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.