I know I’m an oddball, but – I actually enjoyed the experience of online church. In fact, in some ways, I prefer it. And before you respond with all the reasons meeting in person is better, let me say, ‘I hear that.’ I believe that is true for you and maybe even for most people. I totally agree that there are biblical and sociological reasons why coming together is important. This isn’t a counter argument. It’s simply to say – it’s not that simple.
Some of us got a lot out of our time together online and we don’t want to lose it. And it might be worthwhile for all of us to evaluate whether or not there are things that naturally and inevitably happen online that either don’t generally happen in person or we can easily avoid in person because we have the distraction of all the interpersonal things we are craving right now.
I know I’m not alone. The intimacy of peering into each other’s faces on the screen as we prayed and listened made many of us feel more present with each other than when we sit to side by side (or behind) in church. We were more attentive and focused on what was presented. I’m sure for some people there were distractions at home, but for the more introverted and ADD people it was actually an invitation to shut off distraction and just be present.
It was kind of incredible to be able to open this screen on my kitchen table and look directly into the homes and faces of my congregation members not only once a week, but almost any time! Somehow, increased electronic communication normalized phone calls and Zoom visits. Many people who I previously only saw on Sundays (and many only once or twice a month) became regular text, phone, email or Zoom partners. And, I noticed congregation members started reaching out to each other in the same ways.
For me, worship changed as well. The Zoom room didn’t function much as a place to hang out. It didn’t satisfy the need for “watercooler” conversation. Lots of people have talked about the inability to have personal connection in the same way as in-person church. So, that was quickly eliminated as a reason for showing up. Instead, we learned about how to go deep quickly. Those who came every Sunday, week after week – came to pray. And these deeply spiritual, prayerful, often quiet people became leaders. And our spirits grew stronger together and we began to pray the things we really needed to pray, and God bonded us together across space and time as a community learning to have faith.
I recognize that there are many in my own congregation who didn’t see that. But, that’s what I saw. We have new congregation members online that I now call friends because of the frequency of communication – friends I’ve never met in person! Former congregation members who moved away have rejoined and we are much richer for the incredible gift of regaining their presence. Plus, consistency in attendance actually went up! Multiple small groups developed online after years of trying to make this work in person. We ordained two people over the course of the year and are anticipating a baptism for someone who lives in New Jersey!
When I weigh the value of online presence vs. no presence at all, there is no contest!
My prayer for our congregation is that we can open our minds and hearts beyond either-or. Beyond even “hybrid.” To think of these online spaces as yet another room in the church building. To find what unique and sacred activities are actually heightened online and take advantage of them. To explore, invest in, and model ways of using these spaces with grace and a Kingdom mindset as part of our cultural responsibility.
For me, that Zoom room has become a chapel. A prayer closet where I can meet my faith community and God in an immediate and very real way. I’m not saying it’s better. I’m not saying it’s the only way. I’m just saying its real and it’s a reason to thank God. Because, God did something very real in His Church over the last year and a half and He did it when we were deprived of everything we thought we needed to be Church. Regardless of how well we did or didn’t “like” the experience - no matter how glad we are to get back to meeting in person – I will still always hold gratitude and awe in my heart for what God gave us during this strange season.
Rev. Lisa Cole Smith is Senior Pastor/Artistic Director of Convergence in Alexandria, VA.