September 8, 2020

It’s Now Okay To Talk Out Loud in Church

Speaking up during service helps others dig deeper.

At my church, something new has been happening now that we’ve spent a few months doing Sunday service online. There’s a lot of amen!-ing going on.

We are not a vocal congregation that way. First of all, we are in New England, known for its taciturn ways. Also, in the pews we are mostly Asian and white. We sing heartily, and we pray corporately when prompted and with the words printed on screen before us. After that, there are no affirmations. No exclamations. You’ll see a few hands raised; but not hear any voices raised.

People Are Beginning to Express Themselves. Can I Get an Amen?

My church pre-records the service — welcome, worship, prayers, readings, sermon, announcements, benediction — and streams it on YouTube. A few staff and the welcome team show up online early and begin a chat in the sidebar, and then many of us stick around and talk for a half hour or so after the end. A lot of hello’s and good morning’s and clever greetings get the chat going. Some entries are intended for everyone gathered (“Good morning, Church!”), and some are made to specific individuals (“Hello Myca!”).

And, then… there’s more.

During the call to worship, someone at home types “So grateful to belong to this scattered community” in the chat pane.

During worship, “Thanks for the much needed inspiration” and “Kudos to the editing team!” appear. (Wow, a shout out to the tech folks? That’s unprecedented on top of unprecedented.)

During the sermon, ​”Lord have mercy” and “Wow, what a great point, pastor,” and “^^^agreed” in response to comments made by others in the chat. And, yes, a generous sprinkling of “amen!” and emojis.

During the benediction led by a church member, “Angie!!” and “Really appreciate your thoughtful, specific, and grace filled prayer Angie!

Without a doubt, pastors and congregants alike enjoy this in-line interactivity. For sure, part of that enjoyment is fueled by the desire for community among those we have not seen face-to-face for months now. Yet, these interactions are more than just charming. The affirmations, and sharing of thoughts, and sharing of responses to thoughts, have become a meaningful part of the experience.

What happens when our church resumes in-person services, which for now is still on a to-be-determined basis? Will new habits formed online while in isolation carry over to the new normal that everyone is looking forward to? Will formerly quiet congregations begin to borrow expressions of worship and faith more common to African American and Pentecostal churches?

And Now a Word from Our… Congregation

Beyond murmurs of agreement and shouts of affirmation, will the in-person church have a new tolerance for talking in church? It’s been common practice and courtesy to sit quietly while the leader delivers a message. Will the value of polite attentiveness and quiet be superseded by the richness of real-time dialog that attendees have experienced online?

In my church, the online sermons have started to include pauses of several minutes during which we are encouraged to consider several questions that appear on the screen. Our pastor specifically directs us to talk among our small in-home selves (family, friends, roommates) or to share with the full congregation in the sidebar chat pane. The screen transitions from focusing on the preacher, and instead presents questions on a slide, and a timer that lets us know when our two minutes of talk time have passed.

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The online responses are thoughtful. I am always struck by their honesty and vulnerability.

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In fact, it is not unusual for my own thoughts to be empty or distracted as I watch the service alone in my house, but then to be stimulated when I recognize something in the chat pane as true about my faith life, prayer life, relationships, etc. My brothers and sisters online are helping me dig deeper.

The 58 seconds between 41:51 and 42:49 are loaded with surprising thoughts that challenge me personally and stretch my understanding of and empathy for specific fellow believers. I have to admit, in this particular dimension, this is an improvement on pre-Covid sermons.

When we return to in-church services, how will this newfound richness continue to inform the teaching and deepen the fellowship of the Sunday service?

With social distancing constraints in place, it is hard to imagine turning to a pew neighbor and having an intimate conversation through a mask. Even if we could all speak freely without fear of spreading the virus, not everyone sits adjacent to a conversation partner who is a natural confidant. After all, out of more than 200 online viewers, there are usually only about a dozen or two participants who feel comfortable sharing with the full congregation online, and who have something cogent to share.

Is there room, then, for those gregarious online folks to meaningfully contribute in an online fashion during an in-person service? If they are at home on a keyboard, or in the church building with a smartphone, can they type their thoughts into the livestream? And, is there a screen in the church where those of us seated can read them? Will we all simply use our own smartphone screens to read what our neighbors have written? The person sitting five pews away from me, or still watching online at their home, was a full participant and electrifying presence when we were all livestreaming. Some churches will look for a way to replicate that experience in a hybrid church with online/in-person participation.

Clearly, this will require trust on the part of the leadership. It is not necessarily safe to allow unfettered access to the public chat. Uninvited bad actors may make mischief, or outright abuse. And, even among the membership, some thoughts may be TMI, or can cause hurt or division, intended and unintended. And, some contributions may simply be trivial, irrelevant and distracting.

Even so, presuming external and internal safeguards can be put in place, is this an appropriate addition to the traditional Sunday service? Without a doubt it has been appropriate during the shutdown. It would be a shame to lose it in the newly reconfigured church.

Introverts: Letting Their Light Shine

I know of one church member who is on the introvert side. She is smart, deep in faith, has endured and persevered through much. She’s not shy, but she tends not to head downstairs for coffee after service to spend time chatting. Lo and behold, she is one of the more active online chat contributors during her church’s livestream.

As she puts it, “It was easy to maintain my introversion in my own room.” Put another way: her light is no longer hidden under a bushel.

All of a sudden, people are hearing her ‘voice,’ and recognizing her name. Indeed, she was appointed as a church overseer at the next opening on our board.

In the new normal, how will we continue to make room for people such as her to contribute to the life of the church?

Some Things Need To Be Adapted

Looking at a post-Covid future, Ed Stetzer, dean of Wheaton College, uses a simple framework:

some things need to be maintained; some things need to be jettisoned; some things need to be adapted. “Pretty much every church turned to online meetings via zoom, streaming services, and so on. What role will those play moving forward? Will zoom continue to be an option when you meet together in groups, allowing those who are out of town or home with a sick child to participate? No doubt you will continue to stream services for the vulnerable at least until the pandemic has ended, but what role will streaming or videoconferencing play?”

Can I get an amen!?