What drives decision making about whether to maintain virtual services?
Fieldwork, Post-pandemic | English | UK
Dr Sean Durbin, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Manchester Metropolitan University
On the evening of March 23, 2020, as the reality of the deadly nature of the COVID-19 pandemic set in in the UK, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the UK would enter a national lockdown. The following day, The Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England sent a letter to all clergy informing them that church buildings were to be closed for both public worship and private prayer. The Church of England’s decision meant that individual parishes around the country had to quickly adapt and come up with ways to livestream their services to their respective congregations.
Over the past six months I have spoken with a number of Church of England leaders of congregations in London about their experience of transitioning online and their decision to either maintain and end their online services after restrictions were lifted. In line with the findings of some of our previous research, most found the transition online unsatisfactory. But what is also interesting is the different ways some have framed their decisions to either keep or curtail online services in theological language.
For example, one pastor I spoke with told me how their transition online was a “pretty steep learning curve” but the younger demographics of the congregation in both age and occupation meant that they were quite tech-savvy, which made the transition easier. An unforeseen consequence of livestreaming their services on Zoom was that they ended up reaching more people virtually than they had ever had in person; According to the pastor on an ordinary pre-pandemic Sunday they might have 80 people, whereas he told me that some of their early livestreamed services had over 100 people tuning in from geographically distance places, who would not or could not be there in person even if they had been allowed to.
When restrictions eased and they were able to go back in person, like many congregations, they began with a hybrid model. This helped to maintain these large numbers by mixing in person attendance with virtual offerings on Zoom. However after brief period of this hybrid model, the church made a conscious decision to end their online offerings in a bid to encourage people to come back in person. This was justified theologically on the grounds that online church was less authentic. Their senior pastor explained it to me like this:
“It was an interesting time reflecting on what church actually is. And we felt in the end, that church is very much about meeting in person. And I'm not sure you can really do Church online, effectively, in a biblical way. So it … crystallized for us that church is not just about getting some input from the front by way of a Bible talk. It’s, it’s God’s people gathering together. That’s the New Testament, the Greek word for church, Ecclesia; it literally means a gathering. And I think the gathering element of churches is fundamental to what church is about.”
At another congregation that I have been working with, the Vicar also felt that the lockdown and pandemic was a time to reflect on what church was about. As a church they are especially focused on working with and in their community, and this made conducting worship services on Zoom particularly difficult because they lacked that kind of community connection. Despite this, the conclusions arrived at were somewhat different.
Using the parable of the lost sheep from Matthew 18:10-14, the vicar described how the pandemic and lockdown became a time to reflect on issues of equity for those who are most marginalized in society. As he described it, the pandemic was a reminder of the reality that people with disabilities, people who work shift work, people with caring responsibilities or anything else in their lives that that makes coming in person on a Sunday impossible, don’t have the same ease of access as many others. Rather than deny anyone the opportunity to participate, this congregation made the conscious decision to maintain their online offerings in order to engender wider participation. From his point of view, “if we’re not listening to them [the most marginalized], we’re not doing it right.”
As a result, this church continues to offer its services on Zoom, as well as morning prayer every Wednesday on a Facebook live. In their view it doesn’t affect in-person attendance, and doesn’t require much extra effort to set up. In my observations, these virtual offerings don’t appear to be taken up by large numbers of people. But, in line with the theme equity, the church maintains them so that they are available if needed.
While different churches might use different theological reasoning to explain their choices to keep or get rid of some or all of their virtual offerings, there are very practical reasons at play here as well. One South London Parish I have just started working with still stream their Sunday Mass on Zoom but have cancelled streaming all the other services, such as morning prayer and evening Mass. When I asked if this was to encourage people to come back, or for any particular theological reasons, the answer was much more simple than I expected: They had to cancel streaming them because they simply couldn’t guarantee that there would always be someone capable of setting up the livestream at those mid-week services.
Image credit - Image by Patrick from Pixabay - https://pixabay.com/photos/church-religion-streaming-6712444/