Has the pandemic pushed the church into a new digital age?
Since mid-March, when churches in the diocese of Quebec began to close for in-person worship, Joan Boeckner, 75, a parishioner at Quebec City’s Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, has not been going to church. Even after the cathedral re-opened its doors to worship, Boeckner chose not to return, out of concern for her safety and that of the other residents of her building.
Boeckner says she misses the connection with other people she used to experience before COVID-19 came to Canada. Yet, she’s quick to add, her experience of pandemic-era church has not been all bad.
Since the earliest days of the lockdowns, the diocese has been making weekly services by Bishop Bruce Myers accessible remotely—not only over the internet, but by telephone also. This is important for Boeckner; her computer has been out of service for some time, she says, and the pandemic has made her reluctant to get it serviced or shop for a new one.
Not only has she found the telephone services a “lifeline,” she says; in some ways, she’s found it even richer than in-person worship. An eager church volunteer, Boeckner says she is enjoying being able to focus on the sermon without feeling distracted by the responsibilities of greeting new arrivals or other tasks. She takes notes while listening and reflects on them afterward.
“This period has been an incredibly wonderful period for me to just be instead of do,” Boeckner says. “I’m able to focus and go into the word even more deeply. So it’s just a very rich spiritual experience for me.”
If the coronavirus pandemic recedes because of the development of vaccines or other causes, she says, many parishioners in the diocese— particularly those at very advanced ages, or those who have to drive in sometimes difficult winter conditions— will very much appreciate the church continuing to offer services online or by phone. In fact, she says, it’s possible the pandemic has served as a catalyst for the entire church, spurring it to make something for which a need already existed—remote worship—more available.
As this article was being written in October, the coronavirus was continuing to cloud the future with uncertainty, as it had through so much of 2020. One thing, however, seemed certain: the pandemic had changed the way Canadian Anglicans experience church, making digital and other remote offerings highly desired counterparts to in-person worship— possibly for good.
‘We can change the game’
“Definitely we’re hearing that the hybrid church—online and in person—is here to stay,” says Janet Marshall, director of congregational development for the diocese of Toronto and trainer/facilitator for a series of group listening sessions conducted since this summer by the Anglican Church of Canada.
The internet, of course, offers a much safer option for people especially vulnerable to COVID-19. But the church has discovered advantages to offering online worship beyond protecting people from the coronavirus. Churchgoers busy with young children like the convenience of being able to attend services online, Marshall says. It’s not uncommon now, she adds, to see many such families who would have typically attended every few weeks or once a month show up to online services weekly. Meanwhile, as the internet removes the barrier of distance, churches are seeing people joining their services from beyond the bounds of their parishes—from other parts of Canada or the world.
“We’re hearing across the country that … the boundaries of geography are breaking down,” Marshall says.
As a result of these factors, many churches are seeing more people attending online than would have attended in person before the pandemic—in some cases, dramatically more. Her own church, she says, did not use to hold morning prayer, because no one would show up; now 30-35 people join online every morning. Posting services online, on platforms such as Facebook or YouTube, has also allowed churches a new way to get in the public eye—and the analytics offered by these platforms suggest that many churches are attracting the spiritually curious, and giving churches a way to showcase themselves.
“We’re getting what I like to call basically a window-shopping evangelism, where people can see who we are, what we believe in, what we pray for—even if they’re just kind of stopping in for half a minute or a minute—in a way that we’ve never ever had before,” she says. “This whole new opportunity to have a public space has opened up to us through our online presence…. Churches don’t want to lose that, now that they’ve got it.”
Recognizing the importance of technology to church life, the diocese of Toronto has this year expanded its $5,000 ministry grant program with a new type of one-time grant, intended to help churches take on a permanently hybrid role, she says.
Some church leaders say that, alongside all the suffering the pandemic has caused, it has also opened up a vast new opportunity for the church to speak to the world and, potentially, to grow.
The Rev. Ken McClure, priest-in-charge at the Anglican Parish of Haliburton in the diocese of Toronto, has attracted perhaps an unusual amount of internet attention for an Anglican parish priest. From a website with almost no content and an essentially moribund Facebook page, the parish has been ramping up its online ministry, with, among other things, a series of sermons and other video pieces. A song about the Trinity (words by McClure, tune courtesy of Gilbert and Sullivan) garnered more than 53,000 views and more than 800 shares on Facebook. His church’s online ministry, McClure says, has “steamrolled” this year.
“It has wound up being a large ministerial opportunity that we never knew was available to us,” he says.
Three to four times as many people join for online services than would typically worship in person at his parish. “Our building wouldn’t physically accommodate the amount of people who worship with us now,” he says.
The pandemic, McClure says, has spurred churches everywhere to come to the same conclusion that some of the church’s more charismatic and evangelical branches reached some time ago: churches today need to use digital technology to reach people. The internet, McClure says, functions today as the marketplace or agora did in the days of the early church—as that public space in which the church speaks to the world.
“It took the pandemic for us to recognize that this [online] thing we’re doing right now—this is the agora,” he says. “The agora is online now.”
The Rev. Steve Greene, rector at St. Luke’s, Cambridge, and St. Thomas the Apostle, Cambridge, in the diocese of Huron, says the pandemic has given the church a rare chance to reach people through preaching, since preachers are now no longer limited to set worship times.
“We can change the game now,” he says. “It’s not just Sundays…. Every day we can do preaching.”
The Rev. Anna Greenwood-Lee, rector of St. Laurence Anglican Church in the diocese of Calgary and bishop-elect, since Sept. 26, of the diocese of British Columbia, says the internet has become the real “front door” of the church.
“People never walk into our church without having done extensive work on our website,” she says. “People who are church-shopping go on our website and listen to the sermons as part of how they decide whether or not they’re interested in coming. And I think the church just needs to know that. It’s just a reality.”
Statistics released this October by the Church of England show increased levels of participation in online worship and ministry this year. Since the beginning of 2020, according to the report, social media engagement with the church increased 92% over the same time period the previous year, with 86 million views of Church of England postings. Church of England and Church House Publishing apps had been accessed more than 7 million times, 40% more than the same period in 2019; and AChurchNearYou, a church-searching website, had been viewed more than 44 million times by October, surpassing the total for all of 2019.
The Rev. Neil Elliot, a priest in the diocese of Kootenay who also serves as statistician for the Anglican Church of Canada, cautions that the data cited in the Church of England report don’t necessarily suggest a dramatic shift among parishioners toward online worship. For example, given that in-person worship was either suspended or closely restricted during most of the time covered by this survey, a 92% increase in social engagement, he says, should not come as a great surprise.
Comparable data for the Anglican Church of Canada are not yet available. Elliot says gathering statistics in the Anglican Church of Canada is considerably more difficult than in the Church of England because the Canadian church is much less centralized and has far fewer resources to dedicate to it. And yet, Elliot says, the gathering of statistics may be more important now than ever, because the pandemic has had the effect of speeding up change in the church. Because of the Anglican Church of Canada’s patchwork character, he adds, any effort to gather online attendance statistics would need to be nuanced and carefully thought through to ensure apples-to-apples comparisons.
New kind of church, new kind of parishioner?
The pandemic, Elliot says, has meant not only a difference in the means by which people access the church; it appears also to be changing the way they worship.
“The type of service we have been returning to is often morning prayer,” he says. “This is a major shift in service type, as for many decades the ‘parish communion’ has been the normative service.” Analytics also show some online worshippers skipping ahead to the sermon or other parts of services they most want to hear, rather than sitting through them in their entirety, as in-person worship requires. Elliot says he’s also aware of worshippers taking advantage of the online availability of church services by switching to different congregations for personal or theological reasons.
Of course, while the increased availability of online worship and ministry this year has been welcomed by many Anglicans, many are also lamenting the loss of physicality the pandemic has meant. For some, online church doesn’t cut it.
“Funnily enough, I think it’s the social isolation of the pandemic that reminds us of the importance of genuine community and of the sacraments…. And I think that we really need human contact,” says the Rev. Michael Knowles, a professor of preaching at McMaster Divinity College, a Baptist and interdenominational seminary in Hamilton, Ont.
“In the West we have a love affair with technology … [but] there’s nothing like a good congregational sing-song. You can’t do that on Zoom. It’s not happening. Can you imagine the Christmas Eve carol service? ‘We don’t have the choir, we don’t have the snow gently falling, we’ve got a prerecorded something.’ Well … paltry’s the word.”
Can the church expect the same amount of commitment to it—financial and otherwise—on the part of people who take part in its life only online? The answer, Marshall says, seems to be yes—albeit tentatively.
“For the most part, we’re seeing that the commitments are staying high in terms of stewardship,” Marshall says. “However, I’m not going to say that with a whole lot of confidence for the long run…. There are all sorts of questions about stewardship— stewardship of money, stewardship of the way people have expressed their ministry and mission, their love of God through mission—that we just don’t know the answers to at this point.”
Marshall says that in her conversations with the listening groups across the country, she’s heard that while in some places people have continued giving to the church, others are worried about their parishes’ financial sustainability.
“The first few months everybody kind of rallied and said, ‘We can do this; we can get through it,’ but this is lasting longer than that, and so we don’t really know” what will happen in terms of levels of giving, she says.
“Across the board, we are seeing more attendance for the churches that have made the transition to online or to hybrid—and at the same time, we need to be careful about how we understand the relationships that are being built or nurtured—or not—in that,” she says. “We actually are very successfully teaching people that they can have a satisfactory experience of worship without being in person, and on the one hand, there’s all these wonderful benefits that we’re learning about—and on the other hand I think we need to be aware of the fact that we may need to teach people again about the importance of being together in community for worship.”
Elliot has similar concerns.
“I think that churches who have been able to sustain their community through online activities and small-in person gatherings through the summer will be doing well,” he says. “But churches who have not connected their community may find their community has drifted apart through this time—either to other online options, or they’ve simply discovered they don’t need church as much as they thought.”
Whatever the future brings, the year 2020 may be remembered as a time of transformation for the church. Marshall says that within her own diocese alone, in a small number of months, she’s seen many cases of ministry taking new forms in the new online space.
“Never has the church had to change so quickly,” she says.