What happened to online church?

Are you still going to church? Virtually, I mean. Some places are holding physically distant, reduced capacity meetings, of course. Some have experimented with outdoor services, although winter is coming quickly. But the majority of churches are still holding online, virtual services. The people, though, are giving up.

The research from the Barna Group in June gave a pretty shocking picture of the state of faith in America. About half of people were still “attending” virtual church, less than a third were engaging with church leadership, less than 15% were participating in a discussion group or bible study. It isn’t a surprise that people wouldn’t immediately embrace this unusual method of churchgoing, but the shocking part about these statistics is that they are amongst regular churchgoers! That means, even within the church’s most devoted followers, membership is waning in an unprecedented way.

Personally, I was pretty committed to regular Sunday viewing in the spring and early summer. I was definitely one of the “hoppers” that the research mentions, switching freely between several services at congregations which I wouldn’t normally attend. The incredible ease of access to a variety of churches made “attending” different services fun and novel. I would switch between several live, or watch portions of other churches’ later in the day.

That has slowly dwindled, and now I find myself zipping past Sunday without even thinking about booting up a live stream. The incredible variety of online services available was also its undoing: although I enjoyed getting to experience each church’s take on virtual service early on, after several weeks I wasn’t engaged enough to continue. There is only so much novelty a virtual service can offer, after all, and by simply passively watching I wasn’t really engaging with any one church.

I wonder how much the numbers have fallen off since June. One can only assume that my personal experience mirrors a trend. One also has to wonder how this will change churchgoing in the future; it seems equally as likely that churchgoers who have fallen off in virtual attendance will happily return in person as it does that they simply become lapsed practitioners.

One thing is certain: in order to maintain worshipers, churches have to find a way to increase real engagement. Not just getting people to passively watch their productions, but engage in community in a significant way, as they would by attending. Many congregations are constantly innovating new ways to address this. The social and communal aspects of church are lost in a virtual ceremony, and these are the primary factors in retention in a normal church setting. If churches are going to continue to be restricted in their ability to hold in-person services, they will need to find a better way to simulate this communal engagement if they hope to retain parishioners in the short-term.

Alms for the Poor (Church)

If we take as a given that the church is an important institution worth saving, it naturally follows that both parishioners and governments should work towards its preservation financially. That’s why I don’t mind necessarily that many denominations of churches have received large amounts of support funding from the government by way of the CARES act and associated emergency funding.

The part the irks me is the knowledge that, at least for the Catholic Church, much of this funding is used in support of the ongoing lawsuits related to sexual assault. It just seems so horrible and wasteful that people would donate to preserve their beloved religious institution, but that those funds would go to protect and defend sexual predators. It is a similar problem to taxpayer dollars being used to pay for lawsuits related to police misconduct; why should taxpayers fund a defense for a cop who wasn’t acting in the best interest of those same taxpayers in the first place?

Of course, it isn’t that simple. These lawsuits do support and preserve the institutions. They protect the financial interest of the institution and, possibly, protect wrongly-accused employees and clergy. Mostly, though, these legal defenses shield the clergy from the law and protect the hierarchy from paying further restitution to victims. Of course, we can’t just let the legal responsibility for this defense fall directly to the employees in question, and we can’t restrict funds given to exclude their use in legal defense. But if we simply don’t fund the institution then it will certainly fail, and while this might lead to a new and better criminal justice system in the case of the police, the church is an ancient relic which must be preserved.

If there was a good answer to this, we would have discovered it. Ultimately, it is good that churches are getting funded even through programs like the PPP and the SBA. But the idea that taxpayer dollars are being used to defend sexual predators is horrific and inexcusable in a way that I can’t yet reconcile.

Why Church is Deadly (right now)

It’s easy to exaggerate when we have little information, and nobody benefits from fear-mongering. We are becoming increasingly aware, though, that church itself could be the most dangerous place to be during the current pandemic.

Why are churches so dangerous in regards to the spread of this disease? Because we do all the things the church that are most likely to spread the virus: we sing, we happily greet each other, we recite readings together, we commune, we gather. In particular, singing seems to be especially hazardous, based on information we have from a specific choir gathering in early March. The amazing thing about this specific story is the amount of information we have: one infected individual, who thought they only had a slight cold, unknowingly infected at least 45 of the rehearsal’s 60 participants. Two eventually died from complications with the virus. Several more were hospitalized. They didn’t hug or shake hands, they used hand sanitizer, they even spaced seats slightly farther apart.

The first instinct as this relates to churches is simply to cut the choir. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough, or even the major concern as far as churches go. Churches are one of the few places where we communally sing, even regardless of our interest or ability in music. Singing together, even informally, seems to intensify both the distance and the concentration of the spread. Even spaced 6 feet apart or more in a large space may not be enough to counteract the additional aerosolization of particles.

I had never hoped for this to be a COVID blog and I prefer to read and write about things unrelated to the virus. But this is such a sticking point for churches right now, and it will continue to dog religion for the near future. We’ve already looked at how the foster religious community when you can’t meet, but virtual interaction only seems like a stopgap until we can gather again. How can we sing in a strange land? Must we hang up our lyres on the willows there? How can we experience joy at church when we’re constantly in fear of an invisible spectre? What is church without songs, or speaking, or even greeting one another? And of course, why hasn’t “God’s saving hand” spared us from this?

It represents a cataclysmic obstacle for churches. Of course it doesn’t spell the end of religion, which has survived plagues plenty of times, and it doesn’t even mean things will be different in the future. But how this challenges believers today, and how believers and non-believers alike react and recover, will alter the face of organized religion in our lifetimes.

Existentialism and inaction

I was reminded of this Peter Watson piece from an old Time Magazine about atheism and existentialism. One of his conclusions after studying existentialist writers is:

 “If there is no afterlife, which they accept cannot be, we must attempt to make our lives on Earth as intense as possible: this is the only meaning we can have.”

Certainly when we stop relying on a spiritual reward in heaven there’s a lot more incentive to carpe the diem in real life. Lots of existentialists are very inspiring in this regard, and they have to be. That much freedom, with so little direction or predesigned structure, can be very frightening!

The current pandemic shutdown has really thrown things into sharp relief. When you’re stuck at home with nothing to do but ponder your existence, what is really the point of your life? A lot of people spend most of their energy in professional pursuits, either for the sake of the job itself or for the money they make. But many of us are rendered useless professionally, lots of people have lost jobs and even those that can work from home are naturally questioning the worth of their contribution. Maybe we get to spend time with our families, and lots of people place their home life as their primary motivation. But that’s hard to cultivate too, not just because you’re trapped with your household but because you can’t help them develop: if you have kids, you can’t watch them make their way in the world, if you have a romantic partner you can’t go on dates, if you take care of parents you can’t get them out and about with friends. Of course lots of people prize their relationships with friends highly, but those friendships will be distant for the time being. You can stay home and make things, but depending on what you’re creating it may not make its way into the world anytime soon. And all this is constantly overshadowed by the spectre of death and illness.

Perhaps that’s why quarantine has me feeling a little lethargic lately. It is kinda draining to think so seriously about existence. That’s probably why people hate philosophy.