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Community, community, community!

It started last Sunday evening when I sat down and rigged the TV to show the livestream of the evening service from church. I was annoyed by the lady standing in front of the camera. I kept getting up to do other things, as you do when the TV is on. We had conversations around the room. I began to ask myself why I wasn’t connecting to the worship on the screen. I couldn’t see the words and the focus was all wrong. But this was worship. I sat down to worship God. Why wasn’t I worshipping.

It was the same when a friend said he stood in front of an empty lecture room at the university and spoke to himself for 90 minutes. He was lecturing to online students but without them in the room, without them on a screen, he felt like he was talking to himself. I’d find that so hard - 90 minutes of talking to myself would be enough to get me hospitalised!

Although this picture has become famous of a priest who asked his congregation to send him selfies so that he could say mass for them and pray for, community, community.

Then a friend said she wasn’t going to livestream but instead put together a series of videos and activities. She was going to construct a kind of online learning experience. She felt that livestream turned her congregation in an audience.

It’s bad enough when we go to church and sit looking at the back of someone’s head and only really participating when we sing songs. Livestreaming has all the potential of making worship even more of a non-participatory exercise. The preacher and leader and musician participate but we just watch (hopefully) on the other side of the screen.

I said this online and received a negative comment that I was bringing people down. I apologised (“not my intention to do that at all!”), pondered whether I was wrong and moved on to focus more and more of my own thinking around how to create an experience of church which is much more like our real experience. Going to church is about meeting people, sharing news, drinking tea, eating quiche. Well, perhaps not eating quiche. But a kind of social immersive experience around an act of worship in which we are embedded with all our senses.

In a way online learning in the same. How do we create online connectivity which assists the learning process rather than making us and our students feel like we are talking to ourselves? Online learning is not just regurgitating our notes. As we have found in teaching the MA in Digital Theology, online teaching is about prepared conversations, giving students reading beforehand, prompting some thinking and then using the online-together-time for feeding back and discussing. It’s the classic flipped classroom model.

Of course, there is a way of doing livestreaming which models connectivity too. As the week went on, I began to see people livestreaming morning prayer or walks in the park or explanations of what they were going to be doing this Sunday. These engagements communicated worship or information but also became places of connection with the audience who could feed back through liking or commenting and the speakers engaged with those even by acknowledging them. They sought feedback via different channels. They created a sense of community.

Hence my tweet and post this morning:

Community, community, community!!!
Blogpost coming later today on this but for lecturers doing online teaching and vicars doing online worship/devotions the key word has to be COMMUNITY not performance in the end someone in isolation needs to encounter a human being not a wannabe celebrity.

To some extent this is simply teaching grandma/grandpa how to suck eggs.

We all know this. Jesus spent a lot more time with his disciples sharing meals and walks and conversations than he did on a mountain preaching the beatitudes. He was known for his parties or for attending other peoples’ parties. He was the one who called us to be a vine – a network of intertwined branches remaining in the Father, drawing life from the Son, blessed by the radiance of the Spirit.

So how do we do community? John Drane and Olive Fleming Drane have been doing some writing about creating community through our teaching experience and they have agreed that I can share the words they have put together on this. It maps out some of the ideas we work out in our own teaching in Durham. Building on proximate relationships to assist the distributed relationships now necessary through social isolation. Connecting, allowing conversation, listening to people. And an acceptance that for neither student nor teacher is this the preferred way of doing things. You can find the document here.

But how about church? If livestreaming is not the ideal way to connect, as argued very well in Christopher Smith’s blogpost, then let’s also follow his advice about ensuring that we connect rather than perform – that we focus on community at all times. That means that we will want to do formal parts of our worship but also asking ourselves how do we engage with our congregations?

Some ideas to add to your basic livestream package:

  1. Greet people joining you online, welcome them and have someone monitor the comments so they can reply. Conduct worship for the people online – so look at the camera lens, break the fourth wall, make (digital) eye contact. This worship is for them as well as you and anyone with you.

  2. Use responsive prayers, responsive liturgy.

  3. Make sure people can see the responses if they are on a screen. If your platform allows it, put the words on the user’s screen.

  4. Use silence – let people have reflection space in worship – it is NOT entertainment.

  5. Ask people to have a bible to hand at home so they can follow the readings.

  6. Give people a few minutes to discuss the sermon/teaching with other people they are socially isolating with (or perhaps they could send the team a text to ask one of the team to ring them if they are alone and want to discuss the sermon)

  7. Perhaps, use a platform like Zoom where you can have breakout rooms for bible study discussions. Make sure you have enough people prepared to be facilitators for each group.

  8. Allow the intercessions to be interactive. Give out a/some text number(s) so that people can text in their prayers. Give people time to get these to you – so announce it before a song/hymn and do the prayers afterwards. Read the prayers out after a bidding prayer.

  9. Bless the people. Tell them how they can get hold of someone from the church if they need help.

  10. Ask for feedback – give people a way of getting that feedback to you. Ask how the worship felt for them. Were they able to engage and what particularly helped them to do so.

  11. Meet with your team, online of course. Discuss the congregation’s feedback, discuss how you think it went, ask what you would do differently.

  12. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. People are being starved of community engagement. Whatever you can do will be so much better than being cooped up on a house on your own day after day, week after week.

I hope you’ve found this helpful.

There are so many guides to doing livestreaming and community building and this won’t add much to them.

But my hope is that it reinforces the fact that worship is ultimately a community gathering to worship God and NOT wannabe celebrities performing to a passive audience.

Go play! Experiment! Build community! Worship God!

p.s. my next blog post is going to head into the dangerous territory of celebrating Communion/Lord's Supper online!


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