Church Post COVID - Part Three - An Adventure into the Eternal
The internet helps us to engage in two spaces at once: to live in the physical world while also reminding us that worship is not simply an earthly pursuit in time and space but it is a hybrid experience drawing us into the heart of the eternal. For surely it is by the power of the Spirit we find ourselves lifted up into the heavenly places. The writer of Hebrews remind us we have no abiding city.
The long-term decline of in-person church attendance for mainline denominations will most likely continue and will undoubtedly include spiritually active Christians. This falling away will be further added to by the number of pre-pandemic church members who have visited other online services and now find they are involved with new habits of worship of meeting together on a Sunday. Our creativity has to take into account these changes facing the worshipping communities within our various denominations.
I’m not going to promote one way of worship over another except to say that different people respond in different ways to various types of online worship. Those churches who continue to stream their in-person services online may well engage the support of their regular church members but it is unlikely they will be successful in connecting with the disengaged person who has opted out of in-person church attendance.
When it comes to preparing material for worship, questions are being asked, is it possible to adapt online worship material for an in-person service and vice-versa for an online community? In some ways I think it might be easier to adapt online material for in-person services than doing the opposite. However it may be that as we move beyond the familiar to the more creative we will explore what it means to be a hybrid church or a mixed economy church beyond COVID-19 and undoubtedly church leaders will be looking for digital material they can use in both situations.
From 2009-2016 I attempted a number of formats in worship to integrate an in-person experience with an online experience. The result has been the creation of Sanctuary First as an online-worshipping community as opposed to Church online or hybrid church. Yet in saying this Sanctuary First is in many ways integrated and sustained by the in-person church. So what I’m saying here is I believe it essential that we recognise that we will always have an in-person church community. The physical and the digital coexist and complement each other.
For the past 30 years I have been involved with creating and developing alternative worship. I have come to realise that worship requires church leaders to become more open to the many who are on the other side of the open door. We need to find ways to include others in our worship experience. For too long we have circled the wagons and closed the church doors rather than moving out into the world and helping artists, musicians, scientists and technologists and educators to understand that what they are producing may well be in fact worship to almighty God by another name. When the scientist or the artist attributes their inspiration not to themselves but to that which is beyond them are they not the same audience that Paul addressed when he spoke to the seekers on Mars Hill in Acts 17:22-31?
If we in the post COVID church want today’s Mars Hill to listen to us we need to start talking about how the unknown can become known. We also need to recognise the touching points of context and culture when it comes to ensuring our message is received and understood.
What I am suggesting is that we need to make space in the church to include the artists and the creatives. We need to make space and create the opportunity for the creatives to explore their creativity as a gift from God. When we do this we will find we can collaborate with all kinds of creatives to help us produce and develop experiences that will open the hearts and minds of the seekers on today’s Mars Hill to their unknown God. However they may never quite enter the walls of our in-person worship services but Gutenbergers like myself (as Len Sweet would call us born before the popularisation of internet) may begin to understand we belong to a much larger cloud of witnesses. Through the Communion of Saints — we are connected beyond this moment to eternity!
Very Rev Albert Bogle