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Confessions of an e-churcher

Accidental e-churcher, the Rev. Glenn Wagner, says, “For the sake of the gospel, we all need to figure out how to do church and community in a new way.”

Michigan Conference Communications

I never saw this coming. Did you? I don’t live in the world of the professional epidemiologist and wasn’t tracking trends in global pandemics that might disrupt planetary life as we have known it. The trauma of a recession, job losses, social quarantines, tragic fatalities, and massive disruptions of business as usual on a global scale hit me by surprise, HARD!

These seismic disruptions of the coronavirus have swept across our routines with the destructive force of a major earthquake. The repeated aftershocks are still coming. The realization is sinking in that when this upheaval finally passes, life as we have known it will be very different. It already is.

I received a call a month ago from a friend at a former parish. Their pastor was unexpectedly on the disabled list after heart surgery and home on emergency medical leave. I was asked to fill in as a guest preacher for two weeks in March. I looked forward to helping out a respected colleague as others have done for me during my active years of ministry. Also, it would be fun to reconnect with many dear friends in a happy reunion. I was offered sermon texts and themes to consider so we could continue to support the pastor’s previously advertised Lenten series.

Just days before my first scheduled appearance as the “guest minister,” a responsible and prudent statewide decision was made by the government, denominational, and local church leaders to limit the size of assemblies to blunt the rapid and lethal spread of the virus.

I received another call from the church, “Glenn, would you be willing to lead virtual worship in an empty sanctuary on your Sundays of pulpit supply with just a few people present? There will be a couple of people to handle the tech stuff, our musician, and I’ll be there to handle the welcome and announcements. We will wash our hands and keep our distance.”

I had never imagined a scenario like that for the presentation of the gospel. It certainly wasn’t going to be the same reunion that I had been anticipating!  

Everything that I have ever believed and practiced in my ministry about the love of Jesus Christ has involved bringing people together. There’s medical research that proves that we are social beings at our core. We need healthy relationships for our well-being. Even newborn infants need regular social contact to survive. I confess that it is difficult for me to ever imagine core Christian values like love, forgiveness, grace, compassion, reconciliation, worship, and community in the same sentence as “social distancing.” 

“Social distancing” in my past has been linked with the painful historical memories and abhorrent practices of racism and bigotry associated with prisons, leper colonies, concentration camps, Indian reservations, wartime prisoner internment camps, and Jim Crow laws. I know from my prior work as a chaplain in a Christian psychiatric hospital that voluntary social distancing is a predictable symptom in the lives of persons who are suicidal and severely depressed. The treatment for these deadly maladies includes helping the socially distanced to reconnect with a loving community. 

Yet, I also trust the expertise and wisdom of our medical and scientific community. I support this counter-intuitive social mandate fully that the best way for us to help each other at this moment is to hunker down, practice good hygiene, and do our part to limit the spread of the virus by limiting our social contacts in person. It pains me that we have postponed visiting an aging relative in a distant state.  The baptism of our first grandson is “on hold.” The planning for a 50th high school reunion is in limbo. A neighbor died this week, leaving behind three small children and a bereaved husband. Memorial checks and written condolences are being shared in place of hugs and casseroles.

It is as clear to me from the daily pandemic warnings that, for the sake of the gospel, we all need to figure out how to do church and Christian community in a new way. It is also clear to me that fruitful and effective witness for Christ in this season of responsible social distancing will make use of electronic tools to connect with each other.

With my past two weeks of e-church worship now behind me and with time to consider the continuing consequences of this pandemic on our ministry and witness for Christ, I want to share some observations that I hope will be helpful.

FIRST.  Having a congregational and personal presence on the internet is essential. A church website and/or Facebook page are front doors to our churches for the world, and a significant way our congregations make important contact with others beyond our church walls. I know from visiting different churches on many Sundays since retirement at the end of 2016 that some church websites are far better than others. 

Congregations that invest time and resources to design and maintain an attractive and easy to navigate website on the internet are more likely to welcome and reach others. United Methodist Communications has lots of helpful advice about website design. (Note: when using pictures of others on your site as an attractive highlight for your ministries, it is crucial to receive their prior permission for this use.) 

I still remember the first time a church I served took a chance and invested in a website for the congregation. Our “webmaster” maintained the ability to track visits to the site and where they came from. After the first three months, he reported that our site had been visited over 20,000 times from all over the world! Maintaining this web presence is important. If links don’t work and the information offered on the site is outdated, then the message sent by the portal to visitors is blunted in its effectiveness. One church we visited had changed their worship time, which they noted on the door of their church but not on their website, nor our denominational “Find-a-Church” website. We drove an hour to worship with them based on their web information. When we arrived only to discover that we were 90 minutes early, we opted to go somewhere else to church that morning!

SECOND. If congregations hope to weather this crisis financially, they can be helped by making it easy for supporters to contribute via a “Give” link on their web page. Congregations that have developed means for electronic giving have reported increased support from younger members and more reliable support from congregants via electronic funds transfer. Contributions continue even on Sundays when members are absent from church. The Michigan Conference Treasury is now offering online giving solutions for local churches so that people can easily give money remotely. It’s free. Learn more here.

Since the pandemic started, I have taken the time to view several worship services that have been live-streamed from empty sanctuaries. I understand the appeals made by church leaders for persons to continue giving in support of the church. Without the ability to pass an offering plate to persons in the pew, I can imagine the cash flow needed is being severely diminished. Churches have bills to pay, staff to support, ministries that still need funding, and after even just a few weeks of reduced giving the situation financially for many churches may be critical. I can say, from the perspective of this online worship viewer, that I have a critique of some of the offering invitations I have witnessed.  Some have been too complicated, offering people multiple options for giving. Graphics often accompany these options on a screen showing details like phone numbers and web addresses, which are usually done in fonts that are too small and on backgrounds that are much too busy to be easily read on a small screen like a cell phone or an i-pad.

I am partial to the wisdom imparted by David Bell, President of our United Methodist Foundation of Michigan.  A church I served was facing a financial crisis following an unexpected and costly boiler replacement. David said at the time, “Your temptation is to make a special appeal for extra offerings to help you meet your crisis. If you do this, a few people will give a little more for a short-term bump in contributions, but others will be turned off. People don’t want to support a church in crisis. People want to support a church that is alive and changing lives for Jesus Christ.” David Bell continued, “I know it seems counter-intuitive, but instead of focusing on your need for more money now, tell the real-life stories of how your ministry is changing lives for Jesus.” 

In response to Bell’s sage advice, we began the practice, in every worship service, of someone sharing a personal testimony about their faith. Their testimony about a vital ministry of the church, a way our church supported a vital mission in the community, or a way we were making a difference in global mission became a staple. As Bell anticipated when we focused on ministry for Jesus and not on finances, the emergency needs for the church’s financial well-being were met. Such personal testimonies by church members can be made on Facebook as easily as in live worship.

THIRD. I am grateful for the technology that makes it easy and affordable for churches to live-stream worship services. The Michigan Conference Health Crisis Toolbox has resources to assist you, including a helpful webinar series. A live-streamed virtual service does not need to look like or be structured like worship with a full sanctuary of people. That’s impossible after the governor’s executive order to stay-in-place. On the practical side, a worship leader working from home should have a designated watcher to solicit and respond to real-time feedback from viewers for prayer requests and comments. Be sure you solicit input on glitches in camera angles, focus, lighting, and sound transmission experienced by online viewers. I prefer watching worship leaders who maintain eye-contact with me via the camera with close up shots rather than from across an empty room.

Regarding content, I don’t want to watch a sermon being read to me. Instead, I want to be engaged by a leader who speaks and offers prayer from her or his heart regarding the real stuff that is going on and how faith makes a difference. I want to learn about stories and wisdom from the Bible that can help me better understand and function as a witness in these challenging circumstances. I want assurance that I am not alone, even though socially distanced. I am grateful to learn about how volunteers are helping the hungry to be fed and how innovators are finding ways to organize the church into small groups that are staying in touch and praying together either online or via the telephone throughout the week. 

I love how pastors are setting up online times during the week for devotionals for all ages. I appreciate laity who are finding ways to share their gifts with others. Examples include the artist offering free online art classes for children, the mom posting a video of daily reading of a children’s book, and the study classes that are finding ways to meet online via Skype and Zoom. 

FOURTH. I have also learned that online worship has the power to reach others for the gospel far beyond the confines of a designated place and time for worship on Sunday morning. Regular Sunday services are often constrained by factors like time, location, parking, and seating capacity. Virtual services over the course of the time can be viewed by many more people from a much larger geographic area with a far more substantial impact than is possible when worship is only shared once in a fixed house of worship. By having a volunteer present during the worship monitoring comments and interacting in real-time with viewers, live-streamed worship can connect and acknowledge those who tuned in live. More people can watch the service later on their own schedules, and some will want to share the service via their own Facebook networks, further extending the reach of the service. Almost half the churches in The Michigan Conference now have an online worship footprint. What an awesome spiritual buffet on Sunday or any day.

One church that I follow in a metropolitan setting has decided to shift their streaming worship time during the pandemic to a later hour on Sunday. They made this decision after experiencing difficulty with broadcasting “band-width” since so many churches in their immediate vicinity were also live-streaming their services at the same time crowding the capacity of the local service to handle it all. Virtual worship recordings can be experienced whenever it is convenient for the viewer. 

I confess that I never saw the pandemic or its significant disruptions to life’s routines coming. I still feel anxiety over the continuing forceful tidal waves of change. Growing capacity to share the love of Jesus and to effectively be the church in an age of social distancing is happening via better electronic networking. Ready or not! 

The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God has led people in times of great change before:

Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.  Isaiah 43:18-19

I am thankful to God, the creativity of others, and to social networking for help in being the church and staying connected in Christ in this season of social distancing.

Last Updated on March 26, 2020

The Michigan Conference