Friday, May 08, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Evaluating Virtual Church [Part 2]

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Yesterday’s post opened with a little chart that appeared to indicate that the longer the COVID-19 lockdowns go on, the fewer Christians are interested in playing virtual church — at least, the way we’re currently doing it. If YouTube views are any sort of legitimate proxy by which we can measure the interest of believers in the preaching of the word of God by members of their local congregations, then we’re in trouble.

Tom: So what are we doing wrong? Well, one possibility we have been speculating about is that with all those Christian YouTube videos up there, one can always find a more interesting subject, a more lucid speaker, or something that tickles our itching ears.

Better Messages Elsewhere?

Another possibility is that our videos show no imagination and simply run on way too long.

Bernie: That can change. This morning our video guest speaker did 14 minutes. Fourteen minutes. Did the elders plan that? Certainly not. Was it welcomed by most (all)? Certainly. He was concise and got across what he wanted and he was done. He’s also a great guy, but maybe not the most vibrant presenter. So 14 worked just fine.

There are some structural issues which prevent that sort of length in a building-based meeting and I’m sympathetic to those; but the constraints of building and the weekly schedule go away entirely with YouTube, and 14 minutes is just fine. So is 114 — for those who want it. When the material is there, and presentation skills are too, length is no issue at all. Lennox goes long and people watch; Rogan goes long and people watch; Peterson goes long and people watch ... the list goes on.

But if you’re publishing a schedule and running Sunday School and arranging rides / pickups, there has to be a degree of predictability. So that kind of ‘go as long or as short as you want’ model doesn’t fit with buildings. But I dig what’s happening without them.

Tom: Depending on the speaker, a 40 or 45 minute message is often packed with a lot of filler.

Immanuel Can: Agree.

Tom: There are exceptions, but many messages could and should be 20-minuters if not for the fact that we are cognizant that people are arriving at 11:00 a.m. and expecting the program to continue until around noon, when Sunday School lets out. And yet I really feel a message should be the length its subject matter requires and no longer. When words are many, transgression is not lacking, and even if we don’t fall into doctrinal error, hemming and hawing and improvising for the last ten minutes is a waste of everyone’s time. And I think this sense of obligation to fill a pre-timed “slot” is what’s driving the (fairly) consistent length of the current virtual messages.

People Go to Church for Something Other Than Preaching

Another possibility: maybe church is more than just a guy up front talking to us. We are assuming here for the sake of argument that preaching = church. That is not necessarily the case. And if it turns out the main reason people go to church is not for the preaching after all, then internet messages won’t fill the hole left by the real-time interaction we are used to experiencing when we meet together. The declining number of views for the lecture format might reflect that.

IC: I will say that with Zoom, I have reconnected with distant Christian friends I have not seen for many years, and we now have a group of around twenty that are meeting each week for friendship, updates and prayer. That’s been wonderful.

Bernie: Still, there’s been a significant reduction in social interaction. Some part — I would say even a major part — of gathering each week is personal interaction. Many weeks, it is FAR more important than the 30 or 45 minutes given to actual preaching. But congregational singing is effectively gone with video, and the social aspect of Body life is also almost entirely absent. We can diminish the importance of meeting in person, sharing food, carrying a newborn for the first time or just simply quietly sitting together — but I think it’s a HUGE part of church life. And video makes it (almost) entirely absent. Video — at least the way we do it right now — has elevated preaching and devalued every other aspect of gathering. The numbers may, in part, reflect our real need.

We’re Not Using Technology to Best Advantage

Tom: It also seems likely we are not yet making the best use of available technology. That shortcoming on the part of older Christians may be off-putting to some younger viewers. A few of the videos I watched on YouTube were uploaded by churches who felt it necessary to absolutely mimic the exact format of a Sunday morning “family Bible hour” right down to the hymns, prayers and announcements. One man even drove to the church building to record his introductory comments behind the lectern in an otherwise empty room. Others became very informal, some perhaps to a fault. But none so far have been innovators, and maybe it’s too early for that.

IC: I want to focus on this last question, Are we using technology effectively? Because the question takes for granted technology CAN be used effectively, or “to advantage” in producing something. But if it can, what would that thing be? And does that thing work as church?

Tom: Oh, I’m not saying technology would ever be preferable to meeting together. I’m already missing fellow Christians. I’m thinking of it more as a temporary fix, like we have currently, or perhaps something to encourage shut-ins beyond normal visitation. What I’m thinking is this: you’re not the first person I know who is using Zoom or something like it to connect with small or large groups of Christians interactively, rather than in the lecture format. That could be explored more usefully, maybe. And there may be other possibilities we haven’t thought of.

IC: Something else, though, and something I dropped but nobody picked up. How do we know that video is capable of doing what it is we’re asking it to do? I don’t mean to doubt that it’s capable of recording somebody’s stale message — I’m asking if it’s capable of doing it without making it one stage worse, even, than live sermonizing ... just as boring, but more trivial-seeming, because it’s on an entertainment medium.

I remember some media critic I was reading years ago — Jerry Mander, I think — writing about how television was very boring. And I remember thinking “Boring? Jerry, people love TV — they prefer it to all kinds of things. What do you mean, ‘boring’?”

But he went on to explain. Take any really important, spiritual, relational, or otherwise valuable and subtle experience in life; say, watching the sun set over the Pacific. For somebody who was there, that might be a deeply moving aesthetic experience … maybe even a quasi-spiritual moment, and any one of us would probably be glad to be there, feeling the warmth of the sun on our skin, smelling the salt wind, listening to the whispering of the pampas grass. But now, put that on videotape, and how long do you actually want to watch it? A few seconds at most. And are you moved? Is it “spiritual” for you? No.

Or take relationships: How long can a video show two people establishing trust with each other by spending long hours talking, holding hands, sharing an ice cream, being with each other in sickness, having a fight and making up, deciding whether or not to spend life together and have children, etc. A brief montage is all that we, the viewers, can stand. Then it’s just too maudlin. We want some action.

There’s something about video technology that threatens to turn everything into entertainment — big, splashy action shots. Two hot people rolling in a blanket. The guy who fell off his skateboard and did the splits atop the guardrail. The GoPro shot of the skier who started an avalanche. Some twit waxing his buddy’s armpits.

But how does spiritual teaching fit into the matrix of predisposition with which we come to YouTube? And is that a fault of our culture, or of the medium itself? Or both? And if, as Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message,” what does moving church to online formats do to the message?

Is that not a question we need to ask?

Tom: Fair point. We’re doing this currently in the absence of alternatives, but once we are able to meet together again, how useful is video at engaging us in church life? In many ways, not very. In other ways, it tempts us to introduce features to our exchanges that we have never considered in real life, some of which may not be all bad.

Curious About Two Things

Bernie: Yeah, I’m curious about two things in the current situation (and yes, enlightened self-interest forms part of this): First, how should we, or how could we, adapt our “usual” live church format to maximize the new benefits we are currently enjoying by meeting on Zoom or YouTube? The ability to comment and question in a non-intrusive way is actually exciting to me as a speaker. But incorporating that has some challenges too.

Tom: If we could maybe move to a format where the message takes a more organic length (that is, natural to the material rather than the forum and time slot), and then allow people to ask questions either by way of the chat feature on YouTube, or in Zoom with someone moderating, that might be something. I would not encourage people to start posting live comments, to be honest. I find internet commentary is about 95% rubbish, just as allowing anyone and everyone to share their opinions in person is, more often than not, quite awful. But serious questions might make for some good exchanges.

IC: On video, over the long haul a two-man conversation is more interesting than a talking head.

Bernie: Okay. What could or should be done to make our videos better? What I have found already is that presenting on video allows me to link, clip or present in fresh ways — but I haven’t really taken advantage of them at all yet, mostly because they are time consuming when you are working with unfamiliar video tools — and in small part, because I don’t entirely know how radical changes will be received in conventional groups. (Yes, insert obligatory chicken comments here.)

Tom: Linking, clipping and posting Bible content is great. Here’s a pet peeve that kind of relates to it: I really dislike the “turn with me in your Bibles” routine carried over to YouTube videos and Livestreams, not because I don’t like to read my Bible, but because if you’re just going to read a verse, then use the tech at your disposal to display the verse behind you or up in a corner of the screen for your audience. It’s a visual medium. Use it. If you’re talking about the verse for two minutes, leave it up there the whole time so everyone can see it in the same translation. Don’t make everyone flip pages to talk about a single verse. There’s nothing “Berean” about sending everyone on a treasure hunt.

So What Now?

Bernie: The second thing I’m curious about is this: Once things “go back to normal”, what effect (if any) should this experience have on our regular meetings? How should (or will) this change traditional meeting structure and participation?

Tom: What happens when we go back? Good question. I hope we don’t slip right back into all the same routines. Among other things, I’d sure like to see a question period incorporated regularly, and the two-man conversational approach IC mentioned could work just as effectively live as on video.

IC: I’d like to see a more conversational approach to learning: something like a 20 minute message about something important, which is then questioned and discussed by the audience. Maybe also with 10 minutes at the end of all, to devote to summarizing applications and “next steps” for all of us in view of what we’ve heard.

But I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen. I think that when this is over, we’ll go right back to what we were doing, alas. And it will take a least another one or two COVID-sized upheavals to get us to rethink seriously what we’ve become habituated to doing. I wish I could be less cynical about that, but I just think that’s what’s most likely to happen. Can we beat that, guys?

Tom: Here and there, sure. But generally? I doubt it. I’ve often thought only persecution, the loss of our buildings, and the elimination of the status and salary (such as it is) that comes with the position of “pastor” will do that. But we will see ...


  1. I read both of your “Evaluating Virtual Church” articles with interest. These articles got me thinking about the weaknesses of in-person Sunday morning gatherings and how many are linked to a deeper problem. I think virtual Sunday mornings are bringing to visibility an unseen problem that already existed in our typical in-person Sunday morning gatherings: the un-crossable gap between the ‘stage’ and the ‘seats’.

    Virtual church makes the distance between stage and seats into a physical reality. It also lays bare a pre-existing psychological distance/divide between stage and seats which is not so easy to recognize when everyone is sitting in the same room.

    I think the psychological divide is the root of so much that deadens the dynamism among everyone when we gather Sunday mornings. There is almost no way for the seats to interact with the stage in real-time so people in the seats are stuck in a passive, non-interactive role. And, so, those in the seats are expected to receive the program from those on stage passively, but also to show enthusiastic engagement. We are told that the enthusiasm in the seats shows passionate worship of the Lord, when it is probably a self-reassuring indicator to the stage that they are doing something worthwhile for the seats.

    The psychological divide prevents meaningful exchange of ideas and opinions among the seats and the stage even outside of Sunday morning. If the seats express opinions about what takes place on the stage their opinions are all too often framed as complaints. Those on the stage so easily miss the simple fact that those in the seats mostly want to be seen and heard and are generally quite happy not to be on the stage. The breakdown of meaningful exchange also works against those on the stage. I think they want to provide meaningful teaching and worship opportunities to those in the seats. But when the stage avoids feedback from the seats, they cut themselves off from the much wider source of ideas because the seats contain far more people. It is a mistake to try to work harder to please the seats while at the same time not actively including the seats in the decision making. And I am not even getting into the fact that every Believer has a spiritual gift that is being ignored when the stage tries to provide one directionally to the seats.

    I do not believe any of this needs to be difficult to change. There will be changes of perspective and expectation required of both the stage and the seats. All will need to learn how to speak with focus and clarity to maintain focus and dynamism in a large group gathering. Niceness will need to give way to kind, assertive verbal instruction to keep rambling, meandering, off topic ideas and personal story telling to a minimum. With time and patience, a large group of people, stage and seats both, can learn the communication skills that keep focus and dynamism flowing well. I suspect most people simply do not know how to speak in a Sunday morning group setting because all they have ever seen are long monologues.

    Change for those on the stage does not need to be difficult to manage either. At the core, they must facilitate open, real-time conversation with the seats as often as they can, rather than dominate. Facilitation will require those on stage to be comfortable with the phrase, ‘I don’t know’ followed by the question, ‘Does someone else in the room know the answer?’ That follow-up question would erase the psychological divide quickly. I think a lot of good will would flow to the facilitators on the stage if the people in the seats had deeper real-time participation on Sunday mornings. ...

  2. ... Practically speaking, a few changes could bridge much of the psychological divide: keep monologues short; teach the Bible, not things tangential to the Bible; prioritize Q&A time; and teach the ‘seats’ how to speak well to both the ‘stage’ and the other ‘seats’. These few things would generate more openness, dynamism, community cohesion and good will.

    I think the things that minimize the psychological divide between the stage and seats will keep clearer the things people actually attend church for. My observation is that people attend church for both person-to-person and person-to-God interactions. The church is supposed to include both. So, there is no good reason why person-to-person interactions cannot be facilitated into most of what happens on a Sunday morning as we all gather to worship the Lord our God together.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, B. I've often longed to go further in this direction. What makes me (and probably others) cautious is a wealth of experience in watching opportunities for interaction turn deeply unprofitable.

      How, for example, do we fit Paul's "I do not permit a woman to teach..." (1 Tim. 2:12) into a format which encourages questions, which (and I speak from experience here, as IC well knows) quickly turn into commentary, which quickly turn into dogmatic opinionating indistinguishable from teaching... with the possibly exception only that it is far too often transparently, embarrassingly wrong?

      I think you have a solid start to an answer here when you say, "Niceness will need to give way to kind, assertive verbal instruction to keep rambling, meandering, off topic ideas and personal story telling to a minimum."

      I sincerely hope we can learn these things. Some men can do "kind", and some can do "assertive". It would be nice to find a larger number who can do both.

      Let me say for the record I'm not a total pessimist about our prospects, but I do think any who try to move in the direction of more involvement from the seats need to have a definite plan to manage things from the stage... not tyrannically, but without allowing our gatherings to become chaotic.

      The operative biblical phrase coined by the apostle to describe the gatherings of the saints is, after all, "decently and in order" (1 Cor. 14:40).

    2. IC: Outstanding observations and suggestions, Bellator. Worthy of its own article, really.

      Personally, I'd be happy to provide a 20 minute thought-provoker followed by a deep and thoughtful question time, even if that meant I could never predict in advance what I was likely to end up facing. You really ask us to take stock of what we believe -- are all members of the Church to be active in their own learning, growth and discipleship, or is passive "audience-ship" enough? And I think we all know the answer to that.