Reform magazine: Stay Online

Stay online formattedPlanning your summer holiday and reading list? Consider taking a copy of the United Reformed Church’s (URC) Reform magazine with you.

Packed with news, comment, inspiration and debate, there’s still time to read great articles in the summer edition, before September’s issue is published on 30 August.

Like “Stay Online” an article by Lawrence Moore, Church Mission and Discipleship Consultant for Walking the Walk, a URC resource bank, and founder of iChurch.

“Do online services create a two-tier church of those who can and cannot join in? Or can they ensure everyone is included – at last?” challenges Lawrence in the article.

“It’s time to look to life beyond lockdown and begin to think strategically about what the Church that emerges out of this ‘new normal’ will look like. How will the lessons that we’ve learned during this period usefully shape Church as we move back into our buildings (whenever that will be)? That needs to happen, but whatever we do, we need to ensure that we don’t simply go back to church life before the pandemic.

“Lockdown has removed the distinction between ‘online church’ (a distinctively different way of doing church that is suitable for the online environment) and ‘church online’ (moving our normal activities online). During lockdown, church life online has been the only game in town.

“As a result, time and again, I’m hearing people express the same worry: ‘Aren’t we in danger of creating a two-tier church – those who can share in Zoom services, coffee mornings, Bible studies etc, and those who can’t get online? Where will that second group be, coming out of lockdown?’ It’s an admirable concern. And it’s an important question: how are we resourcing and including people who haven’t the equipment, the knowhow or the desire to participate in online church?

“What’s wrong with it, though, is the assumption that this is a new problem! It may have only occurred to most of us for the first time because of being locked down, but the reality is that we’ve been running two-tier churches quite happily for years – it’s just the dividing line that’s changed.

“For years, members have been dropping out of our fellowships as they become too old, too infirm or too unwell to attend any more. For those who have become housebound, their world of church shrinks in exactly the same way as their contact with the rest of the outside world. They might have phone calls, visits and receive home Communion, but their participation in the weekly, physically gathered life of the Church has ceased.

“What has driven me to distraction over the years is the way we’ve taken that as an acceptable given. I say, “driven me to distraction”, because we’ve had the means for years to include them! Yet the suggestion that we invest in the technology that will enable them to attend and participate in services virtually has been met with scepticism, resistance and outright opposition. The notion of equipping our churches with wifi and streaming services live has been dismissed as too expensive. The idea of using iPads or laptops to enable people to Skype or FaceTime in and offer a prayer, do a reading or simply to see their friends and be seen, while sharing in the service, has been labelled “too technical”.

“If we’ve learned one thing, it’s that we are perfectly capable of making the technological jump – when it matters to us. We need to take this on the chin: including those people who can’t be present hasn’t mattered enough to make us change our way of doing church. Zoom and other virtual meeting platforms are not new inventions – it’s just that they’ve been outside our experience and (for the large part) interest until we’ve had to share for ourselves what our second-tier shut-ins have been experiencing all along.

“We should have been ready for lockdown, because we should have been doing this sort of stuff for years! We have to do so much better than we have been doing, going forward.

“Once lockdown is lifted, we’ve got to grasp with both hands the opportunity to include the people who can’t be present. That means, for one thing, investing in equipment to make that possible:

  • Ensuring our church sanctuaries have robust wifi, a decent sound system and a screen (this could be a projector and screen, or a large TV connected to a computer);
  • Ensuring we have iPads/tablets available for housebound members who don’t have access to them or can’t afford them;
  • Ensuring that we provide training in using the technology;
  • Looking seriously at livestreaming services and other gatherings. It means, further, planning and constructing our services to include worshippers at home and providing opportunities for interaction with them during the service. Some obvious examples:

“It means, further, planning and constructing our services to include worshippers at home and providing opportunities for interaction with them during the service. Some obvious examples:

  • “Meet and greet” all our virtual worshippers at the start of the service;
  • Prioritise housebound members when looking for people to share in the prayers, readings, testimonies or even announcements;
  • Adapting the style of the service to a format better suited to virtual worshipping (eg shorter sermons with clear calls to action, high levels of interactivity, use of videos and other media).

“And thirdly, inclusion means working actively to involve people in meetings. One thing for which I’m particularly grateful is that lockdown has knocked on the head the ridiculous myth that we cannot have effective meetings unless we’re physically in the same space. While there are clearly some meetings that need to be physically gathered, it’s also clear that these are actually very few in number. There is no reason why people who cannot travel to meetings should be excluded from holding office if we move most of our meetings online, or at least make provision for people to attend virtually. The money currently earmarked for travel costs could provide a sizeable budget for investment in the technology to make that possible. We need to begin planning now how to:

  • Allow for people to operate virtually as elders, committee conveners, members and other office holders;
  • Include virtual attendance at church meetings; Also include virtual attendance at our social gatherings (including coffee mornings);
  • Normalise virtual leadership of Bible studies, prayer meetings and even junior church teaching.

“How successful we are in this will depend on how creative and imaginative we’re prepared to be, and how much we want to build on the insights we’ve learned. And ultimately, how much we’re concerned about not having a two-tier church!”

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