October 10, 2022

Tech Wreckage

It’s okay to start backing off the Zoom live-feed and hybrid worship offerings. I remember the refrain, that we’re going to keep live-streaming until Jesus comes home. But now, as we enter a new phase of the pandemic (but still very much with Covid), I believe our opportunity is to reflect critically on our priorities and approach to community-building, especially double-check our use of technology and the goals we’re pursuing as the Body of Christ.

So here are some starter invitations, or questions as we find ourselves at the dawn of a new phase of the pandemic, still walking with Covid (and all those anxieties and opportunities that came along with it):

1. If you’ve got a live-stream team, celebrate them. Your folks who invested in that technology and designed amazing systems have met the future, and they deserve a great celebration. You may wish to ask them about their longer-term plans and thinking. They may have really good ideas about where to go from here. Some may sense it’s time to wrap up the ministry, or their part in helping that ministry. Celebrate them. All of them.

2. If you never really developed the technology, it’s okay. Focus on gathering people. There are a lot more congregations who simply never figured out, or got around to streaming wifi and live-feeds. If you never got it up and running, that’s okay. Your opportunity now is to gather people. Focus on that. It’s what you and your congregation did best all along, anyway.

3. Zoom and other tech platforms are not relational. They work well when deep relationships already exist. That’s why it worked so well in spring 2020. But it’s no substitute for onboarding new leaders, and it does little to engage existing leadership bodies. (Surely, by now, church leadership knows that an uncomfortable percentage of persons attending meetings on Zoom are checking emails and scrolling through social media while acting like they’re on the meeting!)

4. The virtual church has never been so filled with abundant use of Daily Offices – Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Noonday Prayer and Compline. Keep using those if there’s a small group gathered online around the ministry. Zoom is great for smaller gatherings, wonderfully designed for engaging the patterns of prayer via the Daily Offices. Plus, it’s nice to fill up social media with active prayer.

5. Stop counting Facebook or YouTube views, and whomever is joining your live-stream from faraway. Perhaps it’s time to stop counting Zoom log-ins as part of your Average Sunday Attendance. It doesn’t help that The Episcopal Church’s parochial report, which was never a great metric to begin with, now allows for such variation in counting.

6. What are you trying to show via your live-stream, anyway? I’ll admit that it’s neat to be able to look inside of a lot of congregations, and there might be some value to potential newcomers that they can see inside your church building before they visit in person some Sunday. But most worship services in The Episcopal Church are not really that interesting from an outsider, viewer perspective. I’ve seen congregations clip the sermon and post that on social media. Honestly, the sermon is probably the most interesting, engaging part of our worship, as seen from an outsider, viewer perspective. But so much else of what Episcopalians do in worship really does assume, and largely depend upon real people gathered together in a physical space, meeting the Incarnate Word.

7. If you have an elderly population or at-risk group who still feels uncomfortable coming to in-person worship, why not launch a new worship service at a time which works better for them anyway? Our Wednesday mid-day service has never been more popular than in the past few years. It’s easier for our elders to come to church by 11am than 9am, anyway, and they know they can social distance far easier in a less crowded church building. Wouldn’t any clergyperson rather lead several worship gatherings throughout the week – even if they’re smaller worshipping congregations – than sit in their office at another Zoom meeting?

Truth be told, in my congregation we counted Zoom log-ins as part of our Average Sunday Attendance for 2020. I think we did, at least; a whole lot of that year was a blur! We never counted Facebook or YouTube ‘views.’ Those numbers have no bearing on reality anyway. Filling out the 2021 parochial report, however, we made the decision to report actual people in actual attendance, even as we knew that number would take a dive from previous years. Sure, we kept open the live-feed option in 2021, but few on our live-stream leadership team have a burning desire to keep up the pace we set back in 2020. I can’t blame them. And as their pastor I want to honor and celebrate them, first of all. So we will slowly back off from regular broadcasting in 2022, maybe even fewer times in 2023 and beyond. Maybe that’s just us, but I imagine we’re not alone in this.

I know the refrain. I know how important is it for people to feel connected, and get connected. I know how live-streaming and Zoom and Facebook and YouTube extended the reach of the church in powerful new ways. I know all that. But I’m a pastor whose call is to serve and build a community grounded in Jesus before I’m a rector (with duties and strategic plans); before I’m a TV personality (with a tech team to manage and inspire) … even before I’m a priest at the altar (including in virtual space!). Maybe it’s just my communities who are starting to back off from virtual space and re-engage the gift and primacy of re-gathering real people around the Incarnate Word. I imagine we’re not alone in this, however.

It’s ironic, of course, that when Covid suddenly thrust us into a world no one was prepared for, we turned so rapidly to technology. Ever since the advent of the personal computer, and likely long before that, our answer to everything was technology. Technology will fix it, we were told. Then we started to tell ourselves the same: technology will fix it. So thus Zoom and Facebook and YouTube. And for good reason in 2020; that was how we could connect and keep connected. It was important in that season, and the fact that we now know how to use these platforms is a nice byproduct.

But we’re still in that brave new world. More so, we’re aliens and exiles in it all the same, just like we were back in the spring of 2020 – only this time more exhausted and baffled than before. Turns out, technology is just a tool. It doesn’t truly connect – not in the deeper Christian sense of connection with God, neighbor, and self. The Christian church has been using technology in every age and with good results – Paul’s letters, Luther’s New Testament, now Zoom – but technology, itself, never had the power to replace what really matters in a faithful Christian life and community. Thus, we’ve come to learn the power of the lie we were told, which turns out to be the same lie we told ourselves, along with how many “views” we got on Facebook and YouTube as if that’s anything like human persons engaged in incarnated Christian community.