Much to learn

Today is the sixth Sunday that we have been holding livestream worship without face-to-face worship for our congregation. I’ve learned a lot in those six weeks. We scrambled just to get a livestream out on the first Sunday. Now a few things have fallen into a routine. We’ve learned quite a bit about the technical side of producing a worship service for broadcast. Of course we aren’t as sophisticated as the congregations that are set up for video, with multiple cameras, video operators and a production booth. Like a lot of other things we do, we have kept it simple.

There are a lot of things about how this is working that I simply do not yet understand. I am not sure how effective we are being. Before the pandemic forced the closure of in-person worship, our average attendance was around 125. According to FaceBook, our worship service last week was viewed 205 times. Our Easter Sunday service was viewed 625 times. FaceBook, of course counts devices, not people, so it is possible that some folks were streaming to a smart TV and two or more people were watching together. I know one family of 5 who watched together. So the numbers could be higher. However, FaceBook doesn’t distinguish between people who visit and watch part of the service and those who watch the entire service, so we don’t know how many people are engaged for thee entire worship service and how many watch long enough to decide that they want to move on.

Still, to get those numbers, we are likely reaching people who don’t normally attend our worship services. I know that this is the case because we’ve received comments from many places that are too distant for a reasonable commute. Since I have facebook friends around the world, some of them noticed the post and have taken a look. Many of them belong to other churches and aren’t likely to become members of our community in the sense of full participation in the mission and outreach of our congregation.

Then there is the issue of when people watch. On Easter Sunday, when 625 people viewed our service, there were only about 50 or so watching live during the actual service. It took it about 24 hours to reach 600 viewers and it has taken two weeks to go from 600 to 625. The same is true of our daily prayers. Average views of the prayers are a little over 100, but often it takes two or three days for a prayer video to go above 100. I know that those are not big numbers for the Internet. there are YouTube channels with over a thousand subscribers and tens of thousands of views. I’m not interested in spending my days chasing numbers. My job is to build community and to sustain community in a time of social distancing.

One member commented that he enjoyed “going to church” in his pajamas while eating waffles. I have no problem with the relaxed attitude towards worship and I’ve never been one to care what people wear, but the experience of a gathered community does imply that at some point we are all paying attention to the same thing. Of course, minds wander in face-to-face worship. I get pretty good feedback on our worship services when I stand at the back of the sanctuary and greet people following worship. Someone will tell me that a hymn really touched them, another person will have connected with a prayer, yet another might have found the sermon meaningful. Different people experience different things during the same worship service. I think, however, that the video experience makes this even more pronounced.

I also have to be a bit less personal in the videos we make. I don’t want to say the names of individuals on the videos. I want to be careful to guard the privacy of the people that I serve. Of course confidentiality has always been part of my work. I know a lot of stories that are not mine to tell, but I need to be particularly careful now that we are broadcasting.

Another thing I am noticing is that the days are starting to blend into each other. In my old routine, I was focused on the text and the sermon for the week by Tuesday and by Wednesday I had a pretty good idea of where I was going with my sermon. We’d have choir practice on Wednesday and have a draft of the bulletin finished on Thursday. Now I don’t have a choir, I am doing the bulletins without an administrative colleague to help with that task. There is much less a sense of team leadership and more a list of tasks I need to accomplish. Since I have at least one livestream every day, the days tend to blend into one another. There is less of a sense of a routine. That is good for creativity. I have had to invent all kinds of new ways of doing my job. It is a challenge, however, to consistency. I find that I forget some of the tasks. I often am scrambling to prepare at the last minute. We are living in a sort of crisis mode, which works for a couple of weeks, but doesn’t translate into months very well.

I seem to be forgetting one of the ten commandments - the one about observing the sabbath. By focusing on the concerns of the moment, I’m not looking at the big picture. If, as it appears may be the case, we need to sustain this new mode of operation for months and perhaps even as much as a year, we will need to put in place systems, including systems of self care, that make it sustainable over the long run.

Our church has been prudent with its financial management. We have no debt. We have sufficient reserves. But we don’t know much about sustaining our ministry over a long period of time without regular face-to-face worship.

One thing is certain. There is a steep learning curve to this new way of being and we have a lot of unanswered questions. There is not only much to do - there is also much to learn.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!