I didn’t realize the irony until I hit “start live video” on my phone about 6:45 am on Easter morning, just as the blue began to take over the dark night sky. I hadn’t done a sunrise Easter worship service in over fifteen years. Why? Well, fewer and fewer people showed up for that service. I decided we could skip that service and put more effort into the two later gatherings. Now the number in attendance was zero because we were all staying home to be safe from catching or spreading CoVid-19. And there I was preaching to an empty room!
It’s usually about the numbers, isn’t it? A crowded room of worshipers generates more energy than a sparse gathering. Increasing attendance indicates a successful church. Declining numbers indicate that something is wrong. Empty pews make you start to feel like a coach with a losing record. If no one buys tickets, the circus leaves town, right?
This year, though, none of the rules apply anymore. In the middle of March, we closed the doors of the church as we sheltered in place at home, only going out to buy some food or take a walk around the block. I used the technology of a livestream on Facebook to send liturgy, hymns, prayers and a sermon into the homes of who knows how many as I stood in front of an empty room. I was preaching to no one and everyone all at the same time. And you know what? The numbers didn’t matter. They were irrelevant. I couldn’t tell who or how many were watching.
In a room full of people, other thoughts wander through my head as I lead worship, say prayers and preach sermons. I am constantly wondering, “Where is so-and-so?” Or, “Who is that, I don’t think I know them.” Sometimes, “Oh, that must be visiting family.” Occasionally, “Wow, I haven’t seen them in a long time!” Once in a while, “Where is everyone?” And on other occasions, “This is great! Look at how many people are here!”
None of those thoughts enter my mind when I’m standing in front of an iPhone on a tripod in the middle of an empty room. I’m simply focused on the task at hand. I’m more aware of my voice and my words and my pace. I pause more often. I am immersed in the moment.
That moment is gone. Next Sunday, we will be worshiping together for the first time in seven weeks. We will sit a little further apart and refrain from shaking hands, but our faces and voices will once again fill the room. Rather than focusing my gaze on one small camera lens, I’ll be engaging folks sitting in many different places throughout the semi-circular sanctuary. A camera will still send the message to those who choose to stay home and those who cannot attend.
But I believe the lessons of that moment will linger. I doubt the numbers, high or low, will make as much of an impression on me. But at least I won’t feel like a shepherd without sheep this week. I won’t worry about looking good on camera. I’ll know immediately whether I’ve connected with my audience.
I’m not going to pretend that I will no longer be excited by big crowds and disappointed by sparse ones. I know myself better than that. But I think that like the apostle Paul, I’ve learned a little more about being content with a little and with a lot.