This pandemic has completely up-heaved our lives. In the midst of it, we have been isolated from friends and family; stores big and small have been shut down, affecting the livelihood of many business owners and their employees; schools have closed their doors so students of all ages have had to finish their year learning in solitude, save for those with siblings (which really isn’t the same as being with your friends), and various grade levels have had to miss out on the ever important life-event of graduation.
We long for coffee dates with friends; meetings that don’t involve Zoom; visiting loved ones in care homes and hospitals; and simple things like hugs and handshakes. And how many of us miss seeing the random smiles on passersby that are now hidden behind masks? I know I do.
As the COVID-19 pandemic marched through the spring and summer months, we felt increasingly lonely and isolated as our church communities were not able to worship together. We experienced feelings of loss as prayers and hymns were brought to silence and the Eucharist tabled until further notice (pun intended). We engaged in debates surrounding the virtual Eucharist and discussions about what “real church” looks like now that we are worshipping online, at home but also “together.”
In Matthew 18:20, Christ tells us that “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” But what happens when those two or three cannot gather? Does that mean that Jesus, and therefore God, is not among them?
What seem to be dying breeds— churchgoers, God-believers, evangelists—are growing exponentially. As more parishes move to online worship services, church attendance is electronically growing. The younger, tech-savvy generation, whom we have struggled to get in a pew on a Sunday morning, is listening online when and where they choose. The aging generation who can no longer attend worship services in person due to health and mobility issues are now able to tune in via YouTube, Facebook, and Twitch. Those who are searching for a place to worship, but who’s social and general anxiety don’t allow them to step through the door of a place full of strangers, are, through the joys of technology, able to church-surf without the pressure of going from place to place. Those who have been harmed by the Church, yet long for connection with God, can do so from the safety and comfort of their homes.
Indeed, empty church buildings do not mean that Christianity is coming to a halt, or that Jesus is no longer present in our lives. Rather, the increasing number of online viewers indicates a new way of evangelizing and a growing need for faith and spirituality in a world suffering together.
In January of this year, the Anglican Journal published “Gone by 2040?” by Tali Folkins, revealing some shocking statistics of the decline in church attendance over the last few decades. Parish rolls in the Anglican Church of Canada showed over 1.3 million members (or seven percent of the Canadian population) in 1961 and just above 280,000 (or one percent of the Canadian population) in 2017. While these reports seem to be showing that physical presence in church has become less important in people’s lives, I see no proof that God and faith are going the same way. In fact, this time of isolation has revealed that the search for faith and spirituality increases significantly during times of duress.
One parishioner sent me an email of thanks for my blog services, stating “while I do tune in to streamed services when I can, your format offers other advantages, particularly in a rural area where Internet is not always reliable enough for streaming.”
Another shared a story about how her family often visits her on weekends and they have chosen to gather outdoors around an iPad to read my blog service and listen to the music that I have included. She states “we found it rather peaceful, birds singing, and just being together to worship.”
I have also been informed by a lay leader within the Interlake Regional Shared Ministry that online services (like the Zoom links for local services and my own personal blog) are regularly forwarded to “her multi-dozen email contacts—many locals plus several others, interdenominational, who live elsewhere across Manitoba and a few out of province as well.” It is encouraging and exciting to witness the services of the Church reaching well outside our local parishes.
A final, notable example of someone exploring all there is to offer electronically is a parishioner who shared with me that she not only reads and listens to my blog, but tunes into the evening services from saint benedict’s table as well as the daily evening prayers led by Rachel Twigg through Facebook Live. The parishioner told me that she “never would have experienced the services at [saint benedict’s table] if the pandemic had not messed up all of our lives… I honestly think it has made me a stronger Christian.”
We will always need physical worship spaces, as being a part of a church community is important for its own reasons, especially when considering the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. But it’s time that we start looking outside of the box, or in this case outside the walls, and realize that our community need not be limited to those who are sitting in the pews. Church is not the building. Church is wherever you are at that moment, whether it be in your car, in your home, or sitting outside enjoying nature. What this pandemic has proven is that there are people out there longing for spiritual guidance but, for whatever reason, have chosen not to sit in the pew. Now that we are aware, the question moves to “what do we do with this information?”
Our Church has moved outside of its building and our worship looks increasingly more creative. As we begin to worship in- person once again, parishes will have to decide—do we continue what we have started in the online community? The resounding answer should be yes!
While the doors to church buildings have been closed, worship has not ceased, but has rather taken on a new form. In my opinion, the virtual church should become a regular part of our worship. Currently, many clergy and lay- leaders are hurrying to learn the technology, while leaning on those more experienced in recording live worship. Scrolling Facebook and other social media platforms on a Sunday morning, it is encouraging to see all of the parishes that are providing live or recorded video feed or written services that can be used by anyone, at any time, in any place. One no longer needs to be available on a Sunday morning to attend church. Those who have a history with feeling uncomfortable in the physical spaces of the church can worship to their heart’s content in their own homes. Through online worship, the Church is reaching people it never would have before the pandemic.
As clergy and lay-people, we must continue to support this momentum in online attendance. People searching for a safe space through which to explore their spirituality have found it. It is time to engage them, teach them, and lead them into a life with Jesus. The pandemic may have closed our doors, but technology has revealed to us a new way to live out the Gospel. Let’s not allow this opportunity to slip through our fingers.
Theo Robinson is the incumbent at St. Michael’s Church in Victoria Beach, a pastor in the Interlake Regional Shared Ministry with the Lutheran Church of the MNO Synod, and a spiritual care practitioner in health care. Follow his blog at tjrobinson.blogspot.com. He gives his thanks to the many congregation members across the seven parishes he serves for the feedback that helped him write this article.