July 17, 2020

Mister Rogers Prompts Important Questions

We’re all longing for meaningful connection in this strange, new land of Coronavirus, and especially as we try to be church online.

But, in fact, we’ve seen virtual connection that is beautiful and holy – in the face of Mister Rogers, that Presbyterian pastor-turned-TV personality. Mister Rogers knew how to connect with his viewers. So much so that many of us who watched would answer his deeply personal questions, right there, out loud, in our living rooms.

How can we ensure Mister Rogers moments – and more – in our worship, meetings, formation, and fellowship? In serving an Episcopal parish in my hometown of Memphis, TN this summer, I am wondering what might guide our vision going forward. What questions should we ask ourselves about being church in 2020? How can the online experiences, birthed so quickly in the past 15 weeks, be retained, enriched, and expanded?

Here are the questions that I have developed to guide our work:

Guiding Question #1: Does the experience ALIGN with elements of the parish’s mission and vision?
Figuring out the What, How, and When of moving online has been consuming; have we remembered to think about the Why and the Who? Mission needs to be at the forefront of our minds as we assess the online experiences we’ve crafted in recent months, and as we consider what online experiences we might create moving forward. Does the experience further the vision articulated in our mission statement or strategic plan? If it does not, then it needs to change or be discontinued.

Guiding Question #2: Is the experience MULTI-LAYERED and MULTI-SENSORY?
A typical, pre-COVID Sunday morning involved a wide scope: worship, prayer, formation, fellowship, evangelism. It was also multi-sensory: we sang, spoke, listened, stood, kneeled. Now, in the online environment, we access elements à la carte – watching worship from our couch, for example, but not necessarily participating in fellowship, formation, music, or movement.

How, then, can we layer on these important elements, even in small doses? Can the book study group begin their meeting by listening to a piece of music while adding their prayer requests in the chat box? Can the finance committee meeting end with Evening Prayer? Can the bible study group stop to pray communally for the person who is dialing in from the hospital? And, importantly, can each of our online spaces have an intentional moment of invitation for newcomers? Layers like these add richness to our experience and will help us create offerings that can endure.

Guiding Question #3: How does the experience foster CONNECTION to God, between the leaders and viewers, and among the viewers.
There’s a reason Mister Rogers connected well with children – he fostered a relationship with his viewers by speaking directly to them. Likewise, worship leaders may need to re-orient themselves to speak not to the room but to the camera.

And let’s not forget the community that is present among viewers – comments, chat boxes, and social media “likes” remind our people that they are seen and known. An assigned liturgical minister to engage with people online in real time might be the acolyte of the 21[1] century! Online community does exist – just ask the self-identified visitor at a livestream service I attended several weeks ago. “I hope I am welcome here,” he wrote in the Facebook comments. The immediate responses from his fellow viewers assured him that he was. Whether online or in-person, being seen and known by a community is often the first step to feeling seen and known by God.

Guiding Question #4: What are the EASY ENTRY POINTS for both members and newcomers?
Amidst all of this newness, let’s not forget to double check the basics, whether we are planning for an experience online or in person. Are the service times easily found on our church homepage, social media, and outgoing voice messages? Are links working and accessible, and what is the process by which newcomers can ask to join? One parish I know started sending a Sunday morning email with links to the services, zoom coffee hour and adult formation, and online giving. Members didn’t have to search for the e-newsletter from earlier in the week; it was waiting in their inbox on Sunday morning. And, if they wanted to invite a friend, it was easy to forward.

Final Contextual Questions
Finally, there is context to our pandemic life in 2020 that is so important that it must weave throughout our online experiences and receive the final word. First, what elements of grief and loss are hovering around all of this newness? The pandemic has pushed us to innovate, but it has also forced us to give up many of the familiar anchors to which our lives have been tethered. Second, as moral leaders, we must ask how our online spaces can acknowledge and bridge divisions, modeling justice and equality. We must not overlook these important contextual questions.

Mister Rogers asked important questions when I was four, and now, much later, he’s helping me ponder important guiding questions in a rapidly changing vocation. I’ll apply these questions to the newly created ministries in my parish context and share my summer learnings in a future post. For now, my question is this: how will you bring a Mister Rogers moment to your people?

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