Disciple: Community Through the Screen
Why online community is real community and how churches can use livestreaming to build it
By Summerlee Walter
Simply put, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Episcopal churches online. Most churches in the Diocese of North Carolina had a social media presence, and some were already livestreaming their worship services, but 2020 drove us all straight into the internet’s arms on Sunday mornings. After varying degrees of trial and error, fights with YouTube’s copyright division over music we’d already licensed, and the realization that no one likes the sound of their own voice when it’s played back, churches found their groove. Maybe the groove never felt perfectly comfortable, but we managed, more or less.
Understandably, with the return to in-person worship, many of us started spending less time on our digital offerings and more time planning in-person events, and, while I am as happy as anyone else that I once again can move about freely outside of my house, I also worry that we are discounting the power of online community, to the detriment of our congregations and the denomination as a whole.
[Pictured: On June 12, 2022, the Rev. Stephanie Allen baptized Mina Yu, whose parents, Meggie (pictured) and Stanley, worship with Nativity, Raleigh, from their home in Seoul, South Korea, via the church’s weekly livestream. Photo by Joan Parente]
2022’s fastest growing social media platform—TikTok—has an algorithm tailored to help people find very specific communities. Your friends don’t quite understand why you like wearing vintage clothing while foraging for mushrooms in the woods? No worries, there’s a community on TikTok for you (seriously). Other growing social media platforms are based on the same premise: People want to find a community with which they can share their passions and be their true selves, and they no longer need to live in the same place or synchronize their calendars to do so. This is especially true for the youngest generations, Alphas and Gen Z, who are leading the charge to find authentic, personalized community online. Strikingly, in a recent marketing survey, 81% of Gen Z respondents said they rely on online communities to inform and teach them about real-world issues and what they can do to help.
A place to be your authentic self, find acceptance and connection, and learn about how to make the world a better place—does that sound like a church to you? It does to me.
Worship livestreams have the potential to be valuable channels for beginning to cultivate online community—for its own sake, not necessarily as a means to bring people to in-person worship, although that might be the end result. Churches already have invested in (expensive) livestreaming equipment and are making the ongoing investment of staff and volunteer hours to stream worship every week. While the concern that worshipers might choose the convenience of sitting on their couches in pajamas over putting on pants and driving to sit in a pew looms large in some minds, taking a few simple steps will begin to transform a passive viewing experience into an invitation to engagement. The ideas outlined in the sidebar are a starting point for building a more authentic, engaged community around your worship livestream. The potential for reaching new people, even those who live far away, is enormous.
FROM SEOUL TO RALEIGH
The Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, realized the full potential of livestreaming to build a global community in January 2021. A few days after the church streamed the funeral service for the Rev. Diane Corlett, a former Nativity rector, and her husband, Fred Corlett, a beloved actor in the Raleigh theater scene, a note from Seoul, South Korea arrived via Facebook. The message came from Meggie Yu, a Raleigh native who was friends with the Corletts but who never attended Nativity. Yu was so moved by the funeral that she wanted to know more about the parish and how she could join them in worship from across the world. Because the church livestreams Sunday worship, she and her husband, Stanley, were able to do so. Yu continued to correspond with the church’s media coordinator, rector and deacon, building a relationship with people she had never met in person. When Yu shared the news that she was pregnant, Nativity’s Chatty Yarns group knitted and crocheted baby items and mailed them to Seoul, deepening the relationship between her family and the Nativity congregation.
As Yu made plans to visit Raleigh in spring 2022 to introduce baby Mina to her extended family, she asked the Rev. Stephanie Allen, Nativity’s rector, if she could baptize her daughter in her family’s spiritual home, Nativity. Allen agreed and baptized Mina on Trinity Sunday. Along with 25 members of Yu’s family, Nativity’s congregation promised to support Mina as she grows in faith on the other side of the world. And so one of the most basic markers of Christian community, affirming together the Baptismal Covenant and welcoming a new member into the Body of Christ, happened because of a livestream.
FOUR SIMPLE IDEAS FOR BUILDING ONLINE COMMUNITY
The following recommendations assume a church livestreams worship services to YouTube, Facebook or another channel that allows user comments and the digital usher (more on that in a minute) has been given access to comment as the church. If you have questions about any of the ideas discussed below, please email the communications department. A more detailed guide to building community around your worship livestream, complete with a sample script for digital ushers, is available at bit.ly/LivestreamingGuide.
Digital ushers provide welcome
Just like their in-person counterparts, digital ushers’ role is to welcome and help visitors navigate the worship service. Digital ushers do not need to be experts in technology, social media or even the Episcopal worship service; they need only to be friendly. A pre-written script, updated weekly by the people who plan the worship service or assemble the bulletin, allows anyone who volunteers to share helpful information and invitations in the comments of the livestream throughout the worship service.
All are welcome
During the opening welcome or the announcements (depending on local practice), the celebrant or whoever else is delivering the welcome can extend hospitality to online worshipers by explicitly acknowledging and greeting them.
Share the peace
During the peace, after the in-person greetings, people worshiping in the sanctuary can engage online worshipers by texting their friends who are not in church that morning, who worship online or who attend a different service. Online worshipers can do the same or exchange greetings in the comments.
Ask for and share prayers
During the Prayers of the People, the online usher can invite the livestream audience to share their prayer requests, either in the comments or privately through an online form, for inclusion in the church’s prayer list. That way, the entire in-person congregation gets involved in supporting online worshipers in prayer, and vice versa. If an online worshiper has shared their email address via a form, a clergy person or pastoral care volunteer can also follow up to let them know they’ve been prayed for and to ask for their prayers for the congregation.
Summerlee Walter is the communications coordinator for the Diocese of North Carolina.