That’s what a friend at Quicksilver Church commented recently. Our church plant was birthed during a pandemic and has yet to hold an in-person worship service. We’ve met as a core team over Zoom every Sunday morning since the beginning of June. We do not pre-record or livestream. Our first worship service was held over Zoom earlier this month.
This is not to argue that virtual church gatherings are superior. Part of me hates writing this post because I value being in-person so much. And yet COVID-19 has accelerated changes in how we engage (or disengage) in church gatherings. A virtual church gathering enables equity of access and greater opportunities for engagement. It can make a big room smaller in the following ways:
The pastor and worship band are the same size as everyone else: When you meet in-person, the pastor and worship team appear on a stage, elevated above everyone else. In a large church, you will view them on a big screen. They will be larger than life. Not so on Zoom. In a virtual meeting, it can be difficult to determine who is in charge and everyone gets the same screen real estate. As the number of our Zoom participants has increased, my share of the total screen area has decreased. I’m tempted to ask participants to turn on speaker mode during the sermon so I can appear bigger. It can also be distracting to watch everyone else’s faces while someone is speaking but there’s something equalizing about everyone being the same size.
No seating charts: When you gather in-person, no one likes to sit alone. And one of the hardest things is finding a place next to someone you know. And if you’re new, you recognize the regulars have their favorite seats and you don’t want to cause trouble so you try to figure out where those are. Sometimes that’s near the front. Or off to the side. Or in the back row. Then there’s the guy manspreading so he takes up three chairs. There’s the woman whose handbags and other fashion accessories take up three chairs. And then are the groups or couples clumped together that can heighten one’s sense of isolation if you’re sitting alone. And then there are the people who sit at the ends of the rows and you have to inconvenience someone by asking them to move over or make room so you can get through. Let’s face it - we sit selfishly. Most of us sit thinking about ourselves and not others. But in an online meeting, this negative impact is mitigated because no one gets to have their favorite seat. And that’s a good thing when it comes to welcoming newcomers - where everyone is a little bit uncomfortable and discombobulated.
Circles versus rows: In Larry Crabb’s introduction to his book The Safest Place on Earth, he describes a scene in which he and his wife stroll down Miami Beach and marvel at the rows of retirees lounging in beach chairs all facing the same direction, sitting next to each other but not interacting. That’s what church is often like: rows of people, all facing the same direction, close yet distant to the person adjacent to you. However, in a virtual meeting, you sit in a circle (OK, grid) with everyone facing one another. We ask participants to turn on their cameras so we can see each others' faces. Everyone has the same view. There is no front or back row. It is exposing. It is scary. It raises the barrier of entry for newcomers. We also have an open sharing time during service. It always begins with awkward silence and yet sometimes hard questions and painful stories are divulged. In-person services have made it easier to be anonymous and yet people are hungrier more than ever to be seen.
Multiple ways to engage: In addition to real-time audio and video, you can also chat. This will never replace the “amen”, “preach” and laughter of an in-person meeting, and yet the chat box makes it easier for introverted and less expressive personalities to interact. I remember during one person’s presentation at a weekday meeting, you could feel the excitement in the room because of the swell of excited messages in the public chat. It’s strange to use the term “room” when none of us occupied the same physical space and yet community can come in many forms.
Anyone can speak and be heard: In a large physical meeting space, it’s often difficult to hear a person’s natural speaking voice. Without amplification, we ask quieter voices to shout. With amplification, we run a microphone to the person who wants to speak. It is clumsy. Worse yet, most people do not know how to speak into a microphone. They either try to eat it or hold it at arm's length as if it's going to explode. In a virtual meeting, anyone can speak with adequate volume at any time. Zoom bombing is a threat because of the egalitarian nature of a virtual meeting. That’s a feature not a bug. Our sharing times have been impressively meaningful given the number of people who don’t know each other. This could be a feature of the pandemic and the lack of in-person interaction. However, there’s something about the online format that makes it easier for people to speak up and share.
I don’t know how feasible it is once we start meeting in-person to avoid sitting in rows. We’ll be constrained to the space we rent. I also know as a church grows in number, seating is a challenge. But two elements we hope to carry forward to our in-person gathering is figuring out how to sit in circles vs. rows and how to give people multiple ways to engage. One aspect of the pandemic is the radical reshuffling of how churches disseminate content and how congregants ingest it. Due to this dispersal effect, many pastors and church staff feel disempowered and disconnected from their people. And yet perhaps one encouraging trend for the pandemic-era church is the empowerment of all Christians to see one another and give each other food.