Working notes about streaming worship and virtual congregations

The Growing Unitarian Universalism blog featured web-streaming worship services (also) last week, a subject I care about and wanted to add thought to.

The idea of a remote congregation isn’t new. Postal missions and radio churches (breadcast sermons) have a long history, both for Unitarians and Universalists and others.

Metro DC holds testimony to the potiental power of broadcasting worship. All but two Unitarian Universalist congregations in the area are children or grandchildren of All Souls (Unitarian) and the proximate cause of the expansion was the satellite services, driven by A. Powell Davies’s preaching. But the days of white-flight suburbanism and culturally reinforced worship attendance are over and we can’t lean on that model reflectively.

So, I think, the first thing to consider is what kind of participation is desired of, of even possible by, the person watching or listening.

There are (at least) two complementary ways to look at broadcast worship. One, implicitly knows that the broadcast experience is second-best, but simulates the experience of in-real-life worship, with the an opportunity to participate at some important part, say by watching the elevation and fraction of the host at a televised mass, or to pray for one’s own beloved dead at the Kaddish. “These experiences fill an obligation” is another way to look at it.

The other participation mode is to be a consumer of the aesthetics and information, and I’m plainly worried that as a function of our free-church mode of worship this is where the mainline of Unitarian Universalism is. It gets its value from being “the best show in town” or by being a rare conduit for some spiritual understanding. I think I can be forgiven by pointing out how unlikely the “best show” production values are, and that the more likely appeal is for those far from a Unitarian Universalist congregation. (Special spiritual understanding is possible, but let’s put that to one side for the moment.) That necessarily limits the appeal of webcast worship to the already convinced, but spatially inconvenienced.

(I’d better post this or I’ll never do it. But I do have some opinions of “how” based on what I’ve found online.)

Starting a church with how many?

I looped back to read up on the British Orthodox Church, and saw news of a new mission in Windsor:

Father Peter had prepared to pray with one person he had been visiting for some months, but as the prayers from the Agpeya, or Coptic Daily Office, began there were eight people from a variety of backgrounds who had come together to begin this new service. And a further eight people had wanted to be present but were unable to do so for various reasons.

Let’s revisit that: “had prepared to pray with one person”. I won’t say that an intended one-person mission is the best way to make something last. And indeed, there are significant polity, historical and demographic differences between the kind of churchmanship the British Orthodox have and that most of my readers (the Indy Catholics perhaps excepted) but there is something about the audacious faithfulness about starting a mission this way is worthy of respect and perhaps adaptation.

The twenty-times-a-year church

I have been combing the pages of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland and came across one church – small, remote? – that meets less than weekly but more than monthly in a very sensible pattern:

  • nine months, meeting twice a month (first and third Sunday in this case)
  • two months, meeting once (January and February in this case)
  • one month without worship (here, August)

That’s twenty services a year. While I’d recommend not taking off August in the U.S. experience, to not miss the area newcomers, there’s a logic to putting thin resources where they are needed. In some areas, a preacher may come a very long distance. In other cases, the homegrown worship leadership is hardstretched. Or perhaps capacity is up from a once-a-month service but not so much as to double the activity.

If weekly or oftener worship is an impractical option, and hard weather (icy roads, un-air-conditioned church) makes some seasons more difficult than others, then this structure might be a good steward.

I’ve also written about other schedules: ten times a year, and the liminal case of worship once or twice a year.

Lacking confidence

As my regular readers now, I think a lot about church growth and decline. If I had a simple solution or magic formula, I would share it. Much of the problem lies with the change of society: religious congregations no longer have such a strong claim on cultural influence. Other institutions, as expected as good Internet access or an accommodating coffee shop, brake into religious treasuries: access to information, a meaningful context for living and means for organizing a valuable response. You don’t need church for friends or a cup of coffee. Newcomer certainly aren’t going to support an institution for that. (Rural areas and poor urban areas, with less social infrastructure, may buck this trend for a time.) And it’s doubly true that newcomers will not support weak leadership.

But let’s step back. Some churches still thrive, and it’s clearly not (to me) because they are more or less institutional, more or less dogmatic or more or less authoritarian. Self-confidence seems to be a better distinguishing factor. And how this may be cultivated a good use of time and effort. Why? Confidence says this is good better than self-assertion, and people can feel the difference. And desperation kills.

What do you think churches should do?

While some of your favorite sites are down — a very severe storm blew through metro Washington, D.C. last night, disabling an Amazon cloud computing center in the ‘burbs — let me ask a question that has been bothering me since the UUA General Assembly: just what do you think the purpose of a church is? Not the UUA, but the particular church. Opinions requested.

Thoughts about the UUA decline numbers

So the UUA’s a bit smaller this year than last. The question I have — perhaps unanswerable — is how many of those are (put plainly) old, middle aged and young. Are these numbers a sign of social and economic stress, or are we approaching a demographic cliff?

The answer would suggest next steps. But the good news is also the bad news. Despite the talk of cradle Unitarian Universalists, we’re dependent on converts. (The cradle UUs could use some PR help, being second only to the Quakers in making participation from infancy a smug, if unearned, status.) This is good because there’s the opportunity to grow, should we tap adequately into the culture. But the bad news is that we would probably make the most sense to those coming from a churched setting, and those numbers are falling.

Lesson from embassy visit day

Today is the annual open day for non-EU embassies. (EU is next Saturday.) Long lines for a pamphlet and, sometimes, a taste of the local cuisine. I go to look at the buidlings and out of an internationalist sympathy.

Having done this a few times I’ve learned that the smaller the country the better chance of a good return. Some derived lessons, for churches.

  • Tell people why they’re being greeting, sharing a distinctive.
  • Keep the food samples simple and easy.
  • Be clear about trouble overcome and accomplishments made.
  • Be selective in suggestive next steps and make sure there’s a clear path out!

Churches take note; sometimes open options reads like inattentiveness.

Soul searching, again

More short-form blogging. Wondering out loud what to make of the UUA staff and growth advocates meeting this week.

Deeply suspicious that there’ll be any positive development. Not that there aren’t good ideas and resourceful people involved but that the process is worn and the goals are institutional and (at least modestly)  defensive.

I sighed, literally, and wonder what the future holds. At least I’m less worried about intra-UU rivalry: there’s so much less to fight over now…