A blizzard of challenges: church on Facebook

by Alex Dyer

A wise person once told me, “Most of life is not what happens to you, but how you respond to what happens to you.” With that in mind, imagine just before the weekend a massive blizzard descends and drops nearly three feet of snow in one evening. Even in New Haven, Connecticut, this is a very rare event.

Every priest leading a congregation is forced to make the difficult decision whether to cancel church or march on as usual. Unsure whether we could even plow the sidewalks by Sunday and a travel ban in effect throughout the city and state, perhaps there is another way. Perhaps there is a via media, or should I say via social media.

When presented with unique circumstances, one must come up with unique solutions. I began to think about having a church service via Facebook. It was not a perfect solution, but it was worth a shot. I sent the word out via our email lists and held the service at our normal time, 10:30 AM on Sunday.

One of the local reporters, who I am Facebook friends with (always a good idea to get to know your local press) picked up the story and wrote a piece on the virtual service. It became a form of “e-vangelism” as well. Now it was no longer a simple service for our own parishioners. The pressure was now on to make it something special, and the clock was ticking.

I pre-recorded my sermon for Sunday on a video. I decided to wear my clerical collar because I am an Episcopalian after all (since no one could see from the waist down, I must confess I was also in pajama pants). I led the liturgy of the Word, as that was most familiar to people. I gathered all the pieces for the service. I collected hymns via Youtube and had all the readings typed up and ready to go.

I invited people to join me on the church Facebook page, and I posted the words of the service via our status updates. Before the service began, I invited people to comment and like the hymns. I was shocked how quickly community started to form. I was also shocked how much work it was to lead a service this way.

I found that you are flying blind and have no idea how quickly or slowly to move through the service. It is always tough for me to preach to a camera with nobody else in the room. Despite these obstacles, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.

Religion and social media have had an interesting relationship. Churches seek to build genuine, deep, rich communities, and social media can present many challenges to this community building. There have been critics ever since the conception of social media. Facebook, Twitter and all other forms of social media are tools; they are not perfect, but they also serve a purpose by connecting people.

I was amazed at how the Holy Spirit was active. One parishioner commented that this idea led her to call an elderly parishioner and say Morning Prayer together since she was not on Facebook. It led another parishioner to begin to think of new ways we can use technology to get our worship services out there to people who cannot make it to church. We had people from Texas, New Hampshire and Nebraska join us for our virtual church service.

It would have been easy to take a Sunday off because of the snow. Believe me, the thought crossed my mind. I am so glad that I did not go that route and was able to see the Holy Spirit move in new and exciting ways. I know in my own life, I do not always take risks as much as I should. The Church is facing a blizzard of challenges in today’s society, and perhaps God is calling us all to be more creative and take more risks. Challenging circumstances are inevitable. How are we going to respond to them?

The Rev Alex Dyer is the Priest-in-charge of St. Paul and St. James Episcopal Church, New Haven, CT

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