Written by Nathan Nettleton of South Yarra Community Baptist Church (SYCBaps).
At the South Yarra Community Baptist Church (SYCBaps), moving worship and congregational life online during lockdown has proved so successful that the congregation recently voted (unanimously!) to continue online only.
This is particularly surprising for us, because our worship over the last two decades has been richly sensory and sacramental, almost high church, and we didn’t anticipate it adapting well to an online format.
What people say they value most about our worship is its radically participatory congregational style. All regular participants, including the children, lead parts of the Sunday service. This meant that when we went online, pre-recording or live-streaming footage of a few key leaders conducting a service would have been a big turn-off; it simply wouldn’t be “our” worship. It seems that the “new normal” is only intensifying the hunger for genuine participation, so we needed to find a way to “gather” the congregation online for a real-time, live, participatory event in which everyone could contribute to making the worship happen.
Gathering on the Zoom platform and screen sharing slides with texts, music and rich visual imagery enabled this for us, and to our amazement, it replicated our previous experience remarkably well.
Some things had to be adapted more than others, and some adaptations had surprising consequences. For example, it had been our practice to follow a prayer confessing our sin with an individual absolution in which each person turned to the next, marking the sign of the cross on the neighbour’s forehead and telling them by name, “Your sins are forgiven, be at peace.” Thus, the declaration of forgiveness was passed right around the room to each person in turn. How could we replicate anything like this online? Our solution was to use Zoom’s spotlight feature to highlight each attendee in turn, so that the rest of the congregation could, in unison, tell that person that their sins were forgiven. It’s different, but still powerful.
What we slowly realised was how important this component of our worship was for achieving a sense of being truly gathered in one another’s presence. One of the problems with online worship for many churches is that since most worshippers are only the receivers of streamed footage which they can watch at all different times, it is difficult for them to avoid engaging simply as consumers or spectators. As a viewer, you know that the leaders are not aware of your individual presence, and your absence would make no difference to what happens.
But for SYCBaps, in our online gatherings, even if you are a first-time visitor and don’t have any parts to lead, when your image is spotlighted and you are addressed by name by the whole congregation, assuring you that you personally are forgiven by God, you are also receiving an unmistakable assurance that your presence is noticed and honoured as important. It brings some people to tears.
Going online brought other bonuses. It enabled us to have visiting preachers from all over Australia and the world without having to wait for them to visit in the flesh. Not only has this enabled us to build stronger connections with other churches around the world, but we have been able to hear first-hand reports of how the pandemic was impacting other countries and how the churches in those places were adapting.
Zoom also gave us the means to gather people during the week for prayer and mutual support, something that became more important than ever during months of enforced physical isolation. Within a few weeks, in addition to our main Sunday service, we had another 18 short prayer services a week – morning, late afternoon, and nighttime, six days a week. About half the congregation attends at least daily, and about three quarters at least once a week.
Not only is that a lot more gathered prayer than was going on before, but after each of these gatherings, most people stay and chat with one another. Much of the congregation is spending far more time in one another’s company than ever before, sharing both small-talk and deep concerns. Paradoxically, the physical isolation of lockdown actually brought us closer together! A number of people have said that these daily gatherings have saved their sanity during the months of lockdown.
Like many churches, we also discovered that there were some important groups of people for whom online worship overcame genuine obstacles to involvement: people whose mobility is diminished by age or disability; people with hearing impairments; people with social anxieties; people who travel a lot for work, or divide their time between a city home and a holiday home.
Although our unique style of worship adapted surprisingly well to the online environment, we couldn’t find a way within our means to make it work properly as a hybrid of the online and physically gathered. For both technical reasons (such as needing to make every person in the church building audible to those online) and liturgical reasons, we eventually concluded that trying to create a hybrid would probably diminish both versions of the experience and risk creating the worst of both worlds.
So, after a lengthy discernment process (and that’s a whole story in itself), the congregation recently decided not to return to physically gathered worship. We intend to gather physically for lots of other activities, but when it comes to worship, we are now Victoria’s first specialist online Bapto-catholic Cyber Chapel!
More information, including connection details and video recordings of SYCBaps online services, can be found here and an interview with an American clergy education institute about the discernment process that led to this decision at SYCBaps can be found here.