March 28, 2020

Invite Welcome Connect in Virtual Church

The emerging and ever-changing challenges of the coronavirus are really quite daunting. The entire landscape of human gatherings has been changed in rapid succession. And yet COVID-19 has encouraged amazing creativity on the part of Episcopal worshipping communities, clergy, and lay leaders. We’re not normally early adapters, we Episcopalians, nor are we the quickest when it comes to innovative technology, but we’ve leaned hard into some new territory – connecting people who cannot be together in person. No one wanted to learn adaptive leadership and remote technology in this way, but many have learned – and learned it on the fly and really quite well.

YouTube channels have been created or, in some cases, more populated. Zoom is the tool I’ve been using, and we experienced this past Sunday the struggle of getting so many Zoom accounts to go live on Facebook at the same time! Facebook live is another popular option. The good news is that we’re learning together how to do church in a virtual space. Many can see what’s going on in other faith communities as well as share pro-tips and horror stories.

So far, we’ve had a few Sundays of practice. In the Diocese of Washington, we just finished Virtual Sunday number 2; other dioceses moved in this direction this past Sunday, and still others will start this coming Sunday. So far, I’ve figured out how to mute microphones and un-mute the appointed Lector; I’ve learned to share hosting and co-hosting roles, and I’m not as terrible as I feared at editing iMovies.

Beyond that, though, I think it’s also time to get back to some basics. In particular, as I was reminded today in a Monday-morning follow-up with my staff, let’s remember some of the straightforward, helpful principles of Invite Welcome Connect.

1. Invite, part 1 – Signage. what does the sign outside of your church say, the electronic sign or the website? “Church closed”? To what are we inviting people?

2. Invite, part 2 – Access. If we’ve changed our signage, how do people access our virtual gathering? Zoom is great because someone can call in. So have we called those people who don’t have email and given them the phone number? Facebook live is great because it’s easy to view, but “easy to view” only applies to those with internet and Facebook.

3. Welcome – To what are we welcoming people? Beyond the above questions about websites and signage, how do our virtual gatherings inspire a sense of welcome? To what are we welcoming people? What if a newcomer popped into this Sunday’s Zoom church? Are we communicating a vibrant, mission-focused gathering of disciples of Jesus if the audio is hard to hear and the camera is so distant in our Facebook live sessions?

4. Welcome, part 2 – Chit-chat. Invite Welcome Connect’s question is just as pressing in Virtual Church as In-Person Church: are we a friendly community, or are we a community of friends? When people log-on / call-in to Zoom church, what’s going on for that half-hour or first ten minutes? Is it friends talking to friends? Or is it set up for welcome? This week, our Zoom Church will feature a half-hour of PowerPoint slides with music playing – the slides will feature trivia; Zoom How To’s; some background on this week’s lessons; formational gatherings (also virtual); Holy Week and Easter schedule; and How-to-Give-your-Offering online or in the mail. Kind of like when you go to a move in a theatre (and we will again, sometime soon) and they play commercials – did you buy popcorn? Have you supported this local HVAC company? Doing so in the half-hour before Morning Prayer starts will help cut down the chit-chat and make newcomers feel more welcome.

5. Welcome, part 3 – Normalize the experience; offer hope to come. All of these platforms are unusual, even to the most techie Episcopalian. It’s helpful to normalize the unusual nature of these gatherings, and yet recognize that they’re gatherings of real people in real time: “We would love to be together in person and we look forward to that time, but for now let me explain Facebook live … (or) let me give a brief tutorial on some of the aspects of Zoom… (or) you may be watching this on YouTube but please know that I’m praying with and for you now, and I’m glad you’re here…”

6. Connect, part 1 – Giving. Let those who attend Virtual Church know they can still give, and we continue to encourage generosity in sharing time, talent, and treasure. Update your websites online giving links, and check the mail regularly for those pledge envelopes. Encourage people to make phone calls (time and talent, for sure!) and invite people into taking roles as phone-call / text-messaging pastoral caregivers.

7. Connect, part 2 – Praying. One of the gifts of Zoom Church, I’ve found, is that that platform has an ability to let all kinds of things come into focus. We’re all sitting in our comfortable homes, for starters, and those who’ve gathered are so grateful for the connection that we can really take our time with prayer, and praying, and learning the habits of real intercessory prayer. Encourage participants to Un-Mute their microphone and/or type their prayers into the chat box. Participants on Facebook live can also “Comment” their prayers, and the Officiant can read those prayers aloud.

8. Connect, part 3 – Growing. What’s the next step? How can we be encouraged to take next steps in our walk with Christ this week? Is there a mid-week online bible study? Is the pastor or a lay leader going to offer some online reflections, or go Facebook live a few times? Is there a question I should hold, or a scripture I should read? What’s the Holy Week schedule, and schedule for Easter Day? Now more than ever – now that so many have a whole lot more time to read and ‘inwardly digest’ things – now is a great time to invite people to go deeper in their walk with Christ.