Strange times create strange situations, sometimes things we never would have thought of. I’m thinking about the current status of churches/houses of worship as the country deals with the coronavirus pandemic.
Who would have thought that the day would come when we would not be permitted to enter our sacred buildings? Oddly enough, the prohibition is not because the Government is banning religious services (which would have caused an uprising of the faithful) but because it’s for our good that we not gather together in groups, thereby risking spreading the virus.
The alternative for the greater majority of churches — and I’ll speak to the Christian churches here — has been to hold online services. As long as we have access to the Internet, and mostly to Facebook via the Internet, we can still worship, in our homes, even in our jammies, should we choose to.
This is all well and good, but it occurs to me that this access could open up a whole ‘nuther Pandora’s box for local churches. You see, ever since our church, Kenton (DE) United Methodist, has been prohibited from holding in-person services, my family and I have been watching our pastor online at 10:00 AM on Sunday mornings. Then, after he has delivered his message, we join up with the service from the Burlington (NJ): Broad Street United Methodist Church at 11:00 AM. I was the pastor of Broad Street for eight years, and so I know many of the people who are still there, not to mention the pastor, who has been a longtime friend. It’s really nice to see the sanctuary, hear familiar voices, listen to the grand pipe organ played by their gifted organist, and generally feel as though we can spend an hour in one of our old stomping grounds, as it were.
But here’s the catch: if we can “visit” a former church this way, what’s to keep us from “visiting” other churches? Most churches archive their services so they can be viewed as videos at any time. In fact, I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing a service of the Hayes Barton Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC, at the encouragement of my sister who lives in NC and enjoys their services. I’ve also had the chance to hear a college friend/retired pastor who gave a sermon at the church he attends in West Virginia. After Pentecost Sunday (May 31) I checked out the sermon delivered by Rev. Susan Sparks, the first woman pastor of the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in Manhattan (I had met her many years ago at a homiletics conference in Nashville and have bought some of her books). To digress just a moment: Susan is also a lawyer and stand-up comedian. Her belief in the healing power of humor is one reason I like to hear what she has to say and read what she has to write.
Anyway, back to the point: with all this access to other churches’ services and pastors, is there any way that people will not start comparing? Is it possible that online worship might result in a major shift in congregational populations? If you’re checking out some other local churches and listening to their pastors, is it not possible that you might think, “Hey, s/he is pretty good! I like their sanctuary. I didn’t know they were doing so much outreach. I think I might want to visit their church once we can go back to in-person worship”? Online worship could be a kind of unintentional free promotion that could result in mixing up the congregations we were part of before the quarantine.
It will be interesting to see who shows up and who’s missing once the doors of the churches are open again, which should be fairly soon.