The post-pandemic church in the Great Virtuality

 

“What do you think is going to happen with churches after the pandemic?”

To this question, prominent Christian researcher Diana Butler Bass answered: “I don’t know. Nobody knows.”

She’s right, of course (although thankfully she has still written at length on the topic).

She’s right, yet the question crouches at our doors as we haltingly emerge from the pandemic. Nobody knows, yet we long for conversation about our future together. I have no word from the Lord — certainly not about the future of Christianity or even which ministries will become most critical. My hopes in this article are much more modest: to wonder about the future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), so that we can faithfully join Jesus Christ’s ministry in the post-pandemic world.

A longer perspective

One reason that it is difficult to know what is coming next, according to Bass, is that COVID-19 has stolen our sense of time. “What day is this?” and “What time is it?” have become common questions. To orient ourselves, let’s look at the 500-year forest, rather than the 2020-21 trees.

The late Phyllis Tickle popularized a theory that the church holds a grand rummage sale twice a millennium, in which changes in the culture as a whole are reflected in significant shifts in Christianity. In each case, the formerly prominent form of Christianity has never been destroyed, but rather lost “pride of place to the new and not-yet-organized form that was birthing.” As each readjustment becomes settled, Christianity has grown and spread.

Starting with Jesus’s birth and the early church, Tickle’s book “The Great Emergence” details the succeeding eruptions: the monasticism promoted by Gregory the Great (540-590); the Great Schism dividing the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches (1054); and the Great Reformation (initiated 1517) and its ever-multiplying Protestant denominations. She proposed the Great Emergence, with its ancient-future sensibility, as the current transition. Although the specifics of the Emergent Church Tickle described seem to have receded as quickly as they arose, her 500-year rummage sale helps us frame the current transition in the church.

The Great Virtuality

I wonder, were Tickle to have written her book in 2028 instead of 2008, if she might have called it “The Great Virtuality.” After all, she was writing before the advent of three of the most important dynamics leading to our current situation. First, social media’s centrality as a force shaping the way most Americans interact. For instance, in 2007, less than 10% of Americans had a social media account; by 2020 that number was more than 80%, according to Statista.

Second, the wide availability of broadband means that more of our life is spent online every day. In 2007, less than 50% of Americans had high-speed internet, but by 2020 nearly 80% did, per Pew Research Center. Experts say that by 2019, Americans were spending more than four hours online each day.

The third dynamic leading to the Great Virtuality, of course, is the pandemic. The sudden inability to interact face to face provoked momentous disruption in the education, retail, hospitality and entertainment sectors. Workplaces, schools, stores and, of course, churches rapidly changed to take public health into account, exploding the use of the internet in general, and social media in particular.

These changes lead me to coin the “Great Virtuality” as the next season for the church (and society). More of our ministries will likely be online than those who just “want everything to go back to normal” might hope. The work of Sherry Turkle, author of “Alone Together,” suggests why this is true.

She writes that when technology is introduced, it often goes from “better than nothing” to “better than anything.” For instance, imagine you are stuck in a meeting just after you and your spouse add texting to your cellphone plan. You think: “I can’t call to explain why I’ll be late, but at least I can text. It’s better than nothing.” A year later, you’re running late again, but this time you could dial your partner if you chose. But you think: “If I call, I’m going to have to talk about my day and hear lots of details I don’t really have energy to engage right now. I’ll just text.” Sending a message goes from being better than nothing to better than calling — or anything else, for that matter.

The same dynamic applies to worship, which you probably already realize if your congregation has returned to holding services in person. When the pandemic started, we thought: “I sure wish I could go to church. But since I can’t, at least there is Facebook Live (Zoom, etc.). It’s not the same, but it’s better than nothing.” By now, we find ourselves thinking: “If I go back in person, I’ll have to get dressed. I’ll need to keep my kids engaged and fairly quiet. And I’ll probably run into that person I just can’t stand. Facebook Live is awesome!” Virtual worship, for many, has or will become better than all other options.

Doubtlessly, PC(USA) churches will still hold ministries in person; virtual potlucks and mission projects are difficult to imagine. Yet digital interactions are here to stay in the Great Virtuality. There’ll be so much more flexibility for connecting. Traveling or under the weather? Just log on. Why fight traffic? Surely software will develop to easily facilitate hybrid experiences with some participants together in person, and others virtually so.

The Great Virtuality brings both opportunities and challenges.

Opportunities: The church as virtual messenger

In his classic “Models of the Church,” Avery Dulles speaks of two paradigms of particular note: the church as herald and as the Body of Christ.

In the PC(USA), the word “herald” typically only comes up once a year at Christmas when the angels sing. Instead, let’s use “messenger” as a comparable image — one much more at home in the Great Virtuality. In our case, the herald’s public square becomes the messenger’s social media landscape. This is, indeed, much more public than our churches ever were pre-pandemic.

For the vast majority of our congregations, physical presence in the worship space was necessary to join others in the praise of our Triune God. Sure, livestreaming existed and sermons were often posted later online, but the opportunity to worship virtually with others was largely nonexistent. In December of 2019, I offered a Zoom lunchtime Bible study at the church where I was serving, with only two people showing interest. Four months later, a couple dozen women in their 70s and 80s were using Zoom each week for their study.

The public nature of this study, worship and other ministries means that people outside the congregation can easily join in and observe the church in action. We can now attend weddings and funerals as far flung as the east is from the west. The proclamation ricochets across the World Wide Web, drawing others in who would never darken our physical doors. We discover that we can be messengers to neighbors all over the world who surprise us with their virtual presence. Evangelism, never one of the PC(USA)’s strengths, is easier when we can be messengers posting opportunities and hope. One pastor friend has more than 250,000 followers on TikTok who receive her daily videos of God’s radical love. Before the Great Virtuality, she was thrilled to reach 250 people in worship once a week.

One final advantage as virtual messengers is that we can easily partner with other congregations or ministries, sharing leadership and the Good News in a way that is impossible if we must be physically present.

Challenges: The church as Body of Christ

In Romans and 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks of the intimate interdependencies that we share as members of one body. In our commonalities, we form rich, loving, intense bonds. These bonds are undermined by the Great Virtuality. While our virtual messages go farther and wider, the attention they receive is often smaller. For instance, my niece recently spent her honeymoon far from home. Her mom told me excitedly, “She ‘went to church’ on Sunday morning,” before qualifying, “Of course, I’m not sure how much attention she paid.”

If you have worship services on Zoom, you’ve probably heard the unmuted sounds of Sunday morning TV in the background of at least one person online. It’s hard not to wonder which screen is getting most of the worshipper’s attention! Although being physically present is far from a foolproof way to hold our attention, we are much more likely to be spectators than participants in online ministries. Moreover, the further away we get from rich, loving, intense bonds, the higher the challenge for stewardship.

Turkle, the philosopher who charted the path from “better than nothing” to “better than anything” with technology, alerts us to another way the Great Virtuality damages the Body of Christ, returning again to texting. Texts are preferred to calling because we can do away with the messiness of actual conversations. Audrey, a 16-year-old profiled by the author, says that in a call, “she could learn too much or say too much, and things could get out of control.” But in texting, she can easily redirect the conversation, or cut it off.

However, it’s the messiness of conversations – their “out-of-control” nature – that creates the bonds characterizing the Body of Christ. In online church, we can keep things from getting out of control, too. We avoid the person we can’t stand (the same one Jesus knows needs our kindness). We don’t have to sit next to the person with poor hygiene (the one God wants us to get to know better). The Holy Spirit is less likely to work within our intimate, interdependent relationships. As Turkle puts it, “the ties we form through the internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind.”

Questions prompted by the Great Virtuality

As virtual church becomes a more permanent part of our life together, the following questions might help you to strengthen your involvement in ministry.

Is the right technology available?

Many churches have thick walls that make Wi-Fi more challenging. But without high-speed data, it is difficult to be virtual messengers. Look for churches from whom you can ask help, or to whom you can offer support.

What kind of training do our leaders need?

Often our most important congregational leaders are less comfortable with social media than would be helpful in this new age. Your grandchildren would probably be excellent mentors.

With whom could you partner?

The church as virtual messenger leaps over barriers of physical distance. Congregations can join together for worship. Far-away speakers can lead workshops. Perspectives can be shared across the miles.

What is the best way to measure engagement?

Neither physical presence nor social media views are good proxies any longer for total attendance.

What kind of facilities do we need?

About six months into the pandemic, an octogenarian friend of mine said, “Maybe my congregation doesn’t need that big old church building after all.” Physical gathering spaces have become less critical. Could downsizing the building help you focus on virtual messaging and strengthen you as the Body of Christ?

How can we care for and grow alongside each other?

Andrew Zirschky of Austin Seminary reminds us that physical presence does not necessarily lead to a spiritual connection, nor virtual presence prevent one. What might you do to increase your connection in a Zoomed-out world?

The post-pandemic church, with its challenges and opportunities, will continue to take shape in the decades to come. Have faith that the Holy Spirit, who was blowing in the times of Gregory the Great, of the Great Schism, and of the Great Reformation, will guide us into the Great Virtuality, and beyond!

Charles (Chip) Hardwick is interim executive of the Synod of the Covenant and lives in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

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