The church has changed. We all knew it was coming. Not the devastation as COVID-19 sweeps through our communities; rather, we knew the digital era, online church, and a great change to how we worship and gather as a community was coming. Now it is here. And it is not going back to how it was—not entirely.
Ron Swanson, a marvelous TV character on the hit series, Parks and Recreation, said, “There is no such thing as bad weather; just inadequate clothing and methods of transportation.” The same is true for the church: there is no bad time to share the love of Jesus Christ–just difficult circumstances and a need for a path forward. The Episcopal Church’s way forward is authenticity, and its map might be a Book of Online Common Prayer.
In February the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego, like many dioceses throughout the country, announced that churches could no longer meet in person due to strongly suggested shelter-in-place orders provided by local governments and health officials throughout the diocese. Within the week, dozens of clergy, largely untrained in live streaming or social media, moved church to online platforms. Suddenly Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube became our home parishes, became our cathedrals.
Our new church home is uncomfortable. It lacks something that the physical, in-person worship provided. Music comes through disjointed and out of sync, people refuse to mute, a dog barks from two rooms over, or the priest is the only person who can be heard or seen for close to an hour. This is not how worship was meant to be. This is not how video media is meant to be made for an audience. Yet, online church is beautiful. It is authentic. It is the love of Christ at work in the world through each and every church community, who are uncomfortably bringing church to people in a new way.
And, not surprisingly, most of the clergy in the Episcopal Church did not become priests to make videos or movies. Clergy signed up to create disciples of Jesus Christ through his teachings of love–to tell his stories through our living stories. The quality of online worship unveils this glaring fact: most of the clergy body never thought they’d have to live broadcast online regularly.
Director Richard Linklater, best known for his work on the music-themed comedy School of Rock and the coming-of-age comedy Dazed and Confused told Buzzfeed during an interview, “There are a million ideas in the world of stories. Humans are storytelling animals. Everything’s a story, everyone’s got stories, we’re perceiving stories, we’re interested in stories. So to me, the big nut to crack is how to tell a story, what’s the right way to tell a particular story.”
Up until now, we’ve told the story through a layered, sacramental, and beautiful liturgy prayerfully designed, amended, and reformed over hundreds of years to expose the holiness in the Eucharistic message of Christ’s love for us. A liturgy that is as holy around a smoky campfire as it is in the grandest of cathedrals. A liturgy that unifies us throughout the world. A liturgy that, unfortunately, does not translate well to online video production. We are putting new wine into old wineskins. It may work for a bit, but it’s not going to hold.
We need a new wineskin–a new liturgy for a new type of church. We need a Book of Online Common Prayer.
(No, I am not going to suggest what should go in a Book of Online Common Prayer—that is far above my theological pay grade. We do not need to change our beautiful prayers or alter the sacramental nature of our liturgy. We do need to address that worship services provided 100% online—whether hosted in a church building or from a spare bedroom—need to take into account that video production, like in-person liturgy, has a formula to keep people engaged in prayer and worship. One camera in the chancel of a church, broadcasting Rite II, does not provide a comprehensive worship experience. Just like an hour-long zoom call with lagging audio, pixilated images and people refusing to mute is not the same as ‘being in church.’ The church needs a guidebook on how to move forward with success—a Book of Online Common Prayer.)
Much to the church’s benefit, the online community demands one thing: authenticity. This is something that the church has struggled to develop: a portal for society to experience an authentic church in action. This is that opportunity! This is that portal!
We must remain faithful to a prayer-filled and a Christ centered life—it is a matter of life and death for the church. We are on display. Our new dependence on digital worship guarantees viewers an authentic example of who we are. Show the world what Christianity is about through your work. Through the stumbles, the internet lag, and the dropped live streams, Christ’s love shines through. Our weakness is our strength.
Rest easy. This is new to you, but it is not new. There is a formula for success. The internet has been providing live, community generating content for decades. (Look to Twitch.tv, YouTube Live, and Facebook Live for the most modern examples.)
Do everything to encourage engagement with the chat during your broadcasts. It is NOT the same as talking during church! It means being interactive with your audience. Chat functions are the bread and butter of every live streaming internet community. And the reason is simple–people have a need to be seen. Chat is the portal to be seen by community and an opportunity to be recognized by the talent (the clergy person).
When a new visitor joins the chat, the priest might say: “Hey, [Name] welcome to our broadcast. We’re currently talking about [topic], and we’ve just covered [previous topic].”
Four things happened here: The priest noticed a new visitor, welcomed them by name, made them feel included in the current conversation, and the community recognized their inclusion. Clergy should consider designing their sermons to be more conversational, including the community, allowing them to drive an authentic conversation and be seen.
A tough rule of the internet for the church is to avoid advertising. If you can start the sentence with, “Join us…” it is an advertisement. Society has become amazingly resistant to online advertising. Without appropriate messaging, advertising is immediately rejected at a base level. (This is one reason why some churches have trouble growing their social media followings—every post is an advertisement for a service or offering at their church.) Instead, create content that is for the viewer.
Example: “Why are you loved beyond your wildest imagination!?”
The title poses a question to the viewer as an individual. And prompts the need for an answer. This type of content title prompts more engagement than a “Join us for…” invitation to a worship experience.
It is time to recognize that online we are the old wineskins begging to hold an ocean of new wine. But we can become new again. Let’s imagine what a virtual, online liturgy would be together. We may stumble on the path, but like C.S. Lewis reminds us, “You may forget that you are at every moment totally dependent on God.” And God is pretty dependable.
The Episcopal Diocese of San Diego is planning a series of best practices workshops to help support all aspects of live streaming. Professionals from different schools of video, audio, and online broadcast production will provide guidance and tools to improve our online worship. Look for an invitation to these workshops on the EDSD Facebook page beginning in May.
Please contact Director of Communications, Chris Tumilty, at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are specialized in audio, video, graphic design, digital story-telling, or online community growth.
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