Internet church

On Sunday a friend commented to me, “I’ve about had it with Zoom.” He was referring to the constant stream of meetings over the Internet that have become common in our post-pandemic world. I understand how he feels. I hosted an hour-long Zoom meeting on Sunday, Attended a two-hour Zoom meeting on Monday, had a one-hour meeting over Zoom last night and have two Zoom meetings scheduled for today. So far this week, I attended worship in person, but there was a Zoom version of the service possible, and had one in-person meeting yesterday. I've got another in person meeting scheduled for this afternoon, between Zoom meetings. I’ve become fairly proficient in operating on the Zoom platform. I know how to share screens, mute and unmute speakers, and use various Zoom applications and add-ons. I have a catalogue of background screens saved on my computer. I have special lighting so that my face is easy to see. And I’ve become fairly proficient at guiding others through the process of using the platform.

Like my friend, I’ve also about had it with Zoom. It isn’t the particular company, it is the process of spending so much time meeting over the Internet. It simply is not the same as being with other people. I’m grateful that I live in a time when connecting over the Internet is possible. I love to Facetime, Skype, or Zoom with our daughter and her family in South Carolina. I enjoy talking to friends who live in distant places over the computer. But Internet meetings and conversations have their limits. You can’t give or receive a hug over Zoom. Having a worship leader invite us to gather something to eat and something to drink isn’t the same as being served communion. I find situations where someone else is hurting or grieving to be especially challenging. In a face to face situation, I know how to sit with another’s grief. Much of my approach to supporting those who are dealing with grief is not based on the words I say, but rather my presence. I sit quietly and listen. Over the computer, however, I find that simply sitting quietly doesn’t communicate the support that I intend. Last night there was someone in our meeting who is facing the loss of a loved one after a stroke. I was able to express my concern and support when we were face-to-face on Sunday. However, our Zoom meeting left me feeling that I should have said something more. Somehow, I fear my concern didn’t come over well in the online format. Others said kind and supportive words and I nodded and listened, but I feel a need to go directly to the grieving person.

That is just one example out of hundreds I have experienced trying to use the format to facilitate church ministries.

I am especially worried that churches are using the Internet as a tool of convenience. When Covid first hit and we learned to broadcast worship over the Internet, I thought that one of the benefits of the format is that we were making it possible for those who are shut in due to illness to participate in worship. When I was an active minister, it was hard work to take worship to a nursing home once a month. I rarely was able to visit home-bound or institutionalized members more than a few times each year. Now we had technology to bring church to those who were living in isolated settings. However, three years later, I fear that too many churches have take the easy way out of serving those in isolate settings. Our worship services are available over the Internet, so we assume that we are doing all we can to reach those who cannot be in our building. In reality, we are doing less work and, I fear, being less effective with remaining in contact with those people. I know if I were in an institution, I wouldn’t find being able to watch a worship service on a computer screen to be the same as worshiping.

I acknowledge that online worship is here to stay. There are people who participate in church online each week who are not going to be coming into the church building. As one person commented to me, “Why should I give up my one free morning each week to get showered and dressed and drive to church when I can watch in my robe and eat waffles while church is on the screen?” I know that it isn’t the same experience, but the substitute experience is appealing to some of our members.

I’ve watched a few funerals over the Internet because it was the way I knew to participate, but I don’t feel like I have provided the grieving family members with the kind of support that I can when I am able to be present in person and greet them face to face.

Part of the agenda of two of my regular Zoom meetings this week was planning in person gatherings. One group spent about 15 minutes over Zoom excitedly planning a shared meal set to occur six weeks from now. That same group is planning to host a major gathering in the fall. Last year’s meeting featured the keynote speaker on the big screen in the sanctuary. This fall they are hoping to have the keynote speaker in person even though there will be a way for participants to join online.

We are hungry for contact and the Internet only provides part of what we need.

The Covid-19 pandemic came at the end of my career. It would be very different had I been faced with pandemic challenges at the beginning or near the middle of my time as a pastor. I would have learned new skills more quickly. However, I count myself fortunate that my active ministry took place when it did. I served a decade before I had access to a computer. I was able to have in-person ministry the focus of my career. I’ve always thought I would have been a very poor televangelist. I’m far better at writing a letter than sending a tweet. I’m pleased to think of myself as “old school.”

The church, however, continues to need leaders who are caught up with technology and able to steer us through the realities of our current situation. Nostalgia won’t build the future. I’m just glad that leadership is falling to a new generation of pastors. I simply don’t have the skills for the next generation of life in the church. After all, I’ve about had it with Zoom.

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