210822 – Church Online – Gear Up

Yr B ~ Ephesians 6:10-20 ~ Pentecost 13

It’s great to be back with you today! I had a lovely time off this summer, and now it’s also lovely to be getting back to my familiar rhythms. Familiar rhythms. Isn’t that interesting?! We’ve been at this pandemic, online church thing for a year and a half now and at this point it feels entirely familiar. We’ve adapted. This is just the way we do things now, and it feels, dare I say it, normal. Most of us gather on Sunday morning in real time, and we all probably have familiar things that have evolved over this year and a half. We’ve jokingly called it ‘couch church’. Maybe that’s exactly where you are right now. If so, doesn’t it kinda feel…normal? I know that some people love the idea of attending church in their pyjamas. (When the time is right for us to gather here in-person again I hope you’ll feel just as comfortable to come in pyjamas if that’s what makes you happy!) I also know that on Sunday mornings some people actually get dressed up in their ‘Sunday best’ just as if they were physically here. It just makes them feel good to put on their ‘church clothes’ as part of their rhythm.

We’re not only worshipping from home, many of us are also working from home. That has been really interesting too. It too has become ‘normal’. And when the pandemic recedes and we start to work from our physical workplaces again I know that many – myself included – will be dividing our time between working at church and working at home. I guess some people have become accustomed to working in their jammies too! So our way of working, and worshipping, and even dressing has changed.

With the kids today I talked about wearing different kinds of clothes or equipment for different sports or activities. And we talked about what kind of equipment you need for church. In some church cultures you’ll see everyone arrive dressed to the nines and carrying their own floppy bible. In other cultures they might sit at tables or drink coffee in a very casual kind of approach. In others they have no chairs or pews because they move around or dance around during worship.

How would you describe our Faith United culture? We don’t really have anything notable. It’s just, you know, church. I like to say that we do the church thing really well – as long as by ‘the church thing’ you mean a modified, classic, mainline protestant, liturgically-based worship gathering. We are incredibly well-equipped to do it. We have the knowledge, expertise, experience, resources, and desire to do ‘classic’ church really, really well.

But look around. This ain’t classic church anymore. The rules have changed. The ground has shifted underneath us. You’re home on your couch – I’m preaching to a camera. It’s both fundamentally the same and fundamentally different at the same time. Whether we wanted it or not, and whether we like it or not, our church culture has shifted. That means that even though Faith United did modern-classic church really well we won’t just be able to go ‘back to normal’ in a few more months. We’re going to have to develop a whole new repertoire of knowledge, expertise, experience, resources, and desire for a whole new way of being church. Well, maybe a ‘whole new’ way is overstating it. Lots of people will be able to go back to how it was in the before-times and get along ok. But the church as a whole cannot.

The big buzzword lately is hybrid church. That means finding ways to keep doing this kind of online worship while also doing in-person worship at the same time. Because, the truth is, that online worship actually works better for a whole bunch of people, for a whole bunch of reasons. It could be distance, or health, or disability, or even convenience – but pulling the plug on online church when in-person gathering returns would be a catastrophic error. So we’ll need to adapt – again (and again, and again, and again).

This is a pretty new way of thinking for us. Our denomination is approaching its 100th birthday in a couple of years and in all that time we’ve never had as big a sea change as we’re experiencing right now. That’s pretty daunting, and unsettling. Where else do we go at such times but to prayer and scripture.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he’s giving them a pep talk in chapter 6. He’s using a metaphor of putting on armour to prepare for a great battle. Remember, back in those days Christians were at best tolerated and at worst persecuted – so the image of gearing up for a battle was pretty relatable. I don’t think the armour imagery works for us in the same way, but I think we can…adapt it!

From Ephesians 6:10-20…

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of God’s power. 11 Put on the whole armour of God… 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

The belt of truth – humility, sincerity, wisdom.
The breastplate of righteousness – covering your heart – integrity, loving actions to go with your loving words.
Shoes to propel you out of your comfort zone and ready to proclaim, to share, to speak, to evangelize (we talked about that all through July!)
The shield of faith to protect you – because not everyone sees God’s world as we do.
The helmet of salvation – assurance and confidence that living Christ’s Way is a blessing to you and others.
And the sword of the Spirit – the word of God – the Message – the Way of love, love, love.

Here’s the emerging question – we know how to make those things work for ‘classic’ mainline church, but what do these things look like going forward? How do you communicate and embody sincerity, wisdom, integrity, loving actions, proclamation, assurance, and the Way of Jesus when you’re not in a room together – or when you’ve never even physically met. Since we’ve morphed into church online we have people participating as part of our congregation who live in other provinces and other countries even. And those are just the ones we know about! All sorts of people are watching with us right now anonymously.

What about all the ones we haven’t met yet?
And what about all the ones we haven’t reached yet?
Aren’t they part of our calling too?
Absolutely yes!

But our tools going forward won’t just be the things we’ve always done. We’ll need new tools. We’ll need to gear up in new ways. If we don’t, our certain trajectory will be, sadly, mainline, sideline, offline, flatline! You can see it happening in churches all over the place. The ground has indeed shifted, and if we don’t shift, well, flatline doesn’t sound very appealing to me. How about you?

The good news is we are already on a hopeful path. We’re already pretty effectively doing worship online. Our tools for evangelism today are cameras, microphones, lighting, bandwidth, websites, chat boxes, and videos. Our tools for building Christian community are trickier. We have Zoom for online bible study, and for committee meetings. We have a chat box during worship. We have Facebook groups for staying connected and getting some resources. Did you know we also do Twitter and Instagram? We do. And that’s just scratching the surface.

We’re talking about hybrid worship, but how might we be hybrid in everything we do?
Can we have some people in the room and others connected by video for more than just worship? Absolutely.
Will it feel weird? Absolutely!
Until we get used to it. Remember, couch church was weird a year and a half ago – now it’s pretty normal.
We will adapt.

And as we do it will open up all kinds of possibilities for us. Instead of church supper fundraisers we’re now doing things like online auctions. Instead of a basket inside the church to drop some food into we now do food drives out at the roadside where the whole community can see and participate. That’s awesome.

Of course, new ways of doing things means we need new ways to resource them. Hybrid worship sounds great – but it will need a much larger tech team of people to work cameras, and switchers, and whatnot. Building community online will require much more than just sticking a webcam in the corner of a room and letting people watch from afar. It will mean adapting the way we do everything. Even in worship, when we have a physical congregation gathered again I will need to adapt to finding ways to also speak intimately and directly to those online.

We’ll need to invest in technology, and we’ll need to invest in training people how to use it. But gearing up is about more than just buying new gear. It also means we need to recommit ourselves to our purpose for being church together – and expand our shared understanding of what being together means. Think about it – we’re together right now, even though we’re not together! And from just about all the feedback we’ve received this feels like we’re together. That tells me that Faith United is going to be able to don and wield this new armour of God just fine. We will become adept at adapting. Maybe we already are?

I’m going to spend the next two weeks diving deeper into this – taking you into aspects of the online world that you may not be all that familiar with. If you think online culture is alien to you imagine what somebody online would think about walking into a place like this for the first time.
But they probably won’t walk in. They’ll tune in!
And our task is to find ways to be church with them. We have laid claim to being an affirming congregation. Maybe our sincere, whole-hearted inclusivity also needs to extend to a group of people we’ve never had much opportunity to include – generations of people whose lives are fully integrated with the online world, but maybe have never been to a church.

A few minutes ago I said we rely on two things to help us in such times – we’ve talked about scripture, the other is prayer. Here’s Paul’s final words to the Ephesians who he is encouraging to gear up and be church in a new way. Paul (with some adapting) says,

Pray hard and long. Pray for one another. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.
And don’t forget to pray for me. Pray that I’ll know what to say and have the courage to say it at the right time, telling the mystery to one and all, the Message that I, unlikely televangelist preacher that I am, am responsible for getting out.
Peace be with you, dear kindred in Christ, and may God the Parent and the Lord Jesus Christ give you love with faithfulness. May God’s grace be eternally upon all who love our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 6:18-20, 23-24)