Rethinking Church – ‘We don’t have to go back to everything we used to do’
Online Church in a Post Lockdown World – A CITI Webinar by the Ven Bob Jackson
“I have never known a mission moment like this in my 70 years.” These are the words of the Ven Bob Jackson who was leading a webinar for the Church of Ireland Theological Institute exploring ‘Online Church in a Post Lockdown World’.
He described this moment, as we are poised between lockdown where church services can only take place online and reopening where there is the possibility of in–building worship, as a hinge moment. “We can’t go back to the way it was. If we try that the church will be half of what it was before. We have to embrace the new world,” he stated. He said churches had done brilliantly in setting up online services and keeping them going during lockdown. Now they have to explore how to continue online and in–building services, he contended.
Bob Jackson was a Government Economic Adviser. After 20 years of parish ministry in Yorkshire, he became a missioner working for the two English archbishops, and then an archdeacon. More recently, he has focussed on the theory and practice of church growth. Having tried to retire, he came out of retirement to help think through good practice and the future of online church.
Archbishop Michael Jackson addressed participants at the beginning of the webinar. He said we now stood at a crossroads. “What will the new old look like – that is the expression of the inherited traditions when we return to in–church worship? What will the old new look like – that is the expression of the new ways of delivering worship when we return to in–church worship? I can guarantee that neither will commend itself without a lot of rethinking and new effort. The real question already is: What will the new new look like? It would be unhelpful were we to think that filling and emptying the ecclesiastical dishwasher will suffice. While people have greatly appreciated everything that we have done, they have become selective and sophisticated. They can with impunity shop around and still call it: going to church. Where they go may indeed now be somewhere other than their neighbourhood denominational church and it may be a staging post in their spiritual journey over a lifetime of exploration and fulfilment in the exploration itself,” he stated.
Bob Jackson told participants that most churches were planning to stay online post–lockdown but were not quite sure how they were going to do it. He said the church could not go back to the way it was. The world had changed and the technology would not go back in its box once restrictions were lifted. People had found new rhythms of life, some had found different churches and new people had emerged to join online services. “The marriage of onsite and online church feels like a momentous moment in history,” he stated.
Doing online mission and evangelism well in this new world was about applying old mission principles to the new situation, he suggested. The old principles are: invite – this is easier to do online; advertise – again advertising online is easy; identify – there needs to be an effort put into finding out who is coming to church online; welcome – consider how this can be done online; sense of belonging – this needs to be cultivated online; and identification by contribution – this is the ultimate sense of belonging and every online service needs to let people know how they can contribute.
He suggested that in planning for the years ahead churches should consider:
· Wider doors – How do we welcome people? “We’ve opened this huge, incredible portal from church to the livingrooms of the parish, we have used technology to make contact, but there is more we can do. Churches may need a ‘wider doors team’ to widen the doors of connection between church and community,” Archdeacon Jackson explained.
· Deeper wells – People are newly praying, newly serious and newly needy. They have been shaken deeply. There has been a huge expansion in daily prayer. People are engaging with church online often on a daily basis.
· Smarter structures – are our structures in leadership and the organisation suitable for a hybrid church? The tech savvy people need to be in leadership rather than simply being told what to do.
· Wiser programmes – “This is a wonderful opportunity. The government stopped everything. When we restart in freedom we don’t have to go back to doing everything we used to. We can start with a new sheet. It is not so difficult not to restart the old. We can rethink from the bottom up in a way that is tailor made for today or tomorrow.
In looking at an appropriate plan for the future, he suggested that the new programme would have elements from the past and elements from the Covid era as well as new elements. Other elements had to stop, he stated, otherwise the Rector would be burnt out. It said it was important to make this a team effort. The online operation needed an online team. It is important to team up with other churches and share expertise and to ask for help from local communities and the dioceses.
He urged participants to consider who online church is for and tailor the service for them. He outlined a number of online options.
· Simple livestreaming – the service in church proceeds normally and the in–church people are the focus while the people online just watch. He said he found this dull but it was better than nothing.
· Online hybrid church – start with a clean sheet and devise a service that is suitable for an online congregation. He suggested it should be a maximum of 40 minutes in length and there were online pastors to welcome people using, for example, the Facebook chat facility. The service has to start with an attention grabbing bang, the pace needs to be fast and there needs to be multiple voices involved. There would only be a couple of sung items and there would be a mix of video clips and live action (which requires screens in the church for the in–church people). There would be virtual and in person mingling at the end of the service. “Frame the service for the onliners,” he suggested. “Say ‘we’re doing this in the church and if you want to come along in person you are very welcome’.”
· Fully hybrid church – This is where online and in–person congregations are treated equally. People may oscillate between the two. The service is changed to sustain the online interest. The ‘twiddle your thumbs moments’ are cut out and there is a mix of video and live. The online people can contribute and participate in the same way as those in church. Again this requires screens in church. This service could last an hour, the Archdeacon said. There needed to be training in using the camera and also in using online giving platforms so that those online could give at the same rate as those in person. There would be zoom chats afterwards for those online and they may even meet during the week. This was his preferred option.
· Online congregation – In this version you start a new worship community purely online. This creates more work as you are planting a new congregation and the online and in–church members are separated with less graduation from one to the other.
“Local church is still the main event,” Archdeacon Jackson stated. “Most people still want the local. But there could be an online diocesan service. Online daily office is also a whole new way of church going. The incumbent doesn’t need to lead it every day.”
He said there was work to be done in areas such as the Eucharist. He also suggested that when services were allowed to take place without masks or restrictions, churches should hold events where people can gather to share and unburden themselves of what lockdown had done to them. “Clergy may need to take a lead in this and say ‘I’m exhausted. This is what happened to me.’ I hope that this could be the start of emotional honesty. We have an opportunity to hold a celebration event. Celebrate freedom. Let the church bells ring. Invite the whole community to celebrate with us,” he stated.