Has COVID been a crucible for more digital and virtual engagement by churches? Or will that fade into memory once the pandemic no longer shapes our every expression?
Daily COVID devotionals
Rev. Ric Shewell is a United Methodist pastor in Portland, Oregon. Since the pandemic began, Ric has been streaming weekday devotionals for his church (Christ Church) from his back patio. No commute for anyone, and about 12-15 minutes a day of greetings, bible reading and commentary, and prayer.
I remember seeing him starting those and thinking “goodness who would want to commit to that amount of time?” But Ric loves Jesus more than me, and he has kept them up all these weeks.
Let’s do the math. It’s been almost 60 weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ric streams five times a week. Doing the math, Ric has led 70 hours of devotionals on scripture for his congregation. Wow. That’s an amazing gift of inspiration to his congregation.
But it’s also been a craft for him to get more comfortable in a virtual space. Watching his most recent stream, there were no ummms or uncertainty or tech problems, and Ric flowed with the live comments, greeted people by name, it was great! Looked effortless and comfortable. Almost as if he has been doing 70 hours of it the past year.
I wonder if there’s something here: is leading in virtual space a craft that all of us have had an intensive on this year? And why does that matter when we consider the mission fields of our churches?
10,000 Hours for the Beatles…
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: the Story of Success, reflects on the 10,000 hour rule: do something for 10,000 hours and you should be really good at it. It sounds obvious but there is a particular form that this takes.
Gladwell lifts up the Beatles as an example. The British sensation was performing together for 7 years before their breakout successes of the White Album and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club. Again, it sounds obvious they had a lot of play time, but the actual history shows they had a unique experience together in the 1960s.
A few runs of their early shows were in strip clubs in Hamburg, Germany. The arrangement was the bands would play for all evening until late night to…um, entertain the varied clientele as they arrived and left. So the bands would play for 6-8 hours a day.
John Lennon is quoted in the book as saying
“We got better and got more confidence. We couldn’t help it with the experience of playing all night long. In Liverpool, we would play one hour sets, only our hits. In Hamburg, we had to play for 8 hours, so we had to find a new way of playing.”
They played 270 nights like that between 1960 and 1962. Including their 6 years of off and on gigs in the years prior, by the time they reached breakout success in 1964, they had played live 1,200 times. 1,200!!
Gladwell concludes: “The Hamburg crucible is one of the things that set them apart…They were not very good on stage when they went there, but when they came back, they sounded like no one else.”
10,000 hours of exposure is not enough—intensity matters too, and the intensity of Hamburg turned the Beatles into the sensation we know today.
…equals 10,000 Hours on Zoom?
I wonder how this past year of the pandemic will impact pastors and virtual engagement going forward because of how much we are on Zoom and leading virtual experiences. Can the sheer amount of involvement lead to better engagement and experience? Can we get better by sheer exposure because all of our craft is now in a virtual medium?
Earlier in the winter in preparation for this post, I kept a tally to see how many hours I spent on camera during a week, either preaching, teaching, or leading zoom meetings. Over three weeks, my weekly average was that I was leading on camera for 16 hours a week (not including the conversations I was attending but wasn’t in charge of—participating isn’t the same as leading). As we approach 60 weeks of the pandemic, I’ve probably reached 960 hours on camera. By Pentecost, I will have easily crossed over 1,000 hours of preaching, teaching, and virtual leadership during COVID. Many of you are likely in similar circumstances when you do the math, and virtual teachers are far and away higher than that.
1,000 hours over 15 months. That’s unfathomable to do something that much in such an intense amount of time. What can churches do with this?
Preachers and teachers have many skills that come from decades of their craft. But I wonder if this past year has been a crucible for this type of learning in ways that other types of ministry experience are distant seconds in intensity.
For example, looking back at my first sermons in my Google drive circa 2006, I really didn’t really start giving decent sermons until my fourth year of preaching (others would say much later! 😆 ). Let’s do the same as above: measuring the performance rather than the preparation. For my first three years, I was preaching 20 minutes a week, with some occasional special services or funerals. So each year, I was actually preaching only 20 hours. To reach 1000 hours at this rate would take 50 years.
In the last 15 months, I’ve done more virtual leadership than all the hours of my 15 years of preaching combined. And you likely have gotten a similar amount if you start counting the hours too.
What will we do with it?
I know we are all looking forward to being back in person all the time, but to let this crucible-formed craft fall by the wayside would be such a loss, not only for pastor’s crafts but congregations as well.
Pastor Ric said to me regarding his daily devotionals:
“I think of it all as a new kind of monasticism. And every morning, our community gathers for morning prayer. We’re so practiced now, it feels as natural as putting on a pot of coffee every morning…I don’t know when or if we’ll put this practice down.”
These times of intensity and change need to stick with us because we need to live out the gifts of this season even as we have endured the tragedies.
When the Beatles came back from their marathon Hamburg gigs, their hours and days of playing together gave them a breadth of music exposure and a depth of awareness of each other in a live context that was formative. Were they gifted and talented? Of course. But they were also experienced in ways that other bands were not just by the sheer amount of time they spent in their crucible years of playing live music together.
So I wonder if churches and ministry leaders will take advantage of this gift of intense experience they’ve been given of leading virtual ministry in all its forms: preaching, teaching, conversation, and leadership. May we use this crucible to create something, rather than let it cool down and forget it.
Questions for reflection:
- How are you moving in virtual space differently now than you were when the COVID-19 pandemic began?
- What have you noticed about your presence online now as opposed to back then?
- Do a similar inventory: how many hours a week are you teaching, preaching, or leading? Multiply that as an average—that’s how many hours you’ve been immersed in a new mission field of virtual ministry. No wonder you are learning the language! Post in the comments!
- What ministries will continue to be virtual even when (if ever) we are 100% back in person again?
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Thank you! Even when we’re back to «normal» we should continue to develope online church activities. I’d like the church to offer online communion when and where people want it/feel the need for it. Pastors / congregations should publish a short communion liturgi for download. We must leave the «hocus pocus theology» insisting that communion is not valid online, or at best only «live» online. At what point/time do the words of institution loose their power….?
I do enjoy falling into the routine of something familiar – when I don’t have to guess if the special music will be before the scripture or after, or after the message. I got that way with our order of service in Zoom. I also enjoyed sitting down at my home desk with a cup of coffee and starting, as opposed to a zillion people with a zillion questions 2-seconds before worship begins (impossible numbers since we worship at about 30).
As we’ve returned to in-person and pledge to continue online, I’ve invested in hardware to do so. We’re also in the awkward stage with occasional technical blips and pastor skipping things unintentionally.
It seems 10,000 hours of practice is a luxury of a world gone by. Today’s world changes in the blink of an eye and our prime directives change with it. Perhaps there can be something holy in only having our lamps half-filled.
Tim Vermande - Webmaster, UM Disability Ministries
As y’all discuss continuing virtual offerings, please keep in mind that they offer an opportunity for people with disabilities who find it a continuing challenge to participate in situations governed by transportation, energy levels, building access, and host of other ableist assumptions.