Five unexpected benefits to virtual church
Church leaders have written much on “how COVID-19 changes everything.” Yet it seems that the goal of church leaders is that everything should eventually return to normal, despite their protestations to the contrary. The literature suggests that some lasting effects of the pandemic will include more virtual congregations, individualism and (gasp) lower financial offerings. Will home churches replace organized congregations? Why do some mega-church preachers defy health warnings and continue to hold services that help spread the virus? I have a pretty cynical answer to the last question.
“We’re a different church now,” one pastor said. “The church needs to find what it is when it can’t meet in person.”
I joke that when “your connection is weak” disrupts a Zoom speaker during worship, it reminds us all that we live in the wake of Pentecost.
“What is that guy saying?”
“Is he drunk?”
“No, it’s the Spirit of Electronic Wizardry.”
With all its weaknesses, Zoom worship has proven very beneficial to us. Our own experiences here in central B.C. may not be typical, but some of what we’ve experienced during the past eight months will probably last. For one thing, the 15-30 people that we meet with (virtually, of course) at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday are all given an opportunity to speak. Both before and after the service, socializing is not so much an option but an assumption. Rarely do people “duck out after the doxology” instead of retiring to the fellowship hall. Sometimes people who are too shy to vocalize prayer requests “in the service” feel free to say them afterward.
Second, we meet with those who want to “visit” from afar any time they want to. So we’ve had Ontarians, Albertans and Manitobans worship with us even when it isn’t the holiday visit season. We experience a fuller communion of the ecumenical church than in a typical Sunday service in a building.
Third, the sermon is short and to the point – pithy – or it may be replaced by many “sermonettes.” For example, in our afternoon Zoom service (“Friends and Family Worship” at 3:00 p.m.) on Sunday, we don’t even have a sermon. Instead, periodically the liturgy stops for comments on the readings, the songs, the prayers. Although it may be difficult to do that with a congregation of 542 members, our Zoom service gives everyone participating the opportunity to contribute to a communal understanding.
Fourth, the singing is . . . well, not very professional. Because the computer doesn’t allow us all hear each other (the time lag in reception makes unison singing sound like another illustration of glossolalia), some worshippers say this is an advantage to them because – with their microphones muted and only Betsey and I with active mics – they have felt able “to try new things with our voices.”
Fifth, we have discovered that – although we’d prefer worship in person – God’s grace is not limited by a computer: we have Holy Communion and receive it online without the leisure or necessity of theological debates. God is with us, unbounded by time and space.
Last, we are finding out just how privileged we are to have a pastor who is flexible and respects the wide variety of people, computer knowledge, vocal strengths and personal quirks (why do some folks slurp their coffee on camera?).
If, when, worship in person does continue in our respective buildings, I am pretty sure that some form of virtual worship will continue. And I hope that when worship in buildings is possible again, it is still the “‘work of the people’ – a work undertaken in the service of everybody,” an offering to God.