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The good and the not-so-good of digital church

In a faced-covered, quarantined, CoVid-19 world, many churches like mine adapted to streamed online worship services. In some respects, it worked well. In other ways we struggled. Either we’re still just not used to virtual worship or we aren’t cut out for a digital existence. Will this define us from now on, or is this just a season in the life of the church?

As I ponder my own experiences, I see both blessings and failings in the digital church. Here are my observations, as both preacher and worshiper.

We reach more than ever!

As soon as we began to stream our services via Facebook and YouTube, we not only brought worship into the homes of our members, but reached people in faraway places. Our sphere of influence became the globe as family, friends and complete strangers watched and listed to the music and the message. One memorial service we streamed had viewers in New York, Hawaii, Jamaica, England, and South Africa. Those who couldn’t travel could be with us.

I have had the chance to watch and worship with my son, a pastor in Dallas, TX. I don’t often get to hear him preach. Now, I never miss his sermons and am always come away blessed.

The challenge of technology

However, we do not hold corporate worship in a recording studio or on a sound stage. It is one thing to fill a room with sound. It is another to capture it for broadcast. The first few weeks were recorded on my tripod-mounted iPhone X in an empty sanctuary. The cavernous echoes of that empty room made my voice hard to understand. After a month or so, we stepped up to my Macbook Air propped up on a cardboard box in the fifth row of the church. I could patch my microphone into that device for better audio. But since we worship in a room with a lot of windows and natural light, the video was a challenge. When it became apparent that we might be doing this for a long time, we installed a real camera. However with each improvement, the learning curve becomes steeper.

The learning curve was steep for much of our congregation, too. I discovered just how many had never been exposed to Facebook or YouTube, and really didn’t know how to use their phones or computers. So they were not only blessed by being able to watch our worship services, but they took a giant leap into the communications of the twenty-first century.

Is anyone really watching?

I’ve preached to large audiences and small crowds, but never to just a camera. I’ve long believed that a sermon really isn’t a sermon until it is both preached and heard. In front of my phone, I was preaching, but was anyone listening? I had no idea. Usually I can watch the reaction on the faces of the congregation. But in those moments I could only picture their smiles, nods or grimaces in my mind.

Streaming services report analytics for your videos, including the average time people actually spend watching. The average time is always far shorter than the actual length of a sermon. Sure, you can tune out a speaker in front of you, but it’s even easier to click away from a digital sermon.

My own digital worship watching experience was a challenge. As I sat watching in front of my computer or TV, I was at home, not at church. I was surrounded by distractions I could escape from at church. There I can step away from the world for a moment of peace and hope. But at the dining room table, I was still in that demanding and uncertain world. That peace and hope seemed far away.

What about the people?

It’s great to be able to worship in your pajamas with a cup of coffee and plate of breakfast in front of you. But what about the people? What about the people whose voices can join to sing liturgy and hymns? Chances are you’re just listening, unwilling to perform solo. What about the conversations you have before and after (and during!) worship? You can’t catch up with folks you haven’t seen all week, share jokes, complain about the weather and comment on the news. That interaction is an important part of Sunday morning, too. Even though our interactions are elbows rather than hugs, six feet apart and covered with masks, we are with people. We are with people who share our beliefs, share our joys and sorrows, share their stories and listen to ours. I don’t think we ever imagined how much we would miss that.

When someone who’s been in the hospital is back in church, we witnesses to the gift and miracle of God’s healing. When the small voices of children break the silence and also join us in prayer, we find ourselves in the presence of the greatest members of the kingdom of God (Jesus’ words, not mine). When we gather together at the altar for the sacrament, we find ourselves in the presence of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, praising God and singing, “Hosanna!”

This is our world

For better or worse, digital church is here to stay. This our world. I bank and pay my bills online, do much of my shopping online, and get just about all of my news online. Many see their doctor, go to school, and order restaurant meals via a screen. The church is a part of that world. But the church also affords people the chance to be together, something we really don’t want to live without.

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