I’m a visual learner. Considering that my preferred art form is music – an auditory activity – that may seem odd. But I know from my many years on the planet that when I can see something – including music notations and lyrics – I internalize it far more readily than just through listening. So visuals always enhance my absorption of auditory material, including sermons and other aspects of worship. For many years some of us tossed around the notion of incorporating some form of visuals into our sanctuary worship to enhance auditory experiences, as well as to contrast with the simplicity of our sanctuary décor. Banners over the pulpit once served those purposes. I know I’m not alone in my visual preferences, and as we have become more inclusive over the decades, it has seemed appropriate to be cognizant of the need for additional ways of reaching a variety of differently abled worshippers, such as the hearing or visually impaired.
As we well know, when the pandemic hit, we were suddenly thrown into the visual/technological world for presenting worship. With our church staff sheltering at home, we quickly saw the need for more in our services than a focus solely on our pastor as she delivered sermons and prayers. So as we worshipped only virtually week after week, we developed an appreciation for how visuals in worship could enhance our experience – videos of nature not confined by covid, familiar song texts to remind us of our still existing community, and imagery of our empty but still beloved sanctuary. When virtual worshippers joined us from faraway places, we learned that we could be a church that stretched beyond our building’s walls.
So when the pandemic finally loosened its grip, it was a logical and natural step forward to become a hybrid church through livestreaming. Visual aspects of worship could continue with a camera trained on worship leaders and a projector displaying texts and videos – in some cases videos of members not physically in attendance reading scripture or other worship participation. We had the ability then to expand our church community to include anyone unable to be present for worship in the sanctuary. For many the return to sanctuary worship has been joyous beyond measure. Being physically present in one another’s company is a balm on the scabs of covid isolation. But there are still some who do not – in some cases cannot – attend worship in our sanctuary due to illness, infirmity, distance, or time constraints.
Hybrid worship is important to me personally, as it means that I can attend worship whenever we are traveling or otherwise unavailable. But it’s also important to me communally. By pulling up our YouTube channel on Sunday mornings while in the sanctuary, I can be in community with those who worship with us but are not physically present. Long-time members, new worshippers, and out-of-state attendees online are all part of our faith community, but their presence may only be known by those of us logging on.
Over the last several months, I’ve had the opportunity to experience our hybrid worship service while traveling and, recently, at home due to covid (Jim, not me – so far). Sadly, I came away from those experiences feeling more like an observer than as a valued participant. Occurrences such as faulty microphones (hopefully now rectified), absent or delayed texts, speakers at the lectern looking only in the direction of in-person congregants rather than into the camera, imagery not available online, and an auditory undercurrent of unseen activity all contribute to a sense of disconnect with the sanctuary community. The unspoken message I have received is, “It’s fine if you want to watch us, but if you want to be a part of our community you must be here in person.” Tangentially, the absence of any weekly online “coffee hour” or faith formation opportunity conveys a similar message, but that’s another conversation.
I know that we’re still learning how to do hybrid worship, and I greatly appreciate all the efforts to that end. I also know that many of us of a certain age may be so accustomed to worshipping only in person that it’s difficult for us to envision any other way. I’ve heard and seen some well-intentioned encouragements to attend sanctuary worship, because we value everyone’s presence and participation. But I can’t help wondering how those pleas for physical attendance strike those in our faith community who are unable to reach our doors. Do they hear that their worship experience is less important than the experience in the sanctuary? Do they feel devalued because of their infirmity or distance? Are we telling them that the universal welcome we promise is only honored at our building’s threshold?
I believe that we neglect our virtual worshippers at our peril. As time passes we may become more and more dependent on remote attendees to sustain both our finances and our community. As more of us age and physical attendance becomes more challenging, more of us may find virtual worship our only connection to our church. As well as I know the faith community of First Congregational, I’m confident that we will do all we can to maintain those connections when that time comes.
But why wait when we can start now? We can be intentional in adopting a consistent vision and awareness of how our worship service (and other aspects of church life) reaches all virtual worshippers – members and newbies alike, no matter their proximity to our physical location. Constantly asking ourselves “How does this come across online?” and “How are we connecting online attendees?” can go far in assisting us in crossing this long bridge to being a truly hybrid church.
Of course, we’ll have to answer those questions, and maybe those answers will require us to let go of some comfortable worship practices. But the vacancies in our pews tell us that the status quo is unsustainable. First Congregational has a long history of stepping out in faith into something new, because God is always creating “a new thing.” May we walk this path with God into a new way of being a community of God’s faithful. Let’s be intentionally and “earnestly” hybrid.