The church and media

Yesterday, our Bell Choir had its first rehearsal since Christmas. The choir took a short break following Christmas and then the church responded to rising covid infections and the crisis in health care delivery in our community by refraining from in-person gatherings. As the infection rate drops and the statistics improve, the congregation is anticipating a return to hybrid worship, with a combination of online and in-person worship beginning as soon as next week, if all goes as anticipated. Our bell choir is very small at present, ringing mostly pieces written for eight or 12 bells. It was good to gather for a few minutes to read through some music that might be rung for worship during Lent and Easter.

This is my first experience as a ringer in a bell choir. The congregation we served in South Dakota has a wonderful bell choir and I served for several years on the board of our community bell choir in Rapid City. I’ve been around bells and bell ringers enough to have learned a fair amount about the instruments and the process of ringing. Still, I am a beginner and I am grateful to be part of a small ensemble that is welcoming new ringers.

After rehearsal, three of us were talking about all of the changes that have occurred in church life over the span of the pandemic. Because we moved during the pandemic, I do not have any experience with this particular congregation’s pre-pandemic mode. We have been diligent about wearing face masks, keeping distance between individuals, and engaging in a lot of remote activities for all of the time that I have been a part of this congregation. I’ve watched as the congregation became more sophisticated about the use of the Internet. There has been new equipment purchased and volunteers and employees have grown more sophisticated about the use of media. The church’s livestream worship is much more polished than it was when we first started participating. It is easier to watch as the technicians switch from one camera to another and mix pre-recorded video with live. The sound track of the livestream has improved with a new mixing board and improved use of microphones.

It would not be accurate, however, to claim that we have come anywhere near professional when it comes to making and broadcasting videos. There are individuals making videos for YouTube that are more sophisticated and use more expensive technology than our church. There are churches with near professional quality video and audio that are capable of producing broadcasts that approach the quality of some of the programs that are produced for commercial television. Our focus as a congregation has not been on having the best show available.

The conversation between bell ringers yesterday focused on the improvements we have made in media production as a congregation, however. None of us who were chatting expect our church to suddenly produce the most sophisticated television programming we’ve ever seen. All of us prefer in-person worship and live music to the church’s media presence. However, we know that some online presence will continue for the foreseeable future.

Prior to the spring of 2020, just months before my retirement, I had little interest in media production. I was fortunate to serve almost all of my career in a setting that was focused on in-person relationships and live music and worship. I have joked that I never intended to become a televangelist. The joke, however, is essentially true. I have never aspired to have a media presence.

On the other hand, the church has a long tradition of using the tools that are available to share faith and work to build community in the many different settings in which it has found itself. And the church has always had elements of long-distance relationship. Much of the New Testament is a series of letters that were written by early Christian leaders. As the faith spread, and evangelists traveled from one place to another, relationships developed between people who were in different places. Letters were one way of remaining connected and sharing faith.

Throughout our lives, we have had significant relationships with other people of faith who live in distant locations. While there has been an in-person component to our relationships, we have continued to be close even when the distances between us are great.

Just a couple of days ago, we received an email message from a friend with whom we’ve shared the Christian Ministry since we were seminary classmates decades ago. Since completing our degrees, we have served in the United States and our friend has served in Australia. Our lives have allowed us the luxury of travel, and our friend has made trips to visit us in all of the places we have served as pastors and we were able to visit our friend in Australia in 2006. The email message was part of our friend’s planning for another visit to the United States that will allow us to be together face to face. We are thrilled and excited at the prospect of the visit.

Australia has had some of the strictest limits on travel during the pandemic. Families have been separated as the country has enacted policies to limit the spread of disease. For the first time in nearly two years, Australia has reopened its international border and lifted some of the world’s strictest travel bans. The travel bans have helped keep the infection and death rate lower in Australia than the United States. While the US has lost over 934,000 people to Covid-19, Australia has had about 4,900 Covid deaths.

We will never go back to the way things were before the pandemic, but I remain hopeful that the core of the church will be a live community. Like our anticipated reunion with our Australian friends, we are looking forward to getting together in person with other members of our faith family.

I am much less interested in developing more sophistication in manipulating media and technology than I am in developing long-term relationships that span the distances between us in ways that social media never can.

I’m grateful for Skype and low cost telephone calls, but there is no substitute for simply being together. The strength of the church will be measured by relationships not by the technology we master. As we have said over and over, “You can’t be the body of Christ all by yourself.”

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