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Worship Wave of the Future

Rev. Douglas Taylor


I was talking with someone from another church community recently about how thankful he was for the online worship services folks are doing. He said it made it possible for a friend of his to attend who had not been able to attend for several years due to a severe mold allergy combined with the relatively mild levels of mold in their old church building. On Zoom, his friend has not missed a Sunday and loves being back in the community.

I was talking with someone else this week about how they find the online worship to be stilted and flat. She appreciates the effort, she assured me, and will keep showing up; but she longs for face-to-face contact again. The intellectual stimulation is nice, but the community is missing.

Another friend was lamenting the difficulty of hosting their pagan rituals online. They laughed about their shift from an earth-centered practice to a technology-centered practice. They smiled wistfully when they explained to me that even online in our separate houses, we are all still in the same universe. The energy each person puts out will always find its way even if we are not in the same room breathing the same air.

My sermon today is a companion to one I delivered back in the spring based on Arundhati Roy’s piece “The Pandemic Is a Portal.”  In that piece Roy wrote:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

This pandemic has had an impact on our worshiping community. Here we are online. This pandemic has pushed us to ‘break with the past and imagine [our] world anew.” We pivoted our worship services online instead of in-person for our health and the continuing health of others in our community. This spring, the Board, in consultation with the UUA and current scientific recommendations, voted to plan to remain worshiping online through this coming church-year, through until May 2021.

Let me unpack that a little. The Board’s intention is not to lock us into doing online worship and online everything for the next full year. Only that we are planning for things to be online. When it is safe to meet in person, we will do so. If it is safe to meet for worship in-person before May 2021, then we will shift our plans. But for now, our planning revolves around us staying online for worship for the coming year.

At our recent Board Retreat a week ago we began plans for a ‘reopening team,’ a group of thoughtful people to advise the Board about when and how we can host in-person activities throughout this coming year.

Worship is a very risky activity for a variety of reasons; but a small group of people meeting outside, masked and socially-distanced … that is a manageable risk in many people’s minds. We’re looking into what we can host and how we can offer some in-person activities as we go forward.

What we do at this point will necessarily be different from what we have been doing in-person all along. (Mark 2:21) “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse.” For a while back in the spring I tried hard to keep doing all the things we had been doing – but do them online. I discovered that does not work. We need to find new ways to do these things. We need patchwork garments that will not rend and tear from our simple use.

All of which brings me around to the article we used for our reading this morning and the author’s suggestion that churches need to shift their mindset away from being a physical community with an online presence to becoming a digital community with a physical presence. We need to get a new garment – to carry that metaphor along – instead of patching the old one in the new setting. And I don’t agree. I think Carey Nieuwhof is a very wise preacher and church trend observer I think Nieuwhof is smart and perceptive. But I also think he is wrong on this point.

I resonate with Nieuwhof when he writes that a crisis such as this pandemic “is not just a disruptor, it’s an accelerator.” The seven trends he listed are not wildly new ideas, they are just wildly accelerated ideas. He talked about things like valuing flexibility and agility in our church staff teams during this disruption. That makes a lot of sense to me. He talked about how this pandemic is compounding the long trend we have been on from denominational allegiance, or ‘brand loyalty’ if you will. I think his comments about the trend toward home-based spirituality instead of ‘church-building-based’ spirituality are spot on. We’ve been working on that for a while in our community. I will admit, the only part of his predictions I did not agree with is the part I had our Worship Associate read to you – that part about needing to become a digital organization with a physical presence.

I mean, obviously, here we are. We are functioning as a digital organization while our physical presence is under renovation! Obviously, we are putting a lot of energy into our website and our capacity for zoom meetings and our digital communications. And obviously we are not going to stop doing those things when we can get back in person. We know now how to offer a live online version of our worship; we are not going to forget how to do it when we are back in our building.

And Nieuwhof is right when he says the digital connection is better for some people, giving greater access to those who are hindered by distance or timing or illness. He’s right on that count. But here is where I think he is off base.

He draws the comparison of retail stores in a mall and retail stores online. He warns that brick-and-mortar businesses are learning that you can’t compete unless you invest deeply in the online digital sales as well. And, the stores that really thrive are the ones the live online primarily. By that comparison, Nieuwhof is saying religious communities need to do the same.

But that is precisely where he loses me. What are we selling? What is this congregation’s product? He is comparing religious communities to businesses that sell books and t-shirts. He’s buying into the idea that religion is basically a transactional experience – an exchange, I’ll give you this much in exchange for that product I value. I’m buying in, I’m just a consumer here. Religious community, many argue and I agree, is not a transactional experience but a transformational one. There is no commodification of your encounter here. Sure, we ask for money, we ask for a financial pledge. That’s probably why it seems transactional. But there is scale of fees for what we are doing together.

What would we be selling? I know that some Christian churches will say their product is dogma, their business is beliefs. To put it crassly, they are in the after-life insurance business. I would argue that is not true for even most Christian churches and it is definitely not true for our Unitarian universalist community.

To lean into that language, we can say our business is relationships. Our product is community. And Nieuwhof is suggesting religious communities shift their efforts to become a digital organization to better sell our product. Yes, there is a version of that available online and in virtual space. Yes, the energy we put out into the universe will always find its way even if we are not all in the same room breathing the same air together.

But the heartbeat of it is in in-person, face-to-face encounters. Our faith community is focused not on beliefs or dogma or the special way to get into heaven. Instead we are focused on being companions with each other on our spiritual journeys. Our mission is centered on actions and experiences we have in community together.

Can we do that online. Yes, mostly, kind of. But not completely.

I am certain this pandemic will leave a lasting mark on our community going forward. We will continue to have online class offerings. We will make sure people can donate money electronically. We will be sure to have videos of our services available on our website. And there will be an easy way to allow people to zoom into activities like committee meetings and classes as we go forward.

And, we will always return to in-person gatherings when possible, where we can touch hands, where we can better read each other’s body language, where we can sit in shared silence together listening to our communal breathing, where we can have eye contact that is not stymied by screens. Because our business is relationships, our product is community.

In short, we will do both. But I am convinced we will always have a need to gather together in person. Human touch is too basic a human need to forgo. And at the same time, we will never stop doing all we can to stay connected to the people who can’t show up physically. It is part of our commitment to be a community together. What works for one will not be the answer for everyone else.

For now, by necessity and compassion, we are online. We keep our connections, but we are not simply holding our collective breath until we can breathe together again. We are forging new connections and building community with every tool we can. That’s what we do. That’s why we are here. And here, we will always be.

In a world without end.

May it be so.