Hybrid Church

One of the family outings we look forward to most years is an annual trip to visit good friends who are sheep farmers in rural Co. Down. They usually invite us to come and see them during lambing season so we get to see and hold some newborn lambs.

The last time we got to do this coincided with Lucy’s birthday in February 2020 just before anyone had heard of the term ‘lockdown’. I remember us all getting to hold and pet the lambs and one of them was being bottle fed which added to the loveliness of the occasion. Our friends are very hospitable and they had baked a cake to celebrate Lucy’s birthday and we enjoyed a marvellous afternoon tea together.

Lucy is doing a module in school at the present time all about life on the farm and she had a marvellous day yesterday. Her class had arranged a virtual farm visit and so everyone was encouraged to wear farming clothes into school. Lucy wore a checked shirt and some jeans and boots and then the farm involved in the project brought their animals up close to the cameras so the children could stroke the screens or even give them a kiss.

As the farm showed different animals and feeding time, the children in school had the opportunity to feel different textures in their classroom. As these children operate in a multisensory classroom they got to feel barley in their hands which the goats were being fed. When the lambs and the sheep were being fed the class all got to stroke some wool. They heard all the noises of the farm through the screens and, to cap off a memorable day, they got to bake sheep inspired cupcakes with white frilly icing, black eyes and stuck on popcorn to bring home to share with their families.

It was a magical, wonderful day and the teachers and classroom assistants were as excited as the children as they brought them out in their buggies and shared their home baking adventures.

We were struck, not for the first time, at just how creative and hardworking our children’s teachers are to make such a day possible for Lucy. As someone who loves the sensation of touching and exploring things with her hands when she can’t verbalise things, the giggles and chuckles spoke volumes of the great pleasure she had taken in the day.

While the current restrictions meant a real time farm visit wasn’t possible, this virtual experience made the day so memorable and special.

One of the big challenges facing the ‘church without walls’ as we move into the future is learning to work with and use our online platforms to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world around us.

Many people (including clergy, I suspect!) are hoping that church will somehow magically return to normal in a short space of time. We long to sing hymns as we always did, to gather freely without masks, and to be able to engage in face to face meetings, organisations and activities.

The reality, of course, is likely to be more complicated. Many people have got used to receiving their church services online over the past year while shielding on behalf of themselves or other family members. While we don’t like all the restrictions and the challenges of technology, surely they offer us an opportunity also.

I received a form from the diocesan office today asking us to complete our Easter Vestry returns. They usually ask us to give the names of those who will serve on the Select Vestry for the coming year as well as officeholders like our honorary secretary and honorary treasurer and who will be serving as glebe wardens and church wardens. They usually ask us to fill in statistics about weddings, baptisms and funerals and about attendance at services.

This year, they were looking for us to fill in our online attendance figures, which I found impossible to calculate. While you can give the number of views for a particular service on the parish YouTube channel, we don’t know who was watching. Was it an individual or a couple or a family? How many might be in that family? 

As patterns change for how people worship, we find some people might live stream a service at 11 am on a Sunday morning, but others will watch it at a later point, sometimes on Sunday, or sometimes later in the week when it best suits them. This means that, while a service may have 70 or 80 views as it is live streamed, it may eventually end up with 200 views or 300 views. The other thing we cannot tell is how are people engaging with what goes on? Are people literally viewing for a minute or two before deciding the service isn’t for them and tuning into another church service which appeals to them more?

Most of the experts on church growth that I read are saying that online church is here to stay even if restrictions are eased. The likelihood going forward is that every church will need to have some sort of online presence alongside what happens in real time on a Sunday or other days when people can gather.

One of the areas I have been greatly encouraged with through our online presence is when people participate in services or events online and leave us messages. We have just begun our third Alpha course online and it has been a real joy to welcome people we don’t know from England, Scotland, and various parts of Northern Ireland all able to engage together over Zoom in exploring questions of life and faith for an hour from the comfort of their own homes.

Just like Lucy’s school were able to make her virtual farm visit so special by being creative, we too need to make those who are visiting our church online feel welcome and special as they encounter God’s presence through our worship.

With the current restrictions we are having to celebrate Christian Aid Week in a different way this year. Christian Aid Week takes place from 10-16 May and, normally in this area, church members would deliver envelopes to our doorstep encouraging us to give to support some of the marvellous projects happening in the world’s poorest communities.

This year, our church wardens will distribute envelopes as we come to church inviting us to take them away and make our contributions. There is no pressure to take one away but, as a major fundraising effort, many of the projects are in desperate need of funding to continue and survive. If you are in a position to support them, we would be very grateful for your help. Thankyou to David Gowen who has been trying to coordinate Christian Aid Week in a safe and meaningful way and further details should appear on the church website and Facebook page.

Looking forward to speaking again soon.

Much love to everyone,

Jono.

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