Church went online in unprecedented numbers in the past few weeks, as thousands of priests, ministers, reverends, and preachers across the United States sought to carry on their Sunday services in some form. The Church Online Platform, which offers plug-and-play software for church livestreaming, reported on March 17 that more than 6,000 churches had newly signed up during the previous week, with some 4.7 million devices logging on during the first weekend of the U.S. quarantine—a 300 percent increase over the pre-pandemic average. The streaming volume was so high that the platform reported outages during subsequent weekends.
So what will happen as the state-imposed sheltering in place loosens and churches begin to reopen their doors? Will more people decide to stay home, especially with lingering concerns about infection? Will the unprecedented move online have some permanent effect on how people go to church?
We can find clues by looking back to 2007—the year Amazon introduced the Kindle ebook reader. Many commentators wondered whether print books would survive.
Four years later, in May 2011, Amazon reported that ebooks surpassed print books in unit sales. Bookstore chains like B. Dalton and Borders closed. It seemed that ebooks were bound to take over.
But that didn’t happen. In fact, 2013 seems to have been the high-water mark for ebooks as a percentage of overall book sales. By early 2017, ebook sales were falling by double-digit percentages, and reports were out that hardcovers alone had once again surpassed ebooks in unit sales. Today, some thirteen years after the Kindle’s release, ebooks represent roughly 15 percent of all U.S. book sales.
Livestream Goes Mainstream
Like ebooks, church livestreaming first attracted early adopters, curious churchgoers, and people forced by circumstances to try the experience. By fall 2019, about 22 percent of churches livestreamed their entire service. Now, the coronavirus pandemic has expanded livestreaming to many more, as church staff have found themselves trying to figure out the details of camera and microphone placement and the technical vagaries of YouTube, Facebook Live, Zoom, and the Church Online Platform.
As the novelty of livestreaming wears off, users will likely settle into a mixed view of streaming church services. Some people will find it lacking and appreciate in-person church more than ever. For example, it seems likely that few elderly churchgoers will take to livestreaming. In normal times, they tend to depend on church for fellowship and spiritual sustenance. The present pandemic, with its special risk for their health, can be terribly isolating, and the lack of weekly in-person interaction with fellow churchgoers is undoubtedly creating real suffering for many people. But the elderly are less likely to be able to have the tools and the knowledge necessary to participate in online church activities, and less likely to find in them the kind of fellowship and consolation they need.
Other churchgoers, though, will likely love the streaming Sunday services now available to them, including especially people with disabilities and others who are homebound. And members of churches that create compelling and engaging services online may prefer to stick with it long-term. But enthusiasm for streaming church probably won’t be enough to sustain continued widespread adoption after things open back up. To see why, let’s return to the ebook story.
Part of the reason people began buying ebooks is that they were cheaper than print. When Amazon first released the Kindle, the company sold ebooks for less than $10. Publishers pushed back, saying that this price was going to kill their ability to continue publishing new books. Eventually, after the courts settled the dispute, the prices started going up. Suddenly, print books started to look more appealing again. For the same price, why not have a nice print edition?
Something similar may happen for church livestreams, too. Even if churchgoers love it, it’s not entirely up to them. Pastors, staff, and other leaders will play big roles in deciding whether and how it continues. After quarantine livestreaming, some might see the benefits—especially convenience and the evangelistic opportunity of reaching new audiences—and decide to keep doing it. Others will take issue with online communion (about which, more in a moment), or struggle theologically or relationally with questions of embodiment, or simply be overcome by technical hurdles, and decide livestreaming is only worth doing under extreme circumstances. Either way, the future of church livestreams will be negotiated between congregations and their leaders, and influenced by the strengths and weaknesses of their technologies. No one should be surprised if we see post-pandemic churches livestreaming at higher rates than before the crisis but lower than today.
Mirroring the Church
Like a mirror, online church reflects certain aspects of church “IRL”—church “in real life.” But it’s more like a funhouse mirror, accentuating some aspects while obscuring others. This livestream reflection can help us to see the gathered church more clearly.
Pastors and congregations are already beginning to. You hear it in the Zoom calls friends and church leaders are having. You read it in the articles writers are publishing, and in the posts and comments on social media. More and more, people are recognizing and articulating church IRL’s benefits. They’re making those benefits conscious, visible.
While scholars debate the many nuances of mediated communication, churchgoers feel them. In moments of vulnerability, we are detoured by technical difficulties. Just when we’re caught up in the rhythms of liturgy and singing, we encounter the whiplash of a buffering circle. Isolation clings to the edges of our Sunday services. Tables set with bread and wine are now cluttered with tablets and cameras and keyboards and power cords. A common collection of artifacts and icons once inhabited a familiar, unified space.
Feeling some disorientation is understandable. But it’s not terminal. Tracing out these once-straight lines in their digitized, reconstituted form takes time.
Again, the example of ebooks can be instructive. Ebooks helped us realize that reading is about more than just absorbing information. It’s also about engaging and experiencing. People began to nostalgically invoke the feel of print books, even to the point of fetishizing them. They began to rhapsodize about the smell and texture of the ink and paper. They waxed eloquent about writing notes in the margins, or finding old notes—or yellowed newspaper clippings or other ephemera—in used copies. They appreciated the book’s physical presence reminding them regularly to pick it back up. Print lovers even resorted to brain science to talk about spatial memory, concentration, and remembering a story’s chronology.
Much as ebooks have shown us what we love about print books—and led us to accentuate and savor those features a little bit more—church livestreaming may help us do the same for church IRL. Church livestreaming reminds us that church IRL is about more than just absorbing a sermon. Church IRL is about more than the pastor up front. It’s also about engaging with the people around us. Church encounters don’t just include the friends and family we sit with—but also the strangers sitting down the row, or the lone person who quietly slips in the back. We knew that before. We know it now more consciously, more intimately.
With ebooks, we started to realize that ereaders don’t just replace books but also bookshelves, those most useful items of furniture—and status symbols—that guests can browse and by which acquaintances can become friends. A print book, with its title emblazoned along the spine and on the cover, can become a conversation starter in coffee shops and airports in a way that secretive ebooks cannot. They even become a form of exchange and self-disclosure, creating a market for sharing, trading, and reselling.
Church livestreaming encourages us to focus on existing friends, the people we like. Church IRL doesn’t let us off so easy. Gathered in one place, we encounter not just those we reach out to, but those who reach out to us. Sometimes we want them to reach out. Sometimes we need them to. And sometimes they reach out when we wish they didn’t, which is good for our souls, too. Even at its best, livestreaming makes the stranger invisible, the chance encounter impossible, and the annoying acquaintance avoidable. Livestreaming is showing us how important such inconveniences are.
Readers weren’t the only ones rediscovering print books’ advantages. Publishers were too. They started banking on the pleasure of print books. Remember the coloring-book craze of 2015? Coloring was an experience ebooks could not provide. The physicality of it. The immersive focus and attention it required. Publishers and book-buyers fed off each other as coloring books found new reception in non-bookstores like Hobby Lobby, Michael’s, and Joann Fabrics.
Pastors and church leaders can take a cue from these publishers. What services look like, both online and in-person, can be better in the future—if pastors are willing to listen and learn, discuss and discern. The sudden widespread experience of online church means a variety of trials and errors, and by talking together, pastors, congregations, sociologists, and theologians can find forms of “digital church” that will serve the universal church in the centuries to come.
These discussions have been happening for years already, but now have a new immediacy. They are complicated by the great variety of differing practices among Christian denominations. (John Dyer offers helpful primers on two of the most difficult subjects, communion and baptism, and how differing Christian practices could shake out. For example, while online communion is impossible for Catholics, it is not difficult to imagine some American evangelical traditions accepting a “memorialist,” symbolic online communion.) We may find that thinking more deeply about these questions will challenge church IRL to more deeply reflect on the meaning of human bodies, the words of Jesus and Paul, and the power and role of the Holy Spirit.
Church IRL is about more than watching from a distance. It’s about coming near. It’s about more than listening to the music, but about joining and singing with our own voices. And it’s about hearing the voices of others. In my church every Sunday, I see a young man with Down syndrome. He sits across the aisle near the front. And he wholeheartedly participates body, soul, and voice. He drums his hands and bobs his head in time with the drummer on stage. He sings the quieter songs at a volume that often rises above others’ and is occasionally very out of tune. He dances and jumps up and down. He shouts “Alleluia!” in a voice that reaches every ear. Each Sunday, no matter whether I am feeling joy or heartache, lament or celebration, my heart is lifted by his presence and participation I know I am not the only one. For now, though, I miss the way his worship inspires my own. My gaze is directed by the camera operator alone.
Church livestreaming, for all its technical features, will struggle to open our hearts to grace like this. Even so, in this moment of anxiety and danger, the creative energy animating churches around the globe inspires me and gives me hope. Most of all, I am excited for how our collective experiences with church livestreaming will hold up a mirror for churches “in real life” to see what they’re doing in a new light.