The question is one that a lot of religious people and leaders are asking themselves right now. The global health pandemic means that responsible congregations throughout the world have shuttered their doors to physical services for the foreseeable future. Some are continuing to use their sanctuaries to film online services, others are producing online services directly from the homes of clergy and staff, and some are not meeting at all. Many are hosting online religious education, meditation, small group ministry, and social forums.
The situation is in many ways a new one. This is not the first time when religious communities have had to close their physical spaces during a time of pestilence and plague. But it is the first time that such a mass closing of worship services has taken place when technology is broadly available for almost any congregation to have some kind of online presence.
There are a lot of people trying to figure out what to do and how congregations should react to the situation. The UUA has a lot of advice. I’ve also read pieces from Sightings and from the remnants of the Alban Institute. As I have been thinking about these dynamics myself, I have been seeking answers to five questions: 1. Why have an online congregation? 2. What is an online congregation? 3. Who participates in an online congregation? 4. Where does an online congregation meet? 5. How does an online congregation meet?
1. Why have an online congregation?
This turns out to be a bit of trick question. The answer that immediately comes to mind is that we have an online congregation because our congregation can no longer meet in-person. And so, the online congregation becomes a representation of, a metaphor for, or even a simulacrum of the physical congregation that is (we hope temporarily) shuttered.
In the case of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, an online congregation is a sort of placeholder that exists to provide a way for the members and friends of the shuttered physical congregation to continue to connect with each other. It also a way for us to continue to serve the wider community by making publicly available the kind of programs we normally offer throughout the week. So, for instance, in addition to our online worship service we have a weekly online forum that I am curating and many small groups that meet over Zoom.
My description of why we have online congregations leaves aside entities like the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF)–a non-physical Unitarian Universalist church that provides services for anyone who cannot, or does not want to, connect with a congregation that gathers in-person. But, this leaving aside also raises an issue. There are some online congregations–Unitarian Universalist and otherwise–that existed prior to the pandemic. One of the principle questions that newly online congregations like mine will need to answer in the months that come is: What distinguishes us from previously existing entities like the CLF? The Robert Koch Institut, roughly the German government’s equivalent of the CDC, is forecasting that it might be as long as 18 months before large physical gatherings are safe again. If that is true then this question will become all the more important.
2. What is an online congregation?
A painting of a synagogue is not a synagogue. A photograph of church is not a church. And an online congregation is not a physical congregation. It is both representation of a congregation that meets in-person and something different than a congregation that meets in person.
In some sense, an online congregation might be regarded as what Benedict Anderson named an “imagined community.” Anderson coined the term to describe nation states that are bound together by the imaginations of their individual citizens. It is an act of imagination to envision that people who live in Houston and Chicago have something in common while people in Houston and Mexico City do not. Imagined communities are typically bound together by the use of shared symbols (such as flags) and rituals (like voting or holidays). They can be bound together by other things as well–currency, language, bodies of law–but that appears to be less important than the use of either symbol or ritual.
Online congregations are imagined communities because their members–or participants–imagine themselves to be part of the same religious community. We cannot gather together in person. We cannot easily interact with most other members of the congregation. But we can imagine ourselves to be joined in religious communion.
This imagined aspect of community is quite different than what takes place on a Sunday morning. And that opens up another question: How do congregational leaders sustain the imaginations of their members so that they continue to imagine themselves to part of the same imagined community? There are various strategies that might be deployed and First Houston is using a number of them. We have videos posted online twice a week: a weekly forum and a weekly worship service. We offer numerous online Zoom gatherings: small groups, online classes, and virtual coffee hours. We have Facebook pages for both of our campuses and send out email messages twice a week. We have a program where volunteers from the congregation call other members between once a week and twice a month. I keep this blog…
What might not be obvious is that in some sense religious communities have always been imagined communities–even if local congregations have not been. The very function of the Pauline letters in the Christian New Testament was to knit to together scattered local congregations–many of which were probably very small–in such a way as to help them imagine themselves as part of the same religious movement. The shared hymnal that Unitarian Universalists serves a similar function. And so does almost all scripture and liturgy–which allows people to imagine contiguous communities across time and space.
3. Who participates in an online congregation?
This might be the most disruptive question in my list. And it is something that depends a lot on the technology choices that congregational leaders make and how they choose to advertise their congregational offerings. The staff and I have decided to make the offerings of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston open to all who are interested in them. We are posting prerecorded services to YouTube and inviting people who are interested in participating in our online meetings to preregister for them. This is essentially what we did prior to the pandemic: Sunday services were open to anyone who wanted to visit and programs were open to anyone who registered to participate in them.
There is, however, one striking difference: anyone in the world who has access to internet and who wants to can view our prerecorded services or register and participate in our online programs. We have seen two shifts in congregational life as a result. First, we have had a small number of non-Houston based people participating in either our program offerings, such as our parents group, or viewing our Sunday services online. We have received, for instance, some Sunday morning offering donations from people who don’t live in the Houston area.
Second, we have been able to draw from non-local people for participation in our programs. We have specifically done this through our visual meditations. They have drawn from artists through the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. Those artists have shared the videos with the friends and families, thus increasing the reach of the congregation. I have also started to do this through my forum guests. Of the four people I’ve done forums with thus far two have been local (Kim Waller and Diana Tang) and two have been from outside of Houston (Kate Coyer and Ty). Thus far, the most watched forum is one featuring a guest from outside Houston.
My big questions here are: What will this larger reach mean for the congregation when we begin to gather again in person? Will we want to keep people from outside of Houston engaged in congregational life? If so, how will we do that?
4. Where does an online congregation meet? and 5. How does an online congregation meet?
These last two seem like they should have obvious answers: on the internet and through multiple platforms. However, I think that the answers can be somewhat nuanced or complicated. For instance, the online congregation need not meet only through the internet. I speak regularly with folks from First Houston on the phone and we have a LINKS program where each member of the congregation is assigned a volunteer who calls them on a regular basis. These are forms of meeting that fall outside of being strictly online. I also find them to be more effective than a lot interactions mediated by the internet.
As for how, well… there are a lot of different platforms available. We have decided against livestreaming services in favor of pre-recording them and posting them as YouTube videos. This allows us to have an easy public face that anyone who wants to can access and also doesn’t lock people into participating at a particular time. Right now, we have just over 900 households viewing our YouTube videos on a regular basis–almost triple the number who attend the congregation when we meet in person.
There’s been a strong tendency towards religious communities using Zoom to host various kinds of online gatherings–something we’re doing. I suspect that as the months pass we’ll shift the exact how of we meet online. Technology will most likely evolve and we’ll find somethings to be more effective than others. For instance, it already seems clear that the programs that we offer for general check-in are not nearly as popular as the more structured ones. It might also become clear that alternative platforms to Zoom are more effective for the congregation’s needs.
In sum, there are a lot of unknowns about how the next several months will unfold. Religious communities like mine will need to continue to adapt. The pandemic brings with it both grave challenges and some interesting opportunities for congregational life. Both addressing the challenges and seizing the opportunties will probably take a fair amount of imagination. I’m actually excited to see how religious communities adapt themselves. And I hope that in our efforts to adapt the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston will continue to be what has been for more than a hundred years: a community devoted building the beloved community and uncovering the potential lying within each human heart.