Creating Meaningful Engagement and Connection in Online Worship

Creating Meaningful Engagement and Connection in Online Worship

In early 2020, our church – Kowloon International Baptist Church (Hong Kong) – began to experience the shocks of an epidemic that was quickly spreading throughout Asia. By late February, we had to close our doors to comply with local social distancing[1] regulations. Like many other churches, we were unprepared for virtual worship services, so we cobbled together a self-guided worship order each week and attempted to ramp up communication through social media.

When we realized that COVID-19 was becoming a global issue that would not quickly recede, we invested in equipment and training so our church family could worship together using live stream technology. Over the ensuing months, we learned much about the importance of connecting with one another and how to instill a sense of community among our people, even in the midst of physical separation.

Firstly, we saw the necessity of adopting language that represented our goal in online worship: engagement. We made an effort to avoid terminology such as “watching the service” or “viewing the videos.” Instead, we invited people to “join together online” and “participate” in times of singing, reading Scripture, praying, and studying God’s Word. We emphasized that “we are the church,” and that the church is not merely a building or physical location.

Secondly, to help people have a more concrete understanding of how to fully participate in an online gathering, we assembled a “Worship at Home” guide. [Resource link included below.] Practical suggestions included establishing a particular space and time for worship in the home, removing potential distractions, putting mobile devices on silent, and preparing materials beforehand (a Bible, a note-taking device, online giving of tithes and offerings, and Lord’s Supper elements). We reiterated that singing helps us internalize the message and acknowledged that the sound of the voice was less important than the condition of the heart. 

For families with young children, our worship guide offered suggestions for kids, such as using blocks or toys to build something they learned about in a Bible story or providing coloring pages and pictures with Scripture verses or blank paper for drawing. During times of singing, kids can play an instrument, dance, clap, or move around the room. As hands-on learners, children need the opportunity to express their understanding of God in age-specific ways. Online worship at home is, in fact, a unique opportunity to teach children what it means to join with a community of believers in praising God and studying the Bible. Little ones who would ordinarily be “too wiggly” to sit through an in-the-building service can especially benefit from this time of family-friendly worship in the home.

Our worship guide encouraged families with older children or youth to interact with one another through conversation and discussion. A live stream worship service can be paused to address questions, or parents can create a time of dialogue during a meal or outing later in the day. The shared time of online worship lends itself to finding common ground with family members of different ages.

For those in our church family who live alone or who live in households without other Christians, our worship guide listed such suggestions as gathering in pairs or small groups to participate in the service together (when appropriate and safe). Connections through online social platforms also give opportunity for individuals to join in a worship service with other believers in real-time, even while physically separated.

Thirdly, while trying to facilitate meaningful live stream worship services, we recognized a deep sense of disconnection among our people. One way we addressed this feeling of isolation was to include familiar faces in our online worship times. We invited people to send us photos of their at-home worship, and – with their permission – we incorporated these pictures into weekly online services. Our virtual community felt enriched when we could see one another engaging in these same live stream worship experiences: a middle-aged couple sitting on a sofa, a young family with kids spread around the den, a dancing child, a mother holding the family dog, a group of friends sitting outside on a park bench, young adults connected on a Zoom call while joining the online service.

We also made a deliberate effort to incorporate various members of our church community into the live stream worship services. The local social distancing regulations often allowed only a few people to be present in our building on a Sunday morning, so we pre-recorded individuals reading Scripture, praying, or sharing a testimony. Stories from church members who faced similar struggles or who experienced God’s help in a specific way brought inspiration and reassurance.

Children, in particular, were eager to participate. During a sermon series focused on hope, we asked kids to record themselves reciting a Bible verse about the hope we have in Christ. At Christmas, we invited kids to share their favorite part of the story of the birth of Jesus. As a church family, we loved seeing the faces of children taking part in worship, and we marveled at how much they had grown since we last saw them in person. These video clips, when added to our live stream worship times, gave new energy and encouragement to our church community.

Lastly, in addition to providing at-home worship services on Sundays, we established a twice-monthly online worship experience called “Refresh.” Every other Friday evening, volunteers from our worship leadership team produced a 10-15-minute time featuring prayer, Scripture reading, and worship music.

The flexibility of this schedule and format allowed us to focus on different themes in various ways. Sometimes we included pre-recorded interviews with members of our church as we addressed faith-related topics. On other occasions, we introduced new songs, looked deeper into the meaning of favorite worship songs, explored ways of enriching our family worship times, or experienced moments of laughter. In December, we held a special live Christmas carol sing-along online, which gave our people a chance to sing Christmas songs that were especially meaningful to our community. Throughout 2020, our ongoing Friday evening online gatherings gave us another opportunity to engage with one another and worship together during the week.

As our church family continues to walk through COVID-related struggles and social distancing requirements, we keep seeking more ways to connect, to engage in meaningful worship times together as the body of Christ, and to encourage each other as followers of Jesus.

[1] i.e. Physical distancing. We recognize that the terms “social distancing” and “physical distancing” are interchangeable, but that depending on the country, people group and language, one term may be used over another in the local context.


Dear God, in times of uncertainty and chaos – both within and around us – teach us to build and strengthen connections with one another. Show us how to create times and places for interaction with others from our church communities. Help us see opportunities instead of roadblocks as we face extraordinary challenges related to COVID-19. May we find our hope in you, and may we encourage one another – and all the more as we see the Day approaching. Amen.


Download a sample “Worship at Home” Guide.

For Reflection and Discussion

  1. What are some ways we can increase a sense of community in corporate worship online, despite physical separation?
  2. How can our personal stories of God’s provision be utilized to bring hope to others in our community?
  3. What practical ideas would help us – and individuals and families in our church – fully engage in a live stream worship service?
  4. How can we encourage families to teach and model for their children what it means to participate in corporate worship?
Rethinking What It Means “To Gather” the Congregation

Rethinking What It Means “To Gather” the Congregation

At the South Yarra Community Baptist Church (SYCBaps) in Melbourne, Australia, moving worship and congregational life online during our city’s four-month hard lockdown proved so successful that there is now a serious conversation about the possibility of continuing it and not returning to physically gathered worship. This is particularly surprising for us because our worship over the last two decades has been richly sensory and sacramental with a strong commitment to embodiment. We did not anticipate it adapting well to an online format. 

What people say they value most about our worship is its radically participatory congregational style. Every regular participant has parts of the Sunday service that they lead, usually from where they are sitting. For most of a pre-COVID worship service, there was no one up front. Everything happened from within the circle, and everyone had a part to play. This meant that when we went online, the common practice of pre-recording or live-streaming footage of a few key leaders conducting a service from the church would have been a big turn-off for our people. It simply would not be “our” worship. We needed to find a way to “gather” the congregation online for a real-time, live, participatory event in which everyone could contribute to making the worship happen. We knew we would have to give up some things, but the congregational participation level was non-negotiable. 

Gathering on the Zoom platform and screen-sharing slides with texts, music, and visual imagery enabled this for us. Using Zoom’s side-by-side mode allowed people to see both the slides and most of the congregation at the same time. The texts of the prayers and songs that people usually had in a booklet now appeared on the slides. Each person knew which numbered slides were theirs to lead and could unmute themselves to do so. To our amazement, this replicated our previous experience remarkably well.

Some things had to be adapted more than others, and some adaptations had surprising consequences. For example, it had been our practice to follow a general confession of sin with an individual absolution in which each person turned to the next, marking the sign of the cross on the neighbor’s forehead and telling them by name, “Your sins are forgiven. Be at peace.” Thus, the absolution was passed right around the room to each person in turn. How could we replicate anything like this online? Our solution was to use Zoom’s spotlight feature to highlight each attendee in turn, so that the rest of the congregation could, in unison, tell that person that their sins were forgiven. It lacks the dimension of touch, but people can mark themselves with the baptismal sign of the cross as they are told of their forgiveness, and those gathered in small household groups can still mark one another. 

What we slowly realized was how important this component of our worship was for achieving a sense of being truly gathered in one another’s presence. One of the problems with online worship for many churches is that since most worshippers are only the receivers of streamed footage that they can watch at different times, it is difficult for them to avoid engaging simply as consumers or spectators. There is a legitimate question about whether going online hasn’t so much caused this as simply exacerbated and exposed something that was already happening in our church buildings. But certainly online, as a viewer, you know that the leaders are not aware of your individual presence, and your absence would make no difference to what happens. But for SYCBaps, in our online gatherings, even if you are a first-time visitor and do not have any parts to lead, when your image is spotlighted and you are addressed by name by the whole congregation, assuring you that you personally are forgiven by God, you are also receiving an unmistakable assurance that your presence is noticed and honored as important.

In the first few weeks when I was frantically busy trying to prepare all our worship materials for this new format, I freed myself from sermon preparation by inviting a few visiting preachers online. We quickly realized that this opened up the opportunity to have visiting preachers from all over the world without having to wait for them to visit our shores in the flesh. Not only has this enabled us to build stronger connections with other churches around the world, but we have been able to hear firsthand reports of how the pandemic was impacting other countries and how the churches in those places were adapting.

Zoom also gave us the means to gather people during the week for prayer and mutual support, something that was obviously going to be more important than ever during months of enforced physical isolation. With our congregation scattered across a large metropolitan area, we had not previously been able to gather people regularly for daily prayer. Lockdown intensified the need and Zoom provided the means. Within a few weeks, in addition to our main Sunday service, we had another 18 short prayer gatherings a week – morning, late afternoon, and nighttime, six days a week. 

At the time of writing, we have been out of lockdown and mostly COVID-19 free here in Australia for three months, but attendance at these daily prayer gatherings has not waned. About half the congregation attends at least once a day, and about three quarters at least once a week. Not only is that a lot more gathered prayer than was going on before, but after each of these gatherings, most people stay and chat with one another. Much of the congregation is spending far more time in one another’s company than ever before, sharing both small-talk and deep concerns. Paradoxically, the physical isolation of lockdown actually brought us closer together! A number of people have said that these daily gatherings saved their sanity during the months of lockdown.

As the months went by, more unexpected benefits began to emerge from this new manner of gathering, and this is where our story begins to move from one about the church’s worship, fellowship, and spiritual formation to one about new possibilities in mission. 

The first thing we noticed was that the numbers at worship were up. The long-term regulars became more regular. Some of this was just that during lockdown, people felt their need for connection more, and there were few competing activities and not much else to do. But it wasn’t only that. There were people whose increasing age and declining mobility had been making it more and more difficult to get themselves to church each week and who found the online worship far more accessible. Suddenly they were there every week again. Others who had moved away permanently or temporarily began rejoining us again because distance was no obstacle. In one amusing case, a young woman who had moved overseas for twelve months and was a bit anxious about missing her church for so long actually only missed one Sunday before we had to move online and she was able to rejoin us from the other side of the world!

Over time we have identified five distinct groups of people who have been significantly advantaged by our move online (in ways that are not specific to lockdown), all of whom have not previously found church working well for them:

  1. People whose mobility is diminished by age or disability. This includes many who are confined to long term care facilities.
  2. People with disabilities that limit their ability to connect in the physical environment. For example, one long-term member has impaired vision and hearing. In the church building, when everyone is leading prayers from different parts of the room without microphones, he cannot hear very much. Online, he can turn up the sound as much as he likes and can magnify parts of the screen when he needs to.
  3. People who live in remote localities that may not have access to a church.
  4. People whose lifestyle means that they are often in different places from week to week.
  5. People who are living interstate or overseas who want to worship with us. 

There are, of course, people for whom the online worship is more difficult, and who hunger for a return to physically gathered worship. Most notable among those are people who spend too much time on Zoom for work, and those with young children who particularly miss the physical activity and physical interaction that cannot be replicated online. 

But we are now facing a dilemma. Attendance from the five categories above has grown through the year so that now if we terminate the online gatherings, we will be casting adrift nearly half the congregation. And although our unique style of worship adapted surprising well to the online environment, it would be very difficult to make it work with a hybrid of the online and physically gathered. For both technical reasons (such as needing to make every person in the church building audible to those online) and liturgical reasons, there is a very real danger that trying to create a hybrid will significantly diminish both versions of the experience and simply create the worst of both worlds. 

So the pressing question is: Is there a new call of God emerging in our recognition of these five people groups who are benefitting from our online worship and congregational life? Knowing that it is not possible for any congregation to be all things to all people, is God calling us to accept the cost and refocus our ministry and mission toward these identifiable groups of people who have not found church sufficiently accessible in the past? We’re not yet sure, and the conversation has a long way to go. 

For Reflection and Discussion

  1. Taking worship online inevitably involves change, and some things have to be sacrificed. Given the longstanding Baptist commitment to the congregational nature of church life, how could we reshape our online worship service so that it encourages the active participation of the congregation?
  2. In some churches, people said their ongoing engagement in congregational life and worship was the thing that got them through the crisis of lockdown. Other churches are beginning to fear that many people will not return because when they most needed their church, it was not there for them. What could be some of the contributing factors for these two divergent phenomena, and what could your church learn from it?
  3. Has your church noticed there are some groups of people whose engagement with the life, prayer, and ministry of the church has increased or been enhanced by the new patterns that have emerged during the pandemic? Are they similar to the groups named in this article? Or could you name other such groups?
  4. SYCBaps Church featured in this article is actively trying to discern God’s calling to them regarding which people group they should focus their future ministry on. Has your church engaged in an active discernment process before? Or during the pandemic? 
Church Budget Planning in a Pandemic

Church Budget Planning in a Pandemic

I know every church doesn’t follow the same rhythms, but in the last two churches I pastored, Labor Day to Christmas was my most hectic time of year.  In addition to the normal busyness of congregational life, we created our annual plan for the next year.  And at the top of the list of significant planning was the process of creating the next year’s budget.  

Most of the time, we look backwards before we look forward.  We make our decisions about our financial future based on the recent past.  Of course, that suggests a certain amount of stability and predictability, but what are we supposed to do when the recent past has been anything but stable and predictable? Can anyone tell me what unemployment is going to look like six months from now?  Does anyone know when we’re going to have global access to a vaccine? Yeah, me neither. 

So how are we supposed to plan during all this uncertainty?  Here are three suggestions you might consider as you start your process.

  • Make a plan but build in flexibility.

    A few years ago, I was pastoring a church and we were in the middle of a major stewardship campaign that was going to have an enormous impact not only on the budget but also on the strategic direction of our congregation. We had decided, however, that we were going to base any plans we made on actual pledges that year.  That made budget planning a real challenge. So, believe it or not, we made out three different budgets. We called them our Chevrolet budget, our Buick budget, and our Cadillac budget. The basic idea was that we had some definite costs that were in all three budgets but variations on the theme that made up the rest.  

    Taking that kind of step involves a lot more work for the staff and lay leader(s) that oversee the process, but it also enables you to be intentional with your spending no matter what happens. Every church budget has some costs in it that are basically set.  You’re going to pay your electric bills, your insurance costs, and you’re almost certainly going to pay your personnel what’s in the budget. So, when a downturn hits, churches tend to cut back on mission and ministry. There are ways, however, to structure your budget to make certain you pay for what’s most important in your mission and ministry budget – not just what happens first in the year. If you start with a lean budget but with the flexibility to scale up as the year progresses, then as long as you’ve got what’s most important in that lean budget (even if it’s later in the year), you’ll have the funds to carry it out. 

    Part of the reason we took the step of creating several different budgets that year was for planning purposes, but another reason was more about what that kind of effort communicated to the congregation. Doing that kind of work earned our leadership a significant amount of trust from the congregation. We didn’t just make a plan – we told them what the plans were and why we were making them.  
  • Over-communicate what you’re doing and why.

    Information relieves anxiety and builds trust, and I probably don’t have to tell you this, but these are anxious times on a variety of levels. On the other hand, if the members of your church know that you’re taking the challenges into account and making a plan not just to keep the lights on but to engage in meaningful mission and ministry even during this pandemic, they’re going to do everything they can to support that. You may feel like what you’re saying about any financial plans that you’re making is incredibly obvious, but not only should you be stating the obvious, you should probably be repeating it over and over. People always gravitate toward calm certainty in the midst of crisis, and so one of your most important jobs in the coming months will be to calmly remind your people that the work of God is still ongoing and that they can help make it happen with their stewardship.  

    And speaking of stating the obvious, I probably don’t have to tell you that it’s also a good idea to name (acknowledge) that some of the people in your church are being pinched by the financial aspect of this crisis and that you expect that to have an impact on their ability to give. In its own way, naming that out loud and reminding them that part of the financial ministry of the Church is to care for its own will also stir the ones who can give to do so. Words matter – even more so in a crisis. Use yours to build trust and set direction. 
  • Emphasize impact.  

    Providing information is one of the two most important things you can do to build and maintain a positive spirit in your congregation in the midst of this crisis, but there’s a second thing that’s just as important – giving people a way to make a difference.  

    Part of what makes this pandemic so challenging for so many of us is that it feels so out of control. There’s nothing you and I can do to make a vaccine get here faster.  And yet, while that’s true medically, we can certainly provide a way for the people of God to make a real impact on those who are hit the hardest by this pandemic. Over the past few months, I’ve been paying close attention to the congregations who seemed to have side-stepped the worst financial aspects of this pandemic. The ones that are doing the strongest financially almost all seem to have something in common – they gave the people in their congregations a way to make a substantive impact on the people who were hurting. One staff team in Richmond, Virginia, asked the Finance Committee of their church to take all the staff development money in the budget for this year and next year and shift it to local missions. The word got out in the congregation, and checks started coming in to match the amount. In a few weeks, the church quadrupled its local missions line item and started advertising that they had a fund to help the unemployed and the underemployed. A church in Florida set a goal to help a local non-profit focused on hunger relief. A member of the church gave a matching gift and once again the word spread. When it was all said and done, the church doubled the amount of its highest donation ever.  

    It would be easy to look at next year’s budget and simply hold the line or make a small cut, but a budget isn’t just a bunch of numbers. It’s a statement about values and about your faith. You may very well need to cut next year’s budget for your church, and you shouldn’t feel like a failure if that’s the right decision. But next year’s budget should still make a statement about what’s important. My advice is to make a plan that gives your people a way to make an impact on the people hit the hardest by this crisis. If you make that kind of plan and you spend some time and energy telling them why that’s the plan, you might be surprised at the result.

For Reflection and Discussion

  1. What has been the most challenging aspect of budget planning over the last year?
  2. How can you incorporate the concept of a flexible budget into your planning?
  3. What steps can you take to communicate effectively with your church/community about budget needs and plans as you prepare for the coming year?
  4. How can you celebrate the impact of what God has done and is doing through the faithful generosity of your community?
Zoom Ecclesiology: The Church Scattered and Gathered

Zoom Ecclesiology: The Church Scattered and Gathered

For those of us in the Baptist way of being church, three keywords of ecclesiology are covenant, fellowship, and body. I want to explore the form that these are taking virtually in our experience today of lockdowns, quarantines, and self-isolation as well as our use of such networking programs as Zoom.


This is a special word for Baptists, and it has been since our earliest days. Churches, we have believed, are gathered by covenant, whether written down or not. Covenant is an agreement in two dimensions: a vertical commitment to God in Christ in the power of the Spirit and a horizontal commitment to each other. In our gathering together, we make actual in time and space the eternal covenant of God for the redeeming of all creation. The one who makes and mediates this covenant is the risen Christ. So in covenant we do not just choose to gather together as one option among others; we believe that we are being gathered by Christ. Gathering is not merely a voluntary matter but a question of obedience and discipleship.

In days of lockdown, we are still being gathered by Christ. It is a matter of covenant responsibility to each other to gather in whatever way we can. A Zoom ecclesiology based on covenant relationship means that we don’t just choose to use social media, if we have it, to gather – whether by laptop, tablet, or phone. We are being called by Christ to be faithful to each other. And if we have members who have no means of digital communication or who cannot use it, we are under the compulsion of covenant to find an alternative.

We will shortly be in a period of mixed format for doing church when some members of the congregation will feel it safe to gather in a building, but others will still prefer to gather at home using the internet. This makes it all the more important for members of a congregation to be faithful to each other in meeting for worship by whatever media it can use. This means, I suggest, a commitment regardless of the efficiency or the professionalism of the product. I mean that once we are into the media game, choice often takes over. We look for the most attractive product, perhaps the most entertaining material. We may ask who’s offering the best YouTube worship service or televised service? Who’s got the best music, the best videos, the best preachers? The local church product may inevitably look less attractive than other offerings freely available to us into which large costs and huge resources have been poured. But I believe that whatever the form of presentation of a local church, we are committed to be involved, committed to be there with the fellow believers with whom we have been drawn into covenant. I believe it’s not a matter of choice. It’s not a voluntary principle – it’s covenant commitment to God and others.


If we now turn our minds to the second term, “fellowship,” it is easy to shrink the idea into meeting together in one place (church or chapel) for worship or more socially for tea, coffee, and conversation – all of which is valuable in itself while difficult to achieve now. But I want to say that our fellowship is more than either local or even human.

In prayer and worship, we are being drawn more deeply into the eternal fellowship, the koinonia of the triune God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – a communion of inexhaustible life and love. In that fellowship, embraced in the flowing currents of love and justice in God, is a vast community. 

God is making room for all within God’s own self. I mean people of all ages, in all places, present and past. There are people there who are inside and outside the visible church. The Trinity, we might say, is God’s own Zoom program. It is the largest social network there can be – a web far greater than the internet.

Now, this is of course an encouragement to us. We are actually never alone, however self-isolated we are, but held in God’s social media. When we pray for others, we are adding our love to God’s own love for them. As we pray for others, God is communicating our care and concern to them because they are held in God’s network of relations. God is making our love for them a part of God’s own love. So our prayers under lockdown should be more than local as they tend to become. We should have the confidence to have the widest vision.

This fellowship also calls us to make an effort to open up the circle of our fellowship to other people’s social circles. This period, when many more people are using the internet, offers an opportunity to share links to our particular fellowship and to invite others to connect. In this connection, we must be open to hearing the stories of others, and then we will learn a great deal more about what our own faith means. We shall learn more about what God is doing in the world, and we shall learn more about our Christ who is out there in the world. You could call this widening of fellowship “mission,” but it is of course God’s mission, missio dei, not ours.


In the New Testament, the phrase “the body of Christ” is not just a figure of speech or a metaphor. Today we might say of medical staff that they are “a fine body of women and men,” and that’s a helpful image. But “body of Christ” means even more than this. It means that Christ is using human bodies and even materials of the natural world to become visible in our world and to offer himself to be met and touched as people could do during his earthly life on the dusty roads of Galilee or in the streets of its towns.

This is why “body of Christ” in the New Testament has three meanings: it is the glorious risen body of Christ, the communion bread, and the Church. These are not three different meanings. They fuse together. The risen body of Christ becomes present through the breaking of bread in the community of believers. So as we look around a congregation in a church building, the face of Christ takes form and shape as we look at the many faces of those gathered there. Like an identikit picture, the features of Christ come together through the many faces, and the face of Christ stands out and can be seen, not in one person alone but in fellowship together.

Yet we often can’t see each other’s faces when we are gathered in a building like a chapel. Here our gathering online through technology like Zoom gives a special opportunity for ‘re-membering’ (putting together) the body of Christ. The screen offers a new possibility for the face of Christ to be ‘re-membered’ in the faces on display there, combined with the voices of those who are engaging with us by phone. There are, of course, those members who cannot use social media. We need to put photographs of them on the screen to join the montage of faces, to see the face of Christ properly.

When we cannot embrace each other or link hands, it is more difficult to experience “touching” the body of Christ. But sharing the Lord’s Supper online can be an important way of putting together the features of Christ and of touching his body. Breaking the bread does not have to be done at a distance. Members who are part of the covenanted fellowship can have bread and wine or juice with them and can join with the ordained minister in co-consecration, using the “words of institution,” or as I would prefer to say, the words of consecration. All members can say with the minister and –above all – with Christ, “This is my body. This is my blood.” So word and action can come together in each place. The presence of Christ can be known more deeply through the broken bread and through the great cloud of witnesses who surround us on the screen, through the phone, or through their pictures.

If, and as, we move into a time of mixtures of meetings, some of the congregation in a church building, some still self-isolating, others having been house-bound long before COVID-19, we should seek to actualize a Zoom ecclesiology in this situation. For example, we can have the video, voices, or pictures of those who are at home up on a screen in front of those who are gathered in the building as fellow participants in worship. It may be that having had a period of lockdown will give us the vision and the skills to worship in a way that makes even more real our covenant and fellowship in the body of Christ.

For Reflection and Discussion:

  1. Christians have been forced to redefine what it means to “gather” in these days of COVID-19 restrictions. What alternatives to traditional, in-person gatherings have you developed to help your community connect?
  2. How has the internet allowed global Christians to widen their fellowship? Share specific stories.
  3. Sharing the Lord’s Supper is typically very hands-on and personal. What alternative methods have you tried for Communion and what were the results?
A Future for Church?

A Future for Church?

Hey you, out there in the cold
Getting lonely, getting old
Hey you, standing in the aisles
With itchy feet and fading smiles[1]

Many of us wonder about the future of church while asking ourselves some questions. One is about the attraction of an action. We’ve all stood during a service with an impossibly enthusiastic person exhorting us to “do the actions” (happily, you’re just about to have the chance to “do some actions”). Another is – if music is from here (do the actions, now ­– hold right arm out sideways horizontally) to here (do the same with left arm), how did the church end up with a musical range that’s often as limited as this (hold palms facing each other about three inches apart)?

A final one – why is it that so many services today are still so like the ones I remember going to with my grandparents, born in the days of Queen Victoria herself? 

Well, things are going to have to change. COVID-19 has forced us to look over the parapet – to do church differently. Surprise, surprise, the much-feared end times (of the church, not the world) haven’t hovered into view. Technology has proved popular with all age groups. My 85-year-old aunt has got herself an iPad and mastered Zoom (which she’s sure is some kind of magic) to the point where she’s happily taking a regular part in her church’s life. 

The interesting bit is that her health hasn’t allowed her to get to church in person for some years. Now, for the first time in ages, she’s fully a part of the church, and she’s loving it. She’s not looking forward to the end of lockdown because she fears that the church will just revert to what it did before, and she’ll be left once again with no way to engage. That’s the key opportunity as we look to a post-virus future. We can learn from what we’ve needed to do in lockdowns and enable a very different kind of engagement.

What’s not on the table (at least for churches that want to thrive) is “going back to normal.” We can’t pretend the last year didn’t happen and simply start doing what we were – largely unsuccessfully – doing before. 

In one very large church in the central belt of Scotland, they’re not sure that they’ll ever go back to a weekly program of physical meetings. Their rapidly growing online program of engagement is reaching new audiences without losing existing ones. Before the virus they had physical services and only one group of people came to them (quite a big group to be fair). They’ve gone from having one audience to three.  The one they had before is still there meeting online in various ways, but they now have a second audience of those who were on the fringes of the church but rarely came. That group is growing with all kinds of new, unforeseen points of engagement with the church. And they’ve discovered a third audience – a large diaspora who used to go to the church, has moved elsewhere in the world, and is finding new ways to engage with it to their delight.

I’m pleased to be able to anticipate the death of the “we need a children’s worker” guilt trip. I’ve heard so many churches buy in to the misguided lie that “if we get the children, we’ll get the parents.” Even if that were true (which it isn’t), we shouldn’t be doing it. Instead of a prevailing sense that we’ve somehow completely failed in engaging with children and young people, how about a new way forward?  Churches who can afford a youth worker are starting to realize they’d be better seeking an online (or digital) pastor. Someone whose task is not to just replicate the Sunday service online. Instead, they’ll aim to open up radical ways to engage with new audiences of all ages and of all kinds because suddenly all bets are off. Sunday morning services – not necessarily. Having to wait until the mission workers come home to talk to them – why? Having to fight your way across town for a meeting – no need to. 

Digital engagement will also change the governance of many churches who are currently stuck because their constitution doesn’t enable remote debate and voting. Like the church in vacancy who can’t move forward because their governing instrument doesn’t provide for anything other than people voting in a physical room. They can’t even change that bit of their constitution because to make the change they all need to vote in a room! Online isn’t everything though. It can’t replicate how we interact with each other physically. An online room doesn’t allow us to interpret tiny changes in body language subconsciously or replace what we glean from the look in someone’s eye. But it offers new engagements for new audiences, for new thinking, for new leadership, for new governance, for a new way of being church. For my 85-year-old aunt, she’s so looking forward to that, and to great new ways[2] of engaging with the church she loves but can’t ever physically attend.

Praise God.

[1] Pink Floyd, “Hey You”, 1979,  The Wall.

[2] Isaiah 43:18-19.

For Reflection and Discussion

1. How have you responded to the new church environment caused by COVID-19?
2. How have people reacted to your responses? Think about both church-goers and also people outside the church.
3. Are there even more creative ways in which you could respond to the challenges of COVID-19, especially for people outside the church?