I was wrong!
In the first glow of church reactions to lockdown in response to Covid19, I waxed lyrical about how churches had leaped over the top of me in their online presence – fulfilling a passion I have long held that churches move into the Third Millennium where people dwell increasingly in the digital, virtual world. I was seeing example, after example, after example of churches finding (as I had said) that at the touch of a button or two they were online and communicating more widely than they had ever In Real Life (IRL).
A month and a half of lockdown later, and it is time, with some of the dust settling, to begin looking at the virtual ecclesiastical landscape a bit more robustly, a bit more soberly. I remind you of what I have said repeatedly: I hope, as we reflect, that we can be generous and charitable as people try to do their best in this unprecedented context. On the other hand, if we can reflect generally (rather than pointing to individuals), genuine, deeper reflection is helpful to move us forward.
As we do this, my ongoing, hearty congratulations and enthusiasm for those many of you who have moved into the digital space well and those of you who have vastly improved Christian online presence.
A potpourri of points:
(Thankfully) I was wrong that this site, one of the longest-running attempts to present mission and ministry in the virtual world, could be swamped in the sea of new and flash digital presences. In fact, for the first time (as far as I am aware) of this site’s 14 year history, it ranked as the most-visited blog site based in New Zealand – that’s not most-visited of Christian or spiritual sites, that’s most-visited of ALL blog sites in April.
I was wrong that parishes and ministry units quickly cleaned up their online presence. They have now had at least 6 weeks of lockdown to sort this, and so I just spent a bit of time randomly jumping around the country’s online Anglican presence. Many communities have no apparent web presence whatsoever. Others may have their website up to date, but their linked facebook page is out of date. For yet others, it is the opposite – great facebook page, rubbish website (which is where you arrived if you searched for the church). Worst: a parish website last updated with an enthusiastic photo of young people in… 2016! And the linked facebook page came up simply with “Content not available”. One of our largest communities was last updated on April 26, and previous to that, on March 26. Some sites may have had information about what they were doing during lockdown somewhere on there – but the seemingly endless, irrelevant (to me as a visitor) screeds of typing or poor layout meant that I could not find it. And so on and so forth.
Let’s talk about numbers (honestly)
[or – Lies, damned lies, and statistics]
An example of a Roman Catholic YouTube video for a service received over 18,000 views. The equivalent Anglican one received about 400. Reflection: Roman Catholic online offerings are more centralised (diocese centred); Anglican online offerings are more dispersed (parish & other ministry unit centred). I leave to you to work out if adding the dispersed numbers together gets anywhere near the centralised viewing numbers. But there have been other people reflecting about this, highlighting that RCs have a more catholic (surprise!) approach to liturgy – each parish and ministry unit being not too different to the next (much more like a franchise). This makes such online centralisation straightforward). In Anglicanism here, one community will be (unrecognisably?) different from the next – possibly intentionally so, often with a theory of providing variety for different “types” of
shoppers worshippers (#AnglicanChurchOfOr). RCs have a more centralised funding system; Anglican parishes and ministry units are in graver (financial) danger if they lose worshippers to another ministry unit or parish.
Another cluster of statistics that it is important to look at:
Here (for three large Anglican communities) are the rounded numbers of people viewing services week by week beginning from Easter Day:
A) 1,100; 460; 340; 360
B) 550; 380; 260; 190
C) 600; 240; 210; 210
Initial reaction from those putting worship online was that there were more people at online worship than had been present at IRL worship. I still think there is some truth in this that I want to come back to in a future post. But, I will nuance this point. It’s obvious in the sequence of four weeks that the numbers went down to about a third of where they started on Easter Day. The numbers essentially went down to much closer to IRL worship numbers. I can think of three reasons: (1) Easter Day is a big deal – much bigger than three Sundays later; (2) novelty at first, now that is wearing off; (3) people began moving out of the strict Level 4 lockdown (when there wasn’t much to do) into Level 3 (when there are a lot more options for filling their day).
Many are pre-recording a service and then “live streaming” at the normal service time. I’ve been part of such services – they have anywhere between a tenth and a quarter of the normal congregation numbers present at any one time. But, as you are watching such a streamed service, the numbers of people viewing keep going up and down by one or two or so as the service progresses. Then, at the end, the total given (on the saved online version of this streamed service) of those who viewed the service can be three or more times the number present at any one time. People are sampling services and then moving on. This includes people from all over the world – interested in what’s happening down here – and clergy and others (“checking out the competition”, I’ve had some people say). One person can easily check out half a dozen services on at the same time. In totalling online worshippers, this person will be recorded as “6 people present” in a way that can never happen IRL. Take care to conclude too much too quickly from online statistics.
As a couple of asides, before we come to… The Money… I initially found it disconcerting when watching what I thought was a live service to notice the person on the screen also making comments. The Eucharistic Prayer starts and the priest on the screen is going “… Lift up your hearts… Let us give thanks to the Lord our God…” and someone in the comments is writing, “What page are we on? I’m lost” to which the same priest as is “live” on the video praying the Eucharistic Prayer types the response comment, “You can find it in the Prayer Book at page 421, but there’s also a service booklet you can download from the link that goes with this service.” “Where is the link?” “Are you on YouTube?” “Yes.” “Under the video, click on ‘Show More’.”… and so on…
Once I figured out “live” services were pre-recorded, I wasn’t the only one to wonder: when they are filming this, are they actually having a full service (with readings etc.) or are they going, “right, that’s the collect done… A and B are doing the readings, C’s sermon will be inserted after that, then D’s prayers, OK, let’s film The Peace now… I really messed up the Preface, can we video the Eucharistic Prayer again please…”
In all the services I’ve been at online, I have yet to see a collection for money. Beyond church, I’ve ordered coffee digitally, and click-and-collected something I needed for a repair. I have payed in a wide variety of ways. I have yet to see a collection in an online service. What does this say about our attitude to money?
I thought the two absolutely essential elements of an Anglican service are: the Collection and Notices. Maybe the services I’ve been attending have not really been Anglican.
Lockdown Liturgy Lessons 1 (3 minutes reading time)
Lockdown Liturgy Lessons 2 (5 minutes reading time)
Lockdown Liturgy Lessons 3 (4 minutes reading time)
Lockdown Liturgy Lessons 4 (4 minutes reading time)
Lockdown Liturgy Lessons 5 Teilhard’s Mass on the World (4 minutes reading time)
Lockdown Liturgy Lessons 6 Agape Meal (4 minutes reading time)
Some of the other resources and reflections on this site for this Covid19 context:
Holy Saturday in a Covid19 World
Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter in a Covid19 World
Coronavirus solitude self-isolation and spirituality
Streaming services, online spiritual resources in coronavirus times
New Zealand Prayer Book Daily Prayer
NZ in lockdown
Covid 19 moves churches into the Third Millennium
Carthusians Covid-19 and Communion
Learning from Hermits in a Covid19 World