Chancel surfing

Longtime pastor Jack Glasgow and Minister of Music Barbara Glasgow lead live-streamed worship at Zebulon Baptist Church in Zebulon, N.C.

By John D. Pierce

Asking, “How was church last Sunday?” has a whole new connotation. The answer is likely to have a technical dimension.

Curses, biblical and otherwise, rained down on Zoom’s unfaithfulness yesterday. Other online services were delivered as advertised.

Online church is interesting beyond the technicalities, however. It’s just different — with still-to-be-determined strengths and liabilities.

We don’t yet know if it’s a novelty during a pandemic or a more lasting trend — or some variation that plays out in the future. In the meantime, many of us are grateful for this option when it seems to be the only viable one.

Some church leaders are taking the high risk of returning to in-person services now while others are being more cautious.

It’s a challenge no congregational leader expected to face. At least it was not on the syllabus for the “Pastor’s Multiple Ministries” class when I was in seminary long ago.

Yesterday, I read someone’s positive report from attending church — which she said took many precautions. In addition to a sanitized environment, she said parishioners kept significant distance from one another.

Also, they didn’t handle hymnals, offering plates, or communion cups and trays. Everyone wore masks, she added, and there was no singing.

All of which led me to think: Then what’s the use?

I’ve kidded my pastor friends about becoming televangelists. The truth is our ministers and lay leaders deserve a lot of affirmation for the ways they’ve adjusted quickly to provide worship and other ministries in a short time frame.

And they deserve our support as they make decisions about the future that won’t please everyone expecting to be pleased. (And a sure way to be supportive is to give online or drop a check in the mail.)

During this odd time, however, I have enjoyed chancel surfing on Sunday mornings. Recently, I accidentally watched three sermons — surely to my benefit.

Also, the variety of music, worship styles and settings add to the experience. I’ve simply participated in more and different worship experiences than ever before in such a brief time.

A few years ago, the esteemed church historian Walter B. Shurden and I were having one of our Applebee’s corner booth conversations in which we noted both of us often get reference calls from pastor search committees. We’re glad to help.

In most cases, we know these candidates very well — their personalities, leadership skills, educational background and ministerial experience. But we have never heard them preach.

So I’m making a point to hear my friends preach — with the different time zones allowing me to join more than one service each Sunday.

This new way of worshiping is not as poor of a substitute as many might have imagined. Some pastoral leaders say they find many congregants, ironically, more engaged in weekly worship and other programming now.

A Pew Research study conducted last month, according to Religion News Service, showed that 81.2 percent of religiously affiliated persons said their congregations provide online services. And a large majority said their faith has grown during the pandemic.

Nothing fully takes the place of corporate worship with robust singing, sharing the cup and bread, greeting one another warmly, reflecting quietly in a holy space, and hearing a sermon that the deliverer knows is reaching some ears and hopefully hearts.

Yet the positive responses — even among those who had to embrace technologies in ways they didn’t expect — may give congregational leaders a little more space for figuring out how and when to hold worship and other church functions in the future.

In the meantime I’ll keep attending services locally and beyond.

 

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