Christianity is unique in teaching that we worship an incarnate and resurrected God. We believe we can know him personally, and that he dwells in us and we in him. This means that even when our normal patterns of worship are disrupted, we are no less members of the body of Christ.
Unlike many other faiths, we don’t need people, places and things to mediate our relationship with God. Indeed 1st Timothy 2:5 says “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”. That cannot change.
But the new normal is not a permanent solution. Our most spiritual moments are designed to be experienced together and Christian worship is inherently physical in nature. We sing together, we laugh and cry together, we exchange a sign of the peace together, and we consume the bread and wine together as often as we meet. Both the Jewish word ‘synagogue’ and the Christian word ‘church’ are not words to do with buildings, but people (they mean gather together and assemble).
Matter matters, people matter, and, though we remain in Christ, this physical time of social isolation has come at real spiritual cost. Therefore, we want to get back together as soon as we can and in this letter I want to share some general thoughts about that with you.
Hope, Plan, Prepare
We’ve been using the phase “hope, plan, prepare” to help us think clearly. We hope to open the building again soon, we plan for the medium-term, but we prepare for something much longer, or even waves of gradual change with good and bad weeks yet to come.
It’s likely that our ability to meet again physically will change at short notice and maybe even vary from week to week. For that reason, we agreed a clear decision-making strategy before the lockdown, and we have been working hard on setting up our technology so that we can adapt as we go.
My best guess is that soon we’ll be able to have some people come to church but that the majority will still meet online. I could imagine being allowed to have people meet outside, being allowed some small groups, and I could also imagine those numbers fluctuating. There will come a time when we have more people here than online, but it could be a long time before our most vulnerable members are able to return. Each phase will bring the challenge of how we craft an experience that is beneficial to all and how we limit numbers, giving everyone the opportunity to gather in turns.
Our ability to meet is determined by the law, by the Bishop, and then by me with the express advice of one of our elders (Becky) who is a physician, and our parish counsel (Mike) who is an attorney. Our Vestry is also heavily involved in decisions like that. They have delegated decision making powers temporarily to a small sub-group and we have become quite good at making decision as a whole group quickly by email when necessary.
In the first weeks of the lockdown our initial priority was to get something up live on the internet. Each week we have improved what we do with two objectives: the first is to present something clear and helpful and the second is to set up the technology in such a way that we could adapt it if and when things change – worst case scenario it has to be usable by one person on their own, best case scenario it has to be discrete enough to allow a congregation to worship in the room and online at the same time.
Hopefully you have seen the video and audio quality improve week by week. The reality is that every little change has taken tens of hours and a lot of skill (Courtney, Bridget, Phil, Terry) to accomplish. If you’d like a look behind the scenes, check out my latest video.
Hopefully, you’ve also seen the style of the service improve a little too. We have learned a lot about the optimal length, style, and simplicity of an online service compared to something when we are all in one room (with children somewhere else instead of on top of us… literally).
The online experiences on YouTube, Facebook, Zoom, Podcast and, church app are amazing. We have a regular 70 people “at” a Sunday service live, and a similar number catching up that day. Assuming that some people share a screen, I think we can safely estimate that our regular attendance is over 200 people each week. We get a lot of data about people’s viewing habits and these aren’t just ‘clicks’ – these are people having a meaningful engagement with the whole service. Ironically, our church has grown during the lockdown as we thought it might.
The small groups for all (virtual coffee hours on Sundays & Tuesdays), women (Tuesday), men (Thursday), children (Friday) and Middle Schoolers and High Schoolers (Saturday) are also really good. The Facebook Friends & Family group has 85 members interacting throughout the week. As for the podcasts, we had 1,000 downloads this March alone. Our app has been installed on 250 devices.
Just 10 years ago much of this would have been impossible and our isolation would have been immeasurably worse. We should praise God for this technology, but remember, none of this is as good as being together.
Hopefully see you soon!
Love in Christ,