, Sunday 22 March was the first time they have ventured into the world of online worship: either livestreaming or pre-recorded. What are people learning? CPO's Laura Treneer takes a look ...

There are churches who have been livestreaming for years, but Sunday 22 March was unprecedented, when church doors across the country were closed. Those who might have considered digital churches in a few years’ time had to figure out how to do it in a week.

Church could be described as a local community practising a pattern of worship. How does this look different in the UK because of Covid-19?

Some of the many things we observed and learned this Sunday (churches mentioned are from a range of denominations, networks and locations):

Church as ‘local’

  • Geographical location is irrelevant online. On Mothering Sunday many people were able to ‘travel’ to their ‘mother’ church, perhaps the church where they were christened or baptized as an adult or got married or grew up, from their home.
     
  • For those delivering a service it helped to imagine those who normally would be there (some even put up names and pictures), but in reality anyone could have been watching. It is anonymous, and this can be disconcerting.
     
  • One church leader said how encouraging the praise was for the first livestream, but how dangerous that can be too: “if I cling too much to people’s praise, I’ll care too much when it turns to blame. I can only be faithful. We can’t do this for ‘likes’.”
     
  • Positively, many churches reported far greater numbers watching than would ever attend normally. When the social barriers are removed there is greater opportunity for people to ‘try church’, even in places which are normally out of reach because they clash with ‘our’ service, or are a long way away. Praise God that we heard of hundreds of people watched who would never normally come. Many of these were friends and family of church members.

Church as community����

  • Photos of a ‘candle of hope’ at 7pm for the National Day of Prayer created a sense of community, across many denominations and traditions.
     
  • Some churches are better resourced for
    online worship than others
    There was the inevitable threat of competition. People had the freedom to jump between churches online, with differences in style, quality and content. There are many church leaders who had to try something entirely new this week, and others who have sophisticated audio and video kit, and semi-professional tech teams. It is not a competition. Some found that pre-recorded talks reduced stress (though there is always the risk of candles getting too close … the clip is easy to find on social media!)
     
  • Some churches used comments alongside the stream to encourage a sense of community during the service. In the coming weeks there will be new creative ways of doing this – perhaps downloads before and after, groups to discuss or question or pray together. What is the digital equivalent of the tea and coffee time after the service?
     
  • One church leader said “I realise I have been running events for my community in the hope they’ll come, rather than reaching out to them. This has changed the way I view my ministry. I’m not an event manager.” Stories of people blessing neighbours have brought huge encouragement.

Church as pattern

  • For a church leader there are countless rituals that accompany Sunday worship: arriving early, seeing so-and-so who always arrives early, setting things up, deciding what to wear, testing things out, and afterwards, greeting people at the door, clocking who is and isn’t there, praying, clearing up, always being the last to leave. Without them preaching is stripped of some of its props. Which can be re-imagined? Which are a relief? Which are a loss?
     
  • Churches ‘take up an offering’ and it is an accepted part of practice. When people on screen ‘take up an offering’ it has far more unsettling connotations: more at risk of sounding like a dodgy prosperity tele-evangelist than a charity collection. There is a greater need to explain how funds will be used, what the needs are, and where to go with questions.
     
  • The rest of Sunday feels very different too. Hospitality may be replaced with pastoral calls, or leaving gifts by people’s doors. Family time loses its nervous energy. How do we make God our focus, rediscover Sabbath, when tasks are so very different?

Church as worship

  • Those who use liturgy may find the constraints of digital ‘performance’ far easier than those who are used to call-and-response worship. One pastor at a Pentecostal church expressed how much he was looking forward to hearing the “Amens” as he preached. One priest expressed the pain of not being able to serve Eucharist. The way we minister is fundamentally different and it is exposed in our styles of worship.
     
  • Worship is a collaborative experience. It takes greater spiritual discernment to lead as you would normally without the atmosphere of the room, the body language of the congregation, and a sense of their engagement. It is a challenge.
     
  • Normally the church leader would be at different distances from the person at the front to the person at the back. On a screen you are equidistant from everyone, which actually makes it far easier to use props, flipcharts, drawings, facial expressions. It also means you don’t need to speak so loud.
     
  • How do you ask for a response when people are in their homes? One church suggested people touch their screens. Another suggested they make something using a piece of paper. Another suggested physical postures (such as arms stretched wide and even lying down) which would be far harder in a building.
     
  • One worship leader on a guitar encouraged people watching online to turn up the volume so they’d feel more comfortable joining in, and did more action songs than usual to help people engage. A few families said they joined in far more than they would have done at church!
     
  • One church asked lots of children to do a short video snippet on their phone to say Happy Mother’s Day, and asked some adults to say what they had learned from their mothers. These were stitched together to create a great simple video snippet in the middle of the service. This can be simple to produce and shared on social media. There is potential for people to share what God is teaching them, and answers to prayer. Digital tools can make collaborative input in services far easier.
     
  • One church leader realised that normally they’d try not to repeat themselves, even on news or announcements, but that with this you have no idea when people are coming or going. In the ‘final song’ there may be a huge drop in numbers, so you can’t assume people will stay to hear the ‘final word’.

What did you learn? Do let us know! Email editor@inspiremagazine.org.uk , gemmakent@cpo.org.uk or benelliott@cpo.org.uk

Main photo: Church of England

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