Even after we gather again, ministry will be different. And better. Virtual Church is here to stay
My friends, we made it through a year of online church.
We all got on the steep learning curve of Zoom church and livestreaming, of home Bible studies and individual prayer resources.
We learned what was essential to our faith communities and brought it to one another and the world.
We have risen to an enormous challenge in a time and place when the world needs compassion, faith, hope, and Good News, maybe more than ever before.
And - we are ready to go back to church!
To be able to gather in person again, to be in our own worship space, to give handshakes and hugs, to share bread and wine (and coffee!). To comfort and mourn and celebrate by being present with each other.
Whether it is weeks or months until we are able to do this again, we are counting the days.
Yet even as I also look forward to this time, I believe we will not go back to the way things were when we get there.
The abrupt launch into Digital Ministry - and low-tech personal worship and structured prayer - has changed who we are and what we do as the church in the 21st century.
And even though the circumstances have been terrible, these changes can be good for ministry in times of both spiritual need and plenty.
Here are 5 waysI believe the church has changed - and can keep changing - for the better into the future.
1. Geography is no obstacle We have already seen how Digital Ministry has brought us closer together. It no longer matters if you live in another time zone or on another continent: we can join together in worship and prayer. It doesn't matter how far we live from the church, or what the weather is like, or how late at night it is: we can be there for community gatherings, Christian formation, and Sunday service.
Even when we can gather in person again, this will expand our options if we can't, or don't want to do so. Think of:
church meetings via Zoom, instead of having to go out in the evening
having church online when weather conditions make it too difficult to go out.
leading an extra worship service that is livestreamed for those far away- or a high-quality livestream, oriented towards virtual worshippers, that goes along with our regular service.
Digital Ministry means 'all are welcome' in all kinds of new ways.
2. 'Virtual Pastors' will be more common It's hard to believe that 'online church' seemed like such a foreign concept to so many of us just weeks ago. As a FreeRange Priest, I often coach clergy to take their ministry online, but they sometimes struggle with what that would look like. Not anymore!
Clergy can now lead services, teach courses, offer pastoral care, pray and bless, even conduct funerals and weddings, fully online. We have done so out of necessity, but that now brings us into imagining how we can serve virtually as a vocation:
to bring spiritual care to those who are far-flung geographically, or isolated due to health concerns.
to bring worship and formation to whole communities who prefer to meet primarily online.
to serve small congregations who only get occasional in-person ministry and want to supplement with regular online worship as well.
Virtual pastoring means clergy will be 'Free Range' in new platforms and situations. 3. Congregations will have new - and new kinds of - members It won't just be clergy who will be reimagining ministry. Congregations can think of who is part of the community in ways they never could. I have heard stories these past weeks from parishioners about the joy of worshipping in the same 'space' with friends and family who live far away. I have personally been very touched that my (Roman Catholic) mom and dad have occasionally joined the Episcopal Church I serve!
This doesn't have to end when we can gather in person again. In fact, it is a whole new way we can expand our membership, and even our notion of what church membership is:
virtual members can have their own ways of participating and serving in the life of the church. - special prayers, readings, visual offerings.
virtual members can participate either online or with at-home Bible study, prayer practice, and worship.
virtual members can support small in-person congregations by becoming subscribers to their online worship and formation.
Even smaller and less-resourced congregations can significantly expand their membership.
4. There will be more collaboration and cooperation It has been very inspiring to see how clergy, congregations, and denominations have come together during this fearful and uncertain time. We are sharing resources, offering support, and being the church together, rather than feeling like individual outposts of faith. We really are in this together.
This doesn't have to end. It is definitely time to explore post-denominational, even post-congregational Christian community, and how we are connected with each other in new ways. We may differ in polity, policy, or theology, but we all share the mission of bringing God's love to the world. We can:
join livestream and virtual worship across denominations and congregations.
re-think how we organize conventions and large church gatherings.
re-consider how one virtual pastor could serve multiple congregations in very different geographical and denominational locations.
As congregations and clergy meet differently, we will use resources differently, and require different kinds of leadership and oversight .
5. More people will receive the Good News of God's love We all know it, but we hate to talk about it: church attendance and membership continue to decline dramatically. Yet we live in a world that is in deep need of real meaning, purpose, and hope.
It is very clear that the traditional, institutional, denominational Christian church is not appealing to most people today. It is also clear that people are seeking God in the midst of uncertainty and fear. We have such Good News to share with them!
The mainline church's leap into Digital Ministry gives us an enormous evangelical opportunity:
we can share our own faith more clearly and widely on social media and other digital platforms.
we can make ourselves available for spiritual conversation with those who would not seek it in a traditional church setting.
we can easily invite our friends and neighbors to join us in online worship, Bible study, prayer meetings, and other gatherings.
We can now reach people where they are with the church, instead of waiting for them to come to us.
We will meet in-person again. We will be able to use our sacred spaces to worship in community. We will be able to sing, and hug, and pray side-by-side.
Yet even then, we can carry our new skills and perspectives on sharing the love of God into a new kind of church.