Houses of worship grapple with the future of their online services

"Two years into the pandemic, more religious institutions are asking themselves what a hybrid approach can and should look like." - RNS

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AndyE's picture

I've been Zooming my SS class for nearly 2 years now, even though we've been live in-person for quite awhile.  We had several folks, who for various medical reasons, were not ready to come back live until just recently.  Now that everyone is back, I'm probably going to stop offering the Zoom option unless I get a special request for a particular Sunday.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

AndyE wrote:

I've been Zooming my SS class for nearly 2 years now, even though we've been live in-person for quite awhile.  We had several folks, who for various medical reasons, were not ready to come back live until just recently.  Now that everyone is back, I'm probably going to stop offering the Zoom option unless I get a special request for a particular Sunday.

Seems like a good approach.  We still provide our service online (1 week in arrears) for those who don't come, but it's now down to just a very few who won't come because we aren't checking Covid prep at the door and we're not doing pews closed in the sanctuary with masks required, etc.  I'm not sure when or if we will get those people back, even once the state completely rescinds all requirements for all businesses/organizations/etc.

Dave Barnhart

Craig Toliver's picture

The genie is out of the bottle and there's no turning back!

  • Investments have been made in technology
  • Workers have been trained
  • The convenience has been embraced

Beneficial (has value) in these situations:

  • Sickness
  • COVID shutdowns (now largely past)
  • COVID quarantines (still a thing. Pre& Post travel, Pre surgery, et cetera)
  • Snow days

Ministries that abandon service streaming will fall behind (just like educational institutions that have been late to adopt remote learning)

 

Larry's picture

Moderator

Ministries that abandon service streaming will fall behind (just like educational institutions that have been late to adopt remote learning)

Fall behind in what? I think we need to ask more critically the question of what we should be doing biblically and the best way to do it. It seems hard to make much of a case that disembodied ministry is getting ahead biblically speaking. In education, we are seeing the fruits of disembodied teaching and it is not a pretty picture. The pandemic brought that to the fore and many students sued to get their money back because they weren't given what they were promised; they recognized that online education just isn't the same. 

So it might be that churches "fall behind" particularly if what's ahead is the wrong direction.

T Howard's picture

Larry wrote:

Ministries that abandon service streaming will fall behind (just like educational institutions that have been late to adopt remote learning)

Fall behind in what? I think we need to ask more critically the question of what we should be doing biblically and the best way to do it. It seems hard to make much of a case that disembodied ministry is getting ahead biblically speaking.

I agree with this from a church perspective. You can't really practice the one-another's of Scripture from a computer screen. However, I disagree with your next statement:

Larry wrote:
In education, we are seeing the fruits of disembodied teaching and it is not a pretty picture.

This may be true for younger students who need more directed learning environments. But, for college-level and above, an online learning environment can be effective and provide more access to educational opportunities than the typical brick-and-mortar model.

Larry Nelson's picture

Craig Toliver wrote:

Beneficial (has value) in these situations:

  • Sickness
  • COVID shutdowns (now largely past)
  • COVID quarantines (still a thing. Pre& Post travel, Pre surgery, et cetera)
  • Snow days

My church livestreams our services.  (The services are also available for play-on-demand later.)

In addition to Craig's points, here are some more:

  • "Snowbirds": Being in Minnesota, we have a good number (dozens) of seniors who spend some portion of the winter in warmer states (e.g. AZ or FL).  Although they may be 1,000 miles away, they can watch live wherever they are while they are not attending in person.
  • Travelers: In November I was about 240 miles from home one Sunday, to attend an event that weekend.  It was very nice to tune in (live) to our Sunday morning service from my hotel.  Others traveling for whatever reason are able to likewise watch our services.
  • Missionaries: many of the missionaries we support like to watch our services from abroad, even from several time-zones difference.
  • We've had people moving to the area tell us they first checked us out online from their prior home. 
  • Others who happen to be watching, for whatever reason.

All told, we can see from the metrics that we typically have 500+ "connects" (each of which may represent an individual, a couple, or a family) to our services, from numerous states and several other countries.   

dgszweda's picture

A few comments:

  • In 2021, 4,500 churches closed and 3,000 churches opened.  While that is not great, it sure looks different than 4,000 churches closing in 2020.  Numbers matter.
  • An unhealthy church closing is not a bad thing.  Rising or falling donations do not make a successful church.  The article frames a church in a business sense.  Unfortunately this is the fate of American churches.
  • Theology is important.  Unfortunately this article frames is in operational aspects (i.e. you can't take communion virtually).  But gathering together face to face has theological ramifications.  It is something I have driven on before, which is that, theology is not preached from the pulpit.  As long as the emphasis is more on "feel good" than theology, we shouldn't be surprised.
  • I think online, when used properly, is a great tool.  For many older people, going to church 3 times a week can be very difficult, if not impossible.  Churches have historically been weak in dealing with shut ins or reaching out to those who fall into this category.  Most churches are driving toward pulling in young couples, even theologically sound churches tend to fall into this trap (a young church is considered vibrant, whereas a church with a lot of older congregants is viewed as dying).
  • Like AndyE mentioned above, Zoom can be helpful in SS classes.  My mom teaches a very elderly class (she is 76 and is one of the youngest in the class, with a few at 100+).  Getting to every SS class can be a challenge.  With Zoom, the class has actually grown with many older people feeling invigorated praying for those in the class and taking part in the SS discussions.  It should not replace the in person attendance.  But to tell you the truth, if I had 20 older people praying every day faithfully for my prayer requests, that would be powerful.
  • If feel that many churches feel that online is a threat.  It is probably viewed that way, because the church is unhealthy to begin with, and they are worried people are not coming back.  Instead of viewing it as an opportunity to reach the fringes of society and the congregation.  If the church was healthy and taught theology, people would want to be there and not view online as an option.

 

 

Barry L.'s picture

In person is the optimum in worshiping together, and I think churches need to encourage able bodied members to be present a significant amount of time.  How much in person time is enough? I don't know, but today's society requires members to travel, whether taking care of elderly parents out of town, work situations and relocations, different residences, etc. Alot of people work in one state and live in another because jobs are so fluid and change quicky, people want a home anchor and not move.. Most times they can be there Sundays, but alot of times they can not.  

 

Larry's picture

Moderator

This may be true for younger students who need more directed learning environments. But, for college-level and above, an online learning environment can be effective and provide more access to educational opportunities than the typical brick-and-mortar model.

There were a lot of college students who believe they got cheated when they went to online education during COVID. Some sued and were denied, but not because the claim that the education was better but because of the claim that their contract did not specify in person education. I have done both and had kids do both and there is no comparison. I have preached and taught both. In person face-to-face is far superior for almost everything. My gut is that online education is a money-making scheme, not an educational one. 

Larry's picture

Moderator

today's society requires members to travel, whether taking care of elderly parents out of town, work situations and relocations, different residences, etc. 

No, it doesn't require this. These are lifestyle choices people make (aside from caring for elderly parents). 

Larry's picture

Moderator

We do continue to livestream, primarily for guests and new people searching for a church. Some of our shut-ins watch it. But I think livestreaming has made it too easy for people to skip when in the past they would have shown up. 

Larry Nelson talks about having 500 connects from various states and countries. But have we considered whether that is a good thing? Aside from our snowbirds (who I think go to church where they are as well as watch us), I don't want people watching us from other states as a general rule. Church is embodied and local, not virtual and disembodied. 

I think the COVID shutdown revealed a serious deficiency of ecclesiology in church. The aftermath of the COVID shut down may be worse.

T Howard's picture

Larry wrote:
There were a lot of college students who believe they got cheated when they went to online education during COVID. Some sued and were denied, but not because the claim that the education was better but because of the claim that their contract did not specify in person education.

Some college students are immature and complain about anything that inconveniences them or that they don't like. Welcome to the spoiled generation.

However, those students who buckle down do just fine. My daughter (hs senior) is taking online college classes. She's doing just fine and feels safer than if she had to attend in-person classes. I completed my MDiv taking mostly online classes at BBS Clarks Summit. It was a great experience for me, and one that would not have been possible if I had to move my family to attend seminary.

Regardless, Larry, I agree with you as it pertains to church. That is the point of this thread.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

T Howard wrote:

However, those students who buckle down do just fine. My daughter (hs senior) is taking online college classes. She's doing just fine and feels safer than if she had to attend in-person classes. I completed my MDiv taking mostly online classes at BBS Clarks Summit. It was a great experience for me, and one that would not have been possible if I had to move my family to attend seminary.

Regardless, Larry, I agree with you as it pertains to church. That is the point of this thread.

I mostly agree with your take on this (both education and church).  Church is definitely sub-optimal when done remotely, but it's better than not being able to meet at all.  It shouldn't be a long-term solution for those who just don't want to show up, since the personal aspects are a necessary part.

With education, I think it depends on certain factors, but it can work well at college level, if the students are at all responsible.  I remember my kids doing college online classes (pre-Covid) for some of their basic required classes, and those seemed to work great, from everything I could see.  I'm referring to classes normally taught in a large lecture hall, with many students, where the actual professor doesn't even do office hours (those are handled by TAs or similar).

Even though my college was a long time ago now, I think most of my classes like this could have been handled online without any real loss, if we had had that techology available.  For more advanced classes with small classrooms, lots of interaction, and many office hours needed, or for things like labs/practical experience, nothing really beats being local for those classes.

Dave Barnhart