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A reflection on the virtual church in 2020

calendar15 December 2020

Hannah Sanford's avatar Hannah Sanford

A reflection on the virtual church in 2020

If you’d asked church leaders and members back in January whether churches could still meet, whether communities could still thrive, and fellowship could still flourish, with zero face-to-face contact for an indefinite amount of time, I bet most of them would have said ‘Nope, I don’t think so!’ But as it happens, that has become our reality for months of 2020, and church leaders have had to make do, to find new strategies and learn new skills to ensure that church community isn’t lost during these strange and difficult times. 

We have become used to virtual gatherings, socially-distant services, and worship without singing. Churches that barely had an online presence, had never streamed a service, or edited a video, became virtually-present within weeks of lockdown hitting. 

But do online services, and socially-distant gatherings equal community and fellowship? 

In a socially distant environment, are people also feeling emotionally and spiritually distant from their church family? 

Here’s my experience of church in 2020.

From strangers to friends

I have spoken to people and prayed with people I would have usually just said ‘hi’ to on a Sunday. Through the use of breakout rooms on Zoom, which are randomly assigned smaller groups, I have been put in situations where I am getting to know new people, hearing about their struggles in this time. We have been able to encourage, pray for and challenge one another in a way that we hadn’t before lockdown. 

From politeness to honesty

My life group has supported one another, and opened up in new ways. After a few weeks of ‘it’s a difficult time but I’m fine’ we finally broke through those walls into ‘this is what is really hard’. It got real. It stopped being so polite and falsely optimistic and moved into a space of painful honesty, and in that place we could pray for and support one another. 

From spectatorship to participation

I have taken ownership of my spiritual health again. Has anyone else held their church/leaders/life group leaders responsible for their spiritual health? I’m guilty of this, feeling frustrated if a sermon didn’t speak to me, or the worship songs weren’t matching where I was at that Sunday. Consumerist Christianity, taking my shopping trolley to church and purchasing my spiritual food for the week, complaining if the quality or stock-levels weren’t up to scratch. 

Suddenly, I was faced with learning how to take ownership of my relationship with God, looking for my own resources, teaching myself, learning how to pray again, to trust again and how to be patient in a slower world. Learning that God might actually be teaching me to slow down and follow his pace again. And with church, I went from a spectator to a participant, from waiting to be spoon-fed to offering what God is teaching me and contributing in new ways.

From rushing to resting

I have learnt that busyness does not equal value, and in fact God might be inviting me to slow down. Lockdown for me started with fears of loneliness, sadness at the prospect of not seeing friends and family for an unknown period of time, a sense of claustrophobia in my own house, and fear about how to fill my ample time. It was a difficult adjustment for me, as I’m sure it was lots of us. 

But months down the line, I’ve grown used to a slower pace, to having more time with my husband, to hurrying less. I found that before lockdown I was always busy with church but rarely feeling rest with God. Hurry was sapping my joy and was luring me into a place where I didn’t feel as though I needed to depend on God – I was self-sufficient. Suddenly, everything slowed down, and the value and worth I had been finding in my hurried lifestyle had diminished. But it was in this place that I was able to get back to basics, to realign my values and hopes and needs with a God who does not hurry. 

From socially distant to truly belonging

So returning to those first two questions I posed: do online services and socially-distant gatherings equal community and fellowship? In a socially distant environment, are people also feeling emotionally and spiritually distant from their church family? Life has changed for many of us, my experience of church has changed, my relationships at church have changed, and somehow the thought of going back to the way things were doesn’t feel sufficient anymore. Somehow during lockdown, I have felt more belonging in church than before. 

Relationships have deepened despite social distancing, my own spiritual health has flourished despite having less input. I’m sure that my experiences aren’t reflective of everyone’s, but these strange times have certainly been a chance for many to reflect on their lives before everything paused, to see where we had grown too comfortable, too stuck in our ways. 

For churches, this is a great opportunity to reflect on what we have become, what we have started to take for granted, old routines and traditions that perhaps are no longer beneficial, where we are flourishing and what we should do more of, especially as we enter an equally unpredictable 2021.

We must move forward and take these lessons learnt during lockdown with us when we re-enter ‘normality’. It has been great for me to return to basics, and experience church in a simpler (and possibly healthier way), to honest relationships, where fellowship and community is the core, and people find true belonging. 

What have you found positive about church during this time? 

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