It may seem like an odd thing to ask, considering that I have been ordained for 10 years, but how do we ascertain how many people are part of the congregation at any given service? What does it mean to be ‘present’ at the service?
The reason I ask this is because recently I have started playing around with Google+ Hangouts as a means to link people into the service from various locations throughout the city. Over the past several months we have had several people who have physically changed their locations, thus rendering them unable to attend our mid-week service. One person moved down to warmer climates for the winter; another suffered an accident and will be in hospital for over a month. Each of these people expressed disappointment at not being able to be physically present for the service that has become a staple part of their week for multiple years. It is a testimony to the strength of the small but important mid-week worshipping community. Surely something could be done to accommodate their desire to remain connected to their church and fellow worshippers?
Google+ Hangouts seems to have solved the problem, and the set-up is relatively easy. All it takes is a music stand and an iPad. By setting up a Hangout, the few people who are physically unable to attend the week’s worship are able to log into a video feed and be a part of the service.
Yet they are not simply watching the service. This isn’t simply passive viewing here. The Hangout provides the ability to speak into the service. From down south, or from their hospital bed, each individual is able to speak their “Amen’s” and render their “Hallelujah’s.” In heart, in soul, and in voice, they are part of the congregation that gathers on Wednesday morning. They just aren’t there physically.
The applications of this are astounding. Imagine providing a feed into one of your local care homes, so that regular worship was made available to those often deeply saddened over their inability to attend church on a regular basis. Imagine being able to support a neighbouring parish
The applications to such things are astounding, but let’s be honest, they are also messy. As soon as we leave the comforts and conformities of what is always done, we often have to answer questions we have never had to ponder before. Experiencing worship via hangouts has caused me to ask the question: How do we define participation in worship? How do we define who is ‘present’ as the community of faith gathers. After all, it used to be a fairly straight-forward answer: You walk in the door, you are counted. The equation is pretty simple really: the congregation amounts to the number of people who physically entered the building. However the prevalence of on-line communication and connection muddies the water just a little bit. What happens to our reporting systems when we open up our procedures to allow communication and involvement from different methods? What do we understand the very dynamic of parish rosters, when physical presence is no longer necessary? (Perhaps Jesse Dymond can lend an answer here? For Eben’s baptism – how did you record the ‘congregation’ when people participated in person, and on-line?)
Yet a deeper question also emerges, beyond that of just the logistics of our recordings? What is the nature of worship? What is the nature of gathering as a community of faith? That which was understood previously only in terms of physical proximity can now be understood in virtual manners. Now I am not arguing for a dismantling of the physical community in favour of the on-line – but nor am I discounting the power that on-line connections can take.
For example, the diocese of Calgary recently held an ‘Unsynod’ – which involved various discussions about God’s calling for us as a diocese. People from all over the diocese gathered. Yet, in this last meeting, the diocese agreed to ‘live-tweet’ the event. As I was the individual who was in charge of twitter-chat, I found this dynamic fascinating, as it added another twist onto what it means to gather as a community. Those not physically present were still able to offer suggestions, prayers, and questions over social media. In the numbers counted for the event, should we not also include those who logged in and followed the live-tweets?
I am not sure there are any answers here so much as simply highlighting the question that is posed by the ease of on-line connections. Yet I do think these are questions that the church should ponder, and in that vein I offer them to you, and seek your own thoughts about the place of on-line worship in the future of our church.