The Gifts of Online Church

By Amy Denney Zuniga and Robin Denney

Amid unprecedented shutdowns during the COVID pandemic, churches tumbled into a time of necessary creativity and online engagement. Some have rejected online church as though it were the death of incarnational community. We are Episcopal priests in charge of mid-sized neighboring churches in Northern California. In the last two years our congregations have raised money and invested in streaming equipment run mostly by volunteers. We are committed to continuing hybrid worship and formation both in person and online, an approach that connects our congregations with new people, builds community, and meets a diversity of needs.

Churches of all sizes and denominations in the West are experiencing decline. The pandemic has broken us out of a preservation mode by pushing us to respond instead to what is in front of us. A new Millennial member commented, “The church in the pandemic has accidentally met the needs of my generation. I wonder if that will continue?” Younger generations are experiencing community and connection, and digesting information primarily through digital means.

Refusing to invest time and resources in quality online content is like locking the doors of our buildings. A number of new members joined our congregations during the shutdown. Most now worship with us both in person and online. Others worship with us from out of the area, but likewise support the church financially and offer their time — one person rebuilt a parish website.

Creating these online platforms has been difficult. Even now we feel we have only scratched the surface of their potential, but it has already deepened individual involvement and broadened the range of who can fully participate. People engage with our online services for different reasons: mobility, illness, anxiety, recent trauma, or hectic lives. Attendance at worship once a month was the average involvement of active members pre-pandemic. Many of our members now attend online or watch the sermon in weeks that they don’t attend in person, which deepens their connection to the community.

We also have members who cannot connect with online worship and choose to engage solely in person. In the end, individuals discern what a meaningful religious experience looks like for them. We trust that people know they need face-to-face contact with other human beings and will seek it when they need it.

The nature of worship is both embodied and transcendent. We worship in bodies. We move our bodies, breathe, and sing. In worship, we feel the Spirit of God, who connects us to something more than ourselves. Our Anglican tradition emphasizes the Communion of Saints. When we lift our voices in prayer and song, we are joined by all the faithful who have gone before, and we join with our siblings in Christ around the world today. The transcendence of digital space has made this spiritual reality more present for us.

We have worshiped with new friends in other parts of the Anglican Communion: the United Kingdom, Brazil, Jerusalem, Nazareth, and New York. We have regular visitors from other parts of the world. A Roman Catholic nun in Colombia regularly worships with us. A man in India whose local church did not have an online presence during the Delta surge attended a funeral we shared online, which helped him with the grief he was experiencing from so many deaths. These random encounters have made the Communion of Saints real for us and our people.

Christianity has always been dynamic, a religion changed and interpreted through a diversity of contexts and languages. Now is the time for breaking open creativity and diversity as we search for the next iteration of the Church. In an era of increasing divisiveness in the civic arena, this breaking open of our worship and ideas about the nature of community encourages churches to become places where barriers are crossed, and we can meet the Spirit of God in each other.

We understand that not every church will have an online presence, and that good and meaningful ministry also happens offline. We still value and place equal emphasis on our physically gathered communities. However, we believe widespread online worship is an innovation as seismic in its impact on Christianity as the Gutenberg Bible. Church leaders who pass up this gift are refusing to meet people where they are. We are a religion founded on the teachings of Jesus, who crossed the civic divisions of his time to embrace those on the margins. Whatever the future looks like, the Church will continue to exist, as Archbishop William Temple said, “primarily for the sake of those who are still outside it.”

The Rev. Amy Denney Zuniga is rector of Grace Church, St. Helena, and the Rev. Robin Denney is the rector of St. Mary’s, Napa, California.

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