This morning, as we have for several weeks now, we had on-line church at Rupert Methodist. It is fascinating how something that really didn’t exist two or three months ago has become such a part of our lives.
Rupert is a tiny little church in Southwestern Vermont. On a good Sunday, we have twenty-five or thirty folks. A lot of weeks we have half that. We love each other and work hard to be the church in the community. Our time together on Sundays is precious. It is not just a time to reconnect with God, but also a time for us to reconnect with each other.
On-Line church is working out. Each week there are new kinks to figure out. I have done video meetings for nearly two decades, so the basics are pretty familiar to me. But trying to orchestrate music in one location, and twenty-some odd folks, and the right mix of everyone on and some on and off has been a challenge. . I figure that by the time we can have sanctuary services again, I’ll be very fluent in Zoom.
Some of it is good. I like the fact that we are all there face to face. There is a certain intimacy in having a view of everyone in their homes as we talk and pray together. In a way, it is like having everyone on the front row (which never happens).
We start our service with a check-in. I go one by one and ask each person how they are holding up, what are their struggles and joys, and their prayer concerns. This is different than how we do it in sanctuary services. I always ask people what’s on their minds and hearts of course, but only a few respond. And I am the only one who can see what is written on a person’s face when they speak.
By doing it one by one, Hollywood Squares style. Everyone sees everyone. Often there is cross-talk as members share their sympathy, right then and right there. Again, strange as it sounds when we are all huddled in our houses, there is an intimacy to it.
Last week we had twenty-one online. And a couple could not get on. So an average Sunday. Only, it was not, because easily half of those attending are not members of our church. They came from another church I used to pastor, or from friends all over the country. I think we had half a dozen states represented.
And that is a thing we could never do in sanctuary services, reach out so beyond our little towns of Rupert, Pawlet, Manchester, Dorset, and Granville. In the few weeks together, a bond has begun to grow, and these new people feel like our family now, as distant as we are.
There’s a downside, however. As I said, much of our congregation is older, and the technology is hard for them. That is not helped by living in rural Vermont where internet and cell service is often spotty.
So we can’t forget to reach out to those who don’t have the ability to log on each week. I am fortunate, because my congregation is small. I can spend a morning or afternoon (and sometimes both) and reach out and connect with everyone. Not every pastor has that privilege. If I had a larger church, it could be a challenge. But we’d find a way because so much of church, the people, not the building, is about connection.
And that leaves me wondering about what comes after? How do we stay connected with these new people who have joined our church family in the last month or two? We can’t do sanctuary services and on-line services. With a larger church, there might be a way to blend the two, but being as small as we are, the cost of the gear, and the internet (even if we can get internet fast enough to webcast) is beyond what we can do. There’s a challenge for us here.
Before all this, I think most of our folks would have rejected the idea of projection in the sanctuary as a regular part of services. We have a stunningly beautiful 19th Century Neo-Gothic sanctuary and the beauty of this sacred space means a lot to people. It is incredibly worshipful. But we’ve been using Power Point with our on-line services, and it’s been a good thing. People like having the scripture and key points up while I talk. I think it helps them take it in better.
So it is now something we might integrate into regular services. Again, money is an issue., particularly now when there is no money coming in. But there is a way to do it.
I floated the idea of doing an on-line bible study, using the same tools we use for on-line church. That looks like a go. A new opportunity for us. And maybe a way to extend our reach.
I have also been doing on-line office hours. Same tools again. And a few have taken advantage of it.
I don’t want us to get too comfortable with on-line church. I think there is too much opportunity for people to fall between the cracks. It is an uneven world we live in, between poverty, education, and age, there are too many barriers to technology already.
There is no substitute for presence. None. Presence of God in our lives and presence of community. IF we get too comfortable with technology, the physical presence of holy spaces and holy communion with each other can be lost. But we can’t ignore what technology offers us: New paths. New ways. To tell the old, old story of a God who loves us, and a Savior who transforms lives, always for the better.
I don’t often ask for prayers here. As a pastor, most people feel it’s my job to do the praying. But this sea change offers possibilities and perils, hope and danger. I do not think it is an “either/or thing”, but an “and” thing, and that has to be sorted out in the context of a part-time, bi-vocational ministry. I so want to make it work and it’s more than a learning curve. I need wisdom and I ask that you add your prayers to mine that I, and other pastors throughout Vermont and around the world, sort through this, seeking God’s will and direction to spread his love and message in this strange new world of ministry we live in.
Thank you. Be well,
PS: Anyone interested in our online services or Rupert Methodist can get the details on our site: www.rupertumc.org