This past Sunday I did something I’ve never done before: online distance worship. Truth be told, although I still consider myself a member of First Christian Church, Concord, California, I have not attended worship there for well over two years. There are several reasons for that but at the end of the day there just didn’t seem to be any compelling reason to be there on a Sunday morning.
I was ordained at FCC Concord. I did my student ministry there. I spent many Sundays in the pulpit. I also held many lay leadership roles in the church, including a two-year stint as moderator, but lately I have preferred to be the church rather than be at the church. Still, with the current restrictions in place, I was curious to see how this “distance worship” thing would go.
I have to say I was impressed. The crowd was small, especially for a Palm Sunday. Maybe 30 people altogether, each calling in from their homes using Zoom technology For those of you not familiar with Zoom, it is a computer app that allows people to sign in for a video conference. Everyone can see everyone else, but the person running the meeting can also highlight whoever is presenting at the moment (note to self: even though one can participate at home in their PJ’s if they want, it’s still a good idea to shower, comb your hair and get dressed beforehand — I promise to do better next time!
The pastor at FCC Concord is the Rev. Dr. Leslie Taylor. She did a great job of putting and keeping it all together, even to the extent of having palms in her living room. Worship participants had pre-arranged speaking or musical parts that were well-coordinated. To be sure, it’s not completely there yet, especially in the technical aspects of delivering high-quality sound during the musical portions of the service, but I have no doubt it will get better and more refined over time.<
A couple other things to consider down the road as all this unfolds. The decision of where to worship is no longer limited to the local neighborhood church and to a much greater extent than ever before, the notion of competition within denominations has been introduced. It is said that when a minister leaves a congregation, for whatever reason, twenty percent of the church also leaves. Many of those want to follow the old minister to their new congregation but are strongly discouraged from doing so, either because it is too far away or because they are told it’s too disruptive. Distance worship pretty much eliminates that issue. The notion of think globally, act locally, might very well also become worship globally, act locally, and that’s something church leaders at all levels are going to have to deal with. And it’s also the case that not every local church will have the capacity to pull it off.
Those traditions, like the Disciples of Christ to which I belong, that have a strong emphasis on lay communion will also have to adapt, but that’s an easier thing to change. My family roots in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) go back even before the actual founding of the denomination and the importance of the sharing of the bread and the cup is not taken lightly by me. However, there are ways. At FCC Concord many years ago, for example, a group of young families would gather weekly to bake the bread that would be used in Sunday worship. Variations on this practice and other means of lay participation should be explored.
So, is this the new church? Probably. And just as probable, like pretty much everything in the church, change will not come quickly or easily, but, yeah, this is the new church.
UPDATE: In December, 2020, I had the opportunity of preaching at FCC Concord. I had been assisting Pastor Leslie on a church-related matter and we had been meeting on a fairly regular basis, which gave me the chance to speak with her about preaching in a virtual setting. She told me that the biggest change between a virtual sermon and preaching from the choir was that one did not get to watch the congregant faces in the virtual setting, something all public speakers like in order to judge the receptiveness of their presentation. My mantra has long been “make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, and hope they stay till to the end,” so being able to see and hear my audience as I was speaking was important.
Preparing for the sermon was also different. My biggest concern was finding the appropriate spot in my house to place my laptop for the Zoom presentation. I ended up downstairs sitting in a chair with the iPad on the foot stool.
I think it all went well. I told an opening joke that was generally guaranteed to produce laughter and it did. I was able to see the others on the Zoom call but couldn’t hear them. Not sure if I made anyone cry, but they all did stay until the end, so, in my book, two out of three wasn’t bad.