The Sanctuary is Now Online

In 1949, fewer than 10% of American households had television sets. By 1959, that number was 80%. As that technological shift happened, most Major League Baseball owners continued to fight against broadcasting their teams’ games on TV. The thinking was that if people could watch all the games on TV, they would stop coming to the ballpark. Back then, gate receipts were a major revenue source for MLB teams. National League president Warren Giles once told the owners, “The greatest fear I have about baseball is that we’ll become a studio game. We’ll be playing with only 500 people in the stands and everybody else watching on TV.” It’s a good thing Giles isn’t alive to see sports in 2020.

A few owners were open to broadcasting games, including Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, and John Fetzer, the Detroit Tigers owner who had made his fortune in TV and radio stations. These owners hypothesized that broadcasting more games would actually increase their fanbase and boost attendance. People who hadn’t previously been interested in baseball would casually watch at home, including children looking for something to do after school, and become hooked.

They were right. Baseball grew through the 1960’s and 70’s, especially in the markets where broadcasting the games was embraced. While baseball has since fallen behind other sports, it experienced its greatest growth when it became most open to distributing its product in a new way. [1]

Churches don’t have a “product” to distribute, but we do have a message to share. And like baseball, the church often clings to the old, tired ways of doing things even when the wider culture around it shifts.

Three years ago, our church began filming Sunday morning worship and posting the recordings online later in the day. At the time, we identified a need to connect people to worship when they could not or would not attend in person. Not everyone agreed. The main fear expressed was that attendance would drop. Instead, it immediately increased, as occasional attendees remembered the joy of attending worship, and new people tried out our church online before visiting in person.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a technological adaptation in the church that was long overdue. But now that the adaptation is here, it’s not going away. With some contextual exceptions, American churches who don’t implement live worship by the end of 2020 will face very long odds of being open at all within a decade.

At Avery UMC, we had hoped to begin live streaming worship sometime next year, as the second phase of a new, contemporary worship service. But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s the need to have a flexible and adaptable mindset. The world changes so quickly now, and the pandemic has hastened many of those changes.

When the pandemic is over, things will not return to the way they were. Online worship is here to stay, and many have already suggested that it will replace on-site sanctuary gatherings as the primary form of worship. Rather than focusing on the sanctuary experience and offering the online experience as an alternative, the focus must be flipped. Churches need to start designing worship for the online viewer, and offer an on-site option as an alternative.

Some people will welcome this change, wondering what took the church so long to “get with the times.” Others will lament the lack of commitment to showing up in the sanctuary, joining voices in song and prayer. I resonate with both these feelings, caught between the worship experiences that have shaped my faith, and the heart of an evangelist who embraces any way to increase the chances someone will hear the good news of Jesus Christ.

But decisions made based on emotions are rarely the right ones. It’s important to identify HOW we will move worship online. But it’s more important to ask WHY. Our purpose for doing so is to be [Christ’s] witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). We live in a world where the marketplace, the public square, and the newsroom have all moved online, and it’s time for the church to join them.

By and large, the baseball teams who expanded their broadcasting early developed broader and more devoted fan bases than the ones who lagged behind: an impact that is still felt today, more than 60 years later. The church’s long-term ability to reach new people will be determined primarily by how well we adapt to this rapid shift in the technological landscape.

Our product isn’t ballgames, and our goal isn’t to make a profit. But we do have an abundance of hope and love, which the world desperately needs right now. And we can’t make the same mistake the baseball owners of the past made. We can’t pass up the chance to broadcast - to literally cast our nets broadly - as we fish for new disciples.

[1] Heylar, John. Lords of the Realm, 1994. p.365-66.

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