By J. Donald Waring
On Easter Day 2019, shortly after I finally finished greeting the departing worshippers, our head usher handed me a slip of paper indicating the 11 am attendance. It read 1,000+. Grace Church at Broadway and 10th Street in New York City can seat approximately one-thousand people. So, at some point during the service the ushers simply had stopped counting. Every pew was filled, and it was standing room only in the narthex and aisles of the long neo-gothic nave. It had been a glorious morning. The music soared, the organ thundered, and we all seemed to catch a glimpse of Christ, “the Morning Star who knows no setting.”
If you had told me then that one year later, on Easter Day 2020, we would have a grand total of ten people in the building for the 11 a.m. service, I would not have believed you. I could not have imagined any scenario that would remove two zeroes and the plus sign from our attendance. Nevertheless, 10 was the count: four clergy, the organist, three professional choir members sitting many pews apart from each other, the live-stream technician far off in the west gallery, and the sexton in the wings. In the long history of Grace Church, it had to be the smallest Easter Day congregation ever recorded in the attendance books.
Or was it the largest? Some years ago, our music department had raised funds to purchase professional-grade recording equipment. Also, we had wanted the ability to live-stream certain services throughout the year, particularly the Christmas pageant. Nevertheless, our vision was not entirely clear and the technology kept changing. Finally, a parishioner stepped forward who knew exactly what to acquire, and we began cleverly concealing our new cameras and microphones throughout the church. It was Easter Day 2019 when we first live-streamed an 11 a.m. service. Though the viewers were small in number, we committed to be on the air every week.
Then when the pandemic closed our doors to the public back in March, it was providence that allowed us to pivot quickly to live-stream-only worship, and encourage our parishioners to tune in through one of the four channels: the church website, YouTube, Facebook, or Vimeo. We are blessed to have essential personnel living right here on our urban campus, including my family, the organist, and the sexton. Before the coronavirus crisis my teenage son had taken a liking to the live-streaming equipment and was learning how to operate it. Now he’s been the technician up in the gallery by himself running all the audio and visual. Among the parishioners of Grace Church my wife has become known as “America’s lay reader,” because she’s been at the lectern reading the Scriptures almost every Sunday.
On April 12, Easter Day, we were able to determine that we had nearly 600 screens tuned in across the four channels. We encouraged people to send us photos of themselves at worship in their homes, and they did. Clustered around many computer monitors were multiple people – families some four and five strong. What we quickly realized is the one screen did not equal one person. So, what was our Easter Day attendance in 2020? Whom do we count – just the few of us in the church leading the worship, or the great multitude online? A conservative estimate might be that, on average, every screen had two people in front of it. If so, then this year’s Easter attendance exceeded that of last year. We reached more people than could have fit in the building. The same is proving true every Sunday. More people are tuning in online than would normally be present under ordinary circumstances.
Along the way we have tried to have some fun. On Easter Day we had a Hallelujah Chorus sing-along. On May 10 we played “Where’s Waldo?” On May 24 and 31 it was “Sermon Bingo.” If you’re interested in how we’re pulling these things off (or perhaps shocked by our irreverence) you can go to the worship section of Grace Church’s website to see how it all unfolds.
Now we face a dilemma. New York City is entering Phase One of reopening, and the current goal for churches in the diocese to resume public worship in our buildings is July 1. But I worry that the initial restrictions placed upon what we can do will cause us to lose our livestream congregation. Only a small number would be allowed inside, everyone would wear a mask, and we would have no singing. Given these circumstances, we are likely to continue live-streaming the 11 a.m. Sunday service from an empty church for the remainder of the summer.
Do I want to open up and see the pews populated again? Of course, I do. I yearn to see the people I love and miss. But what the wider church is learning is that opening up is going to be a more complicated endeavor than shutting down. The pandemic has dragged us into using new forms of reaching people. It has forced us to redefine what it means to be a gathered congregation and church family. I suspect that going back to the way things used to be is not going to be an option.
The Rev. J. Donald Waring is rector of Grace Church, New York.