The Perils, Pitfalls and Pleasures of Online Church

Before last night, I’d only once before used online means to attend my church.

It was in 2016. My family and I were living in a city in China that back then no one had ever heard of, but now in 2020 is infamous: Wuhan.

I was missing my home church Jannali Anglican so much. 2016 was a hard year for our church, with lots of worry, pain and ultimately grief. My friends were hurting, and I was half-way across the world from them all.

One of our ministers decided to stream our Christmas Carols service on Facebook live so that people like me and others from our flock who were temporarily scattered could join in.

I still remember sitting in my apartment in Wuhan with my 20 month old in a high chair, pointing at the screen and saying to him, “that man who is speaking is your Godfather!”. My son just grunted, perhaps wondering why mummy wasn’t showing him an episode of Peppa Pig instead. But for me, it brought a tear to my eye to see the face of my pastor and friend whom I hadn’t seen in months – who was far away from us in body but not far at all from our thoughts and prayers. It brought me such great joy to hear him preach about Jesus from 8,150kms away.

Last night brought back those memories as I again attended church remotely. This time, I wasn’t in a third-tier city in China, I was in my lounge room – 2 suburbs away from my church building.

We don’t know how long that online church will be our new normal, and speculating about the duration of COVID-19 and the safety measures we are undergoing is not a helpful pastime (my husband is very close to forcing me into a digital detox for this very reason!). But I thought I might share some ideas and thoughts about online church as they come to me – I’d love to hear yours, too.

If you’re interested in what Jannali Anglican did for online church, you can see the video here.

  1. Try to keep to your regular church routine.

For some this may be easy – your church is running a livestream and so the only time you can tune in is when they schedule it. For others, like at our church, you have been sent a YouTube link that you can choose to watch at your convenience. But convenience is a problem – we can’t treat church like any other video on YouTube, Netflix or Disney Plus.

So try, as much as you are able, to watch it at your regular church time (although, as you’ll see below, our best laid plans made that a little difficult this week!).

  1. Share photos with your church community of you sitting down to watch.

For me, as a true Millennial and high-frequency social media poster, this is just second-nature. Just yesterday, in addition to shots of my family watching church, I also shared a photo of a travel-size hand sanitizer bottle, a critique of all the Aussies at the beach last Friday, some verse art from Psalm72:4, and shots of my new (very short) haircut. All that in one day (perhaps I do need that digital detox!).

For you, you might never post on social media, and the idea of a shot of you grinning in Image may contain: 2 people, people sittingfront of your TV (like this one here) makes you sick to the stomach. I agree that our compulsive need to share the minutiae of our lives online is problematic, and I accept that a lot of what is shared on social media is fueled by the ego  (or insecurities) of the person posting, but this is different, you’re posting for the benefit of your Church family.

For me, seeing photos of my brothers and sisters as they gathered around the same online content gave me a sense of connection, it reminded me that even though the body is scattered, we are still a body connected to each other and to our head, who is Christ.

  1. Be aware that your kids might not cope well.

As we sat down to watch church, something strange came over my two boys (aged 5 and 8). They’ve coped well with all the changes they’ve seen in the last few weeks, but I think it really dawned on them that things are serious when they realised we aren’t allowed to go to church. Mr. 5 got very clingy, draping his arms and legs all over Mr. 8 who was having none of it. At one point, Mrs. 37 moved to sit in between them both, but in her frustration and haste ended up sitting on them both and the video had to be stopped so that she could apologise.

There was a kids’ spot early in the video, so we decided to have an intermission while we put the boys to bed and resumed watching later that night.

Next week, I’m going to be prepared, printing out the activity sheets that our Children’s minister emailed through to accompany the lesson, so that the boys can sit and colour while we continue watching church. Another option would be to set them up with the Kids’ Bible iPad app, or set up their own YouTube playlist with a few Crossroads kids’ club videos for them to watch. We’ll play it by ear.

  1. Take sermon notes to stay focused

In my work as a High School SRE teacher and advisor, I’ve noticed something fascinating happen whenever video clips are shown in class. Although you can usually hear a pin drop while the video is playing, and although (almost) all eyes are on the screen, quite often when I ask students a simple comprehension question afterwards it takes a while for them to respond. It’s hard for them to remember.

I think it’s because television viewing, unlike reading, writing, listening and talking, is a passive activity. The level of attention I give to an episode of Brooklyn 99 isn’t the same as I would to a sermon. Our brains treat TV as entertainment, not information to be recalled, reviewed and revisited.

To avoid this, I made sure I took notes. As you can see, I have a note-taking Bible, but any old pen and paper will do. It helped me to stay focused, to think through the content, and to remember what I’ve learned beyond the mere moments of it appearing on my screen.

Whatever you do, please don’t treat online church like you would any disposable entertainment. It’s so much more precious than that.

  1. Be sure to thank your ministers and pray for them

Lastly, please find a way to reach out to your ministers and thank them for their hard work. I can’t imagine the hours and hours they’ve put in this week to come up with last-minute alternatives to regular church.

Earlier this week, there was a post shared on social media that said:

“Your Pastor has never pastored a church through a pandemic before.

When he opens, people are going to say he should have closed.  When he closes, people are going to say he should have opened.

When he does not shake hands, people are going to say he needs faith.  When he shakes hands, people are going to say he’s foolish.

He’s going to make some difficult decisions to protect the flock considering everything from your spiritual growth to legal liabilities that you aren’t even thinking about.

Every Pastor believes that they pastor the most amazing group of people and wants to do what’s best for them.

No one wants things to go well at church as much as your Pastor.  Your Pastor needs your prayers and support right now.”

In the 25 years that I’ve been a member of my church, I’ve watched the ministry team endure some really hard seasons, and I suspect that what is to come has the potential to top them all. We’re all operating without a net in this, our ministers included. Let’s do what we can to support, encourage and pray for those shepherds who love their flock and are heartbroken that they can’t meet with them at this time, especially while so many are hurt, confused and scared.

These five tips above are just some ideas I’ve had in the early light of morning the day after experiencing my first of who knows how many weeks of online church. It’s a work in progress. I’d love to hear your thoughts, tips and advice. This may end up being a marathon, not a sprint. Let’s keep encouraging each other.

One comment

  1. Bob · March 22, 2020

    Awesome understanding of where we all find ourselves. Encouraging us all to meet online, on phone, on SMS, on YouTube, etc is so important for us not to become discouraged.


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