The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of Virtual Ministry
The world will never be the same coming out of the Coronavirus pandemic. In the last three months, we have seen the whole globe shut down. Out of sheer necessity, we have been forced online in everything from doctor visits, grocery buying, and almost all church ministry. This pandemic has been a world-changing event similar to 9-11, the Challenger explosion, and the dropping of the Atomic bomb. Just as these events changed the world, so now, the Coronavirus pandemic is changing it as well.
This change is not a surprise; after all, the world has been changing rapidly in the last twenty years. However, what the pandemic has done is to force many of us to use new technology. Where in the past video conferencing was still a novelty to most people, we are now seeing families having Zoom-unions online. Our session had its first-ever Zoom meeting, something I never saw coming. The present situation has pushed many of us unsophisticated ordinary end-users to use more cutting edge programs and applications in our regular lives.
A little over four years ago, Dr. R.J. Gore and I had a conversation about how technology changes the world. He has been researching in this area. He shared how scholars were discovering the world transformed within fifty years from the invention of the printing press. It was not the same world with a printing press, but something different. This pattern is true of significant technological advancements throughout history, which brought us to a discussion of the internet and how it was still changing and transforming our world.
Think about how the internet has transformed the world in less than fifty years. I signed up for my first email account just after I graduated from college in 1993. I sent my first text after I was already married with a child. Now the internet was integral to my work even before the pandemic. After social distancing, it is going to be even more vital in my ministry. The present Coronavirus crisis is forcing us to explore and utilize different and new technology. We are learning how to use new programs and applications, and that will continue into the future. Our local church has already identified several innovations that will come out of our experience.
First, canceling church due to inclement weather will be a thing of the past. As long as I can get to the church and the electricity is on, we can Livestream our service. This ability is helpful, especially in the American South, where the word "snow" can put fear in our hearts and empty the stores of bread and milk. The problem is that snow in South Carolina can be tricky to predict. Our session has canceled church on a Saturday evening due to a 95% chance of snow overnight only to awake to cold rain. Live streaming will make it much simpler to tell our congregation if it is snowing, then stay home and watch online.
Second, virtual prayer meeting using Facebook Live is something we want to continue even when we get back to having our regular prayer meetings. This technology allows us to engage those who have to work later or drive home from out of town in the evening and cannot make it to the church. Many of our older members do not like to be out after dark, especially in the cold winter months. We also take several breaks from our Wednesday prayer meeting in December and part of the Summer. These virtual prayer meetings will help us to continue to meet and pray year-round.
Finally, we can use this new technology to share the gospel. Sermons uploaded to the internet disperse around the world and, more importantly, are shared around the corner. Potential visitors can see a worship service before coming through the doors. Members, across multiple social media platforms, can share sermons, lessons, and other materials. What once was a novelty is now a valuable tool that we will use going forward.
However, there is a danger with these new tools. While it has been a great blessing to have online access and connections during this pandemic, they can never be a substitute for the real thing. The church's calling is to gather (Hebrews 10:25), and Zoom calls are not real gatherings. I am jealous of young people dating today who have unlimited minutes and free long-distance calls, along with texting and video-conferencing. Back in the mid-1990s, it cost me a lot of money to call my future wife with long-distance charges on a landline. However, there is no technology that can replace being with the one you love. It is better than nothing, but it is never as good as being together. The online ministry has been a blessing, but it is no substitute for the gathering of the saints to worship the living God.
The problem is that it leaves us feeling flat and with a distinct filling of missing something. The truth is we have missed something real and vital! Last Saturday, I helped in a Zoom wedding. I was in South Carolina, and others participated from Colorado and Tennessee, while the couple and another minister were in Virginia. It was a beautiful ceremony, and people from around the world were able to watch. It went off pretty well, considering we had no idea what it would take from a technology standpoint. But at the end, as we were watching the couple after the ceremony, the video connection suddenly ended. I was alone in my office at an empty church. I missed being able to be with the happy couple and their family and friends. To celebrate what God had done. I feel that way every Sunday when I walk off to the side of the pulpit and wait for the live feed to end. There are no hugs, handshakes, or faces to see. It is a lonely and sad time. The online ministry is a poor substitute for the gathering of the church.
There is another trap that we have to avoid, becoming too enmeshed in virtual ministry. We must not forget the power and need for personal interaction in our ministry. To see and hear a person or to pick up a handwritten note. How wonderful it is giving and receiving hospitality in Christian love. Some of my greatest joys in the last month has been to sit on porches and decks at extremely awkward distances and talk in person to church members. An elder has been cooking about 20 lunches on Fridays, and we have been taking them around to our members. It is good to see them and provide something for them, to pray and be seen by them. Zoom and live-streaming are a blessing, but still a poor substitute for the fellowship of the in-person church meeting.
So my advice is to embrace the technology and use it as best you can for Christ's glory and the good of the church and the world. It is a tool that allows us some flexibility and gives us some options and opportunities where there were none before, but know that it can never replace the gathering of the saints for worship or prayer. It is a poor substitute for fellowship. God made us and has called us to be together. We hope that soon we will be back, but until then, be glad for the connection technology gives us.