By John Mason Lock

Since the pandemic began, I’ve heard many clergy celebrate the extension of the church’s ministry through virtual worship. The refrain I hear again and again goes something like this: “We have people watching our service from all around the country” and “the views of our live-stream worship are double our average Sunday attendance.” Granted, in a time where there hasn’t been a lot of good news about the church, it’s understandable that clergy want to find something positive. The problem is that Facebook counts a “view” as anyone who watches the video for three seconds or more. Say someone is just scrolling mindlessly through Facebook on a Sunday morning and they happen to like your church page. A video pops up and they click on it briefly only to hear the drone of an organ or the mild exhortations of a preacher. Before 2020, if someone were walking down the sidewalk in front of the church and happened to walk up to the door to peek in, we wouldn’t have counted him in the Sunday attendance. Now we’re celebrating these “engagements” as actual or potential church growth.

I’m not by any means prepared to admit that I was incorrect in showing my support early on for virtual worship. At the time, Ephraim Radner was definitely a voice crying in the wilderness calling for limited or at least very cautious use of virtual worship. I still believe his conclusions were mistaken, but perhaps some of his concerns had merit. Even at the time, as a response to his post questioning the utility of virtual worship, I conceded that

trying to divine what the consequences of this pandemic will be on church life is like tracking a bird in flight. Will it cripple them economically? Will it habituate people to attend church less even than they already do? Or perhaps, is there the hope that being put in mind of the “shortness of uncertainty of life” many will be led by the Lord to “seek that heavenly wisdom which leadeth to eternal life”? God alone, of course, knows.


I still think that there is much uncertainty in the present moment. I haven’t let go of the optimism that we may as a country have a renewal of faith as a result of our medical, political, and social crises. But, in my opinion, what now seems likely to happen is an acceleration of a trend that has been growing for years — namely, unhealthy attachments to home churches which are in an area in which you no longer live. Certainly, since I was ordained 13 years ago, and I suspect for much longer, the Episcopal Church has increasingly become congregational in its practice. By congregational I mean each local church has become so narrow in its liturgical, sacramental, or social practices that it has its own niche. I suppose this has been true to an extent for a long time; there have always been low church and Anglo-Catholic dioceses in the Church of England, but liturgical and theological innovations in the late 20th century increased this balkanization. The net result of this is that when members move, they often report that they cannot find a suitable church in their new location. I’ve heard college students say this time and again — I can’t find anything like my home church. It also happens with retirees or others who move for work or family reasons. They go to another state and never find a new home church because they are looking for their niche brand. I am genuinely sympathetic to this problem, especially in places where the Episcopal Church is less vibrant or where it has veered considerably from orthodox preaching and practice.

What inevitably happens, however, is that for a fairly large percentage of the people who move (and Americans love to move), a new home church is never found, and so in a sense, a member of the national church is lost because the person is not active in either his new home nor of course in his former.

I remember a fellow priest once saying to me that politically he was sympathetic to the Democratic party, but when it came to the church, he thought that bishops who led like Republicans were ideal. The best bishops have tenures that are characterized by restraint in spending, reductions in parish assessments, and a general lack of intrusion on the part of the bishop into congregational life. Fundamentally, his point was, and I think he was right, that the strength of the church lies in its local congregations. Dioceses and institutes are there to support and promote local ministry.

My concern is that our triumphalistic claims that virtual church is growing the reach of a congregation will actually result in the diminution of local congregations and, therefore, the harm of the Church catholic. Now anyone, virtually anywhere around the globe, can tune into his own preferred preacher or liturgical style, but believe me, most clergy were not made to be televangelists, and the local church cannot thrive on members watching remotely hundreds or thousands of miles away.

In January, the football legend Tony Dungy published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for a renewal of Christian faith in 2021. He pleaded for the church and for Christians to get back to the basics: reading the Bible, prayer, repentance, tithing, and a return to local churches. In just a couple of sentences, he summed up the importance of membership in a local Christian body: “The relationships built in our local churches are critical for our personal growth — and the church’s growth as a whole.”

There is, I would argue, a sort of spiritual winnowing that occurs when we faithfully attend and support a church that doesn’t exactly fit our niche. Notwithstanding theological orthodoxy, perhaps a change in liturgical style or a preacher to whom you don’t immediately relate is exactly what is needed for your soul. We know that people increasingly think of church as a product to consume. We need to push back against this model and suggest that church is principally for God. Secondly, it is for us to be a school for love where perhaps you learn not to always “have it your way.”

For my brother and sister clergy, I would plead with you that we refrain from feeding this attachment to former congregations. It might make you feel good to know that the parishioner who moved away can’t find anything as good as what you do, but that is neither good for that person nor the church as a whole. The church needs people to come and take up the ministry of lay-reading, chalice-bearing, Sunday School, and various outreach ministries. You cannot do this virtually. I’ll probably get a lot of pushback for this, but it might even be okay to counsel someone who has moved to a new area where there’s not an orthodox Episcopal congregation to seek out another denomination. The Episcopal Church does not claim to be the one true church, as beautiful and uplifting as our music, liturgy, and traditions can be. Isn’t it for the common good of the church as a whole that the members of Christ’s body are grounded in a local church rather than a loose attachment where they are only consuming your “product” on a screen? Let’s not use virtual church to keep people from taking those difficult but important first steps in finding a new church home where they can thrive and grow. It might not benefit our church in this present moment, but, undoubtedly, it is for the greater good of eternity.

Fr. John Mason Lock is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Red Bank, New Jersey.

About The Author

Fr. John Mason Lock is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Red Bank, New Jersey. Born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he was nurtured spiritually at St. John’s Cathedral and St. Mark’s on-the-Mesa.

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4 Responses

  1. C R SEITZ

    This is the first time I have heard of the phenomenon being described as a significant factor in church decline. Perhaps it is a more recent phenomenon. It certainly makes sense to suggest that, the more divergent local congregations become, the more they create consumerist individual worshippers. But why is this happening? And in what way does the wider ‘supermarket of Christian denominations’ in the US fan the flames of ‘this is what we do here’ and ‘this is what we don’t do here’ species of churches? This then seeps into a denomination like TEC and a premium is placed on worship options, books of occasional services, internet driven pew sheets, branding decisions, and so forth. If this becomes the norm, one could see how it would create a new breed of episcopal consumers. At root, however, are very powerful cultural forces placing an emphasis on individual identity and thriving. The church would need to be counter-cultural by intention to push back and offer a different set of bearings. Virtual worship has highlighted the challenge. You hold the on/off and channel selector in your hand.

  2. Robin Jordan

    The hybrid church as it is sometimes called, the church that has a strong online presence as well as a strong incarnational presence is for better or worse the future of the Church in the United States and Canada as the population of these countries has for a large part moved online. The internet is an integral part of the world of the younger generations, and they have difficulty conceiving of a world without it. Missiologists and others who study cultural developments recognize the internet as a new mission field that churches ignore to their own detriment. The younger generations will not only visit a church’s website before they visit the church, they will determine whether they are going to visit the church not only on the basis of the website but also on the livestreams or videos of the church’s services on the website or the church’s Facebook page. They will view livestreams or videos of a church’s services as many as six times before visiting the church in person. Churches that have a weak or non-existent online presence are off the radar screen to them. Churches that have a strong online presence are developing new ways of measuring their online following. Two of these methods are digital contact cards and online small groups. Churches that take their online presence seriously do not rely on a metric like the number of “clicks.”
    The Episcopal Church has historically lagged behind other denominations in reaching the population of the United States. While the Baptists went west with the early pioneers and the Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians followed closely behind them, the Episcopalians waited for the steamboat and the railroad. Its history of church expansion is marked by missed opportunities. Among the factors that have contributed to the decline of the Episcopal Church in recent years has been the denomination’s failure to take advantage of these opportunities. It has listened to folks like the Reverend Lock. Where the Episcopal Church could have been planting new churches and engaging new segments of the population, it has held back. It has developed a mindset that is averse to taking risks from fear of losing what it has, having fallen victim to its own poor judgment calls. In my former deanery a church begged the bishop not to plant a new church in its area of the county from fear that the new church would not attract newcomers to the area but also its own members. The area was experiencing explosive population growth and other denominations were taking advantage of this growth to plant new churches. The area could have easily supported two or more Episcopal churches. The church itself was making negligible effort to reach and engage the expanding population.

    Developing a strong online presence makes good sense in the third decade of the twenty-first century. A church will not only extend its reach but also will broaden its reach. In the deanery in which I am presently living, the Episcopal churches that are declining are shrinking because they have too small a base. Their base is not growing and consequently they are not growing. A strong online presence would help them to expand their base and reach and engage population segments that they have not previously reached and engaged. Rather than settling for decline, Episcopalians need to become more outward looking, more mission minded. They need not only to establish a strong online presence for their churches but also to learn from the experience and apply what they learn to their in-person services, small groups, and other activities.

    • C R SEITZ

      I believe the joke was, Baptists went on foot, Congregationalists on horse, Presbyterians on train, Episcopalians when there was a club car on the train.

  3. Vivian C Graham

    Regarding John Mason Lock’s article about virtual services …
    On the surface, it all sounds very logical. However. I am left with questions: 1. Do you think the actual number of people at online services is that great? I’m talking about regular communicants who have moved away, and for whatever reason, still attend churches they left behind. I’m not convinced that’s a huge number of people. I suspect it’s more along the lines of how we should be grateful they’re attending church at all. I also suspect that some of those attendees eventually quit going to online services, because let’s face it, it is not the same as being there. As you can tell, I am only surmising regarding the numbers. Would Fr Lock please expand on this?
    2. Fr Lock, have you thought about those who are homebound, for whom online services are a welcome blessing? Not just the services, but also the “coffee hour”, which for some may be the only social contact they have.
    3. My diocese has set up an easy way to donate, on a one-time or regular basis, to the diocese and its programs, or to a specific parish, with the ability to send the donation to Youth Program, Flowers & Candles, or whatever you wish, simply by noting it on the memo line. Donations for my parish are down during the pandemic, but at least some money is coming in. To balance that, we are spending less in areas such as youth programs, and flowers & candles, to be sure, but also in heating, air conditioning and electricity. Notice I said less, not zero.

    Vivian C Graham attends St John’s Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Northeast Ohio.


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