It’s Sunday morning and you’ve overslept. You don’t have time to shower and your hair is a mess, so you just run a comb through it and call it a day. It’s a bit cold, so you throw on a robe and grab a cup of coffee. In the living room, you recline back in your La-Z-Boy and grab the remote. What are you doing?
You’re going to church.
Throughout the spring of 2020, scenes like the one just described took place in millions of homes in the United States and throughout the world. Due to the COVID-10 pandemic, churches closed their doors to prevent the spread of the virus. But not even closed churches can stop the Holy Spirit from moving. Churches sprang into action, using technologies available to them, to make sure that their congregations could still meet together, even if in unconventional ways. Pastors and ministry staff scrambled to learn to use platforms such as Zoom and Facebook to reach people in their homes. Technology, more than ever, became a vital tool for doing ministry.
Many churches used Facebook Live to stream their services in real time. The ability to comment on these videos, also in real time, allowed church members to communicate with one another as they worshipped together. Some churches purchased radio transmitters and conducted drive-in services, where members of the church and the community at large could park their vehicle in the church parking lot and tune in to hear the Word, honking their car horns in place of a good old-fashioned “Amen!” Sunday School classes used Zoom to video-call one another and discuss topics face-to-face. Youth and Children’s Ministers recorded videos for YouTube so that teens and young children alike could still hear a Bible story each week in a way that was engaging and relevant to them.
While new technology has historically brought about conflict and even split churches, in 2020, technology became a lifeline that allowed the church to thrive.
So what is there to learn from this? What are the pros and cons of using technology as a tool for worship? In what ways will the church be forever transformed by this unprecedented spring, because there is no doubt that, if we are wise, we will take the best parts of these technological opportunities and continue to implement them in our churches long after the pandemic subsides?
I went to Facebook and polled my friends for their input. Four basic points were voiced over and over again.
First, streaming services allowed churches to reach a wider, worldwide audience. Lynne Green, MDiv, wrote, “many churches I know of have had their audience increase. We have been able to reach people who may not have come out to church on a regular basis for whatever reason.” People also enjoyed being able to choose the service that they wanted to “attend” and reconnect with churches from their childhood. Those who are especially ambitious enjoyed being able to attend more than one service in a Sunday!
Second, people really missed the fellowship of fellow believers and singing and worshipping together as a congregation. Natalie Hopper summed up this sentiment well, “You do miss the indescribable feeling of worshipping together.” Some were concerned that the reliance of churches on streaming services left out the elderly and the less technologically savvy.
Third, the convenience on online church was more accessible and helped those who may be disconnected from a church body feel connected. Donna Satterfield shared her story: “My mom became unable to attend church due to a physical condition and her services were not being recorded, so I posed the idea of going live with ours. She sure loved being able to watch our services.”
Fourth, people really enjoyed being able to go to church in their pajamas! I’ll let that one speak for itself.
Other points that people made were that videos allowed note-takers to be more diligent in their notetaking because listeners could pause and replay what the pastor was saying that they might have missed.
A concern brought to the table by Donna Scott is that “instead of participants in worship, we are tempted to be spectators.” Ministers and those on ministry staffs uniformly agreed that the use of technology and pre-recorded or live-streamed services was incredibly exhausting, and made it difficult to communicate and teach in a genuine way from the lack of face-to-face connection.
So what does this mean, moving forward? My friend, Donna Scott, perhaps said it best. Technology in churches can be “a port in the storm, but not where we want to live.” The good news is, we do not have to live there. One day, our churches will be able to open our doors again and a “new normal” will resume. We now have the chance to take the best parts of what COVID-19 has taught us and use it in our post COVID-19 world.
Once our churches begin to meet in person again, I believe it will be important for ministers to restate the importance of meeting together in person, if physically able. Natalie Hopper explains why, “I think it would be way too easy for introverts…to socially isolate and never actually attend church due to the ease of being able to watch at home.” Pastors and ministry teams must watch their congregations for the first few weeks of meeting together and make note of unusual absences in order to check in with people to make sure they are not feeling the urge to isolate. After all, scripture does tell us:
“Not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25)
The work of the church is, ultimately, relational, and while technology can certainly help in times of crisis, technology alone will not be enough to keep the church alive.
At the same time, technology can be implemented to a further degree in our churches to help churches grow and to make church more accessible for those who are homebound or traveling or otherwise unable to attend. Some churches have made the decision to continue live-streaming services after their churches reopen, and Sunday School classes, while still meeting together physically, can perhaps pull up a screen on a computer that allows a shut-in to study the Bible with her friends even though she is in a nursing home or in the hospital. Our churches can gather together, and at the same time, reach people far beyond our doors.
Technology, and those who know how to use it well, is a gift. COVID-19, in its own way, and what it has taught the church about technology, is also a gift. And the Bible has a lot to say about gifts.
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Peter 4:10)
Brothers and sisters, now is the time to take what we have learned and use it to advance the Kingdom of God. May we be wise and humble, with open and thankful hearts. Amen.