In March of 2020, without any warning, the American workforce changed forever. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of employers big and small shifted in great numbers to remote work environments. Over 42 percent of the workforce gave the term “home office” a new meaning, and a new “work-from-home” economy was born. For a few brief, shining months, it looked like this could be a stable, sustainable fix. Perhaps this was simply the inevitable future of work, economists suggested, arriving a few years earlier than we thought.
March went by in a flash, and April barely registered as time’s narrow tunnel took on the warped, LCD glow of our screens. Workflow structures and efficiency metrics built in a hurry and meant to weather a brief emergency groaned as weeks turned into months. Optimistic headlines turned gloomy as the pandemic dragged on. By June, more than 51 percent of newly minted work-from-home employees were already feeling burnt out and adrift, according to a Monster.com survey. Economic precarity only exacerbated the problem, as employees admitted they were afraid to take time off and national unemployment numbers seemed to have boarded an elevator with no top floor.
Church communities felt many of these same strains. The awkward charm of watching a preaching pastor fiddle between his screens and adjust his smartphone carried some novelty, at least at first, and we wondered if maybe there really was a way to be, as the saying went, “alone, together.” Parishioners also felt a wider kinship with some other churchgoers who were previously on the margins, parishioners such as those with limited mobility or the immunocompromised.
Then came the disillusion. There were Twitter spats over the theological implications of feeding yourself communion next to your laptop in the living room. Video chats grew fraught with anxiety as we tired of watching ourselves, aged by the stress of an unprecedented time, growing older in real time. Watching worship began to feel less sacred, and more spectacle. Church and work took place in a single physical space — the screen — with barely a toggle between them. One could hardly blame viewers (formerly known as worshipers) if they felt that work and church had become one in one the same exhausting, never-ending, isolating transaction.
It’s a feeling perhaps best understood, not by tech gurus, cultural forecasters, or solutions engineers, but by those who worked remotely before the pandemic. For the work-from-home-as-a-way-of-life crowd, watching churches try to adapt in a hurry to a wholly digital way of living in community identified who church had always been for, as well as who had been long left out. It also, some say, created opportunities for positive change.
One such person is Jessica Fralin, a professional writer and business owner who has worked remotely in Nashville, a creative freelancer’s haven, for the past five years. Fralin, a longtime attendee of Legacy Nashville, says she feels her church has done a good job of cultivating authentic community even in the time of social distancing — speculating that, maybe, Legacy was well-prepared because of the large amount of freelancers and touring musicians it already attracts.
As Fralin points out, working remotely and attending church remotely are very different things.
“Remote work is much more interactive,” she says, citing frequent “check-ins” and virtual meetings and phone calls that keep her in touch with clients. “Online church often feels like it lacks community, and can be very isolating.”
As church members marched through ad hoc digital experiences like Facebook Live and small group “Zooms,” a peculiar theme began to emerge. While the content of church was there — Bible lessons, a sermon, communal prayer — the essence of meeting as a church body was not.
Pastor Tommy Welty, who leads Inland Hills Community Church in Inland, California, was ready for some bumps in the road during his first full year back in the United States after pastoring overseas.
“I’ve always figured that [pastoral] ministry was one part Bible exposition, another part leadership and public speaking, another part janitorial services, another administration, another caring for people, and another genuflecting in the prayer closet. I never imagined it would also be cable-access television producing,” Welty says.
Prior to restrictions, Welty’s congregation wasn’t exactly geared toward the remote church experience.
“We had and have no specific outreach to remote workers. Our congregation is made up primarily of realtors, retirees, and military/military contractors,” he says, noting that most of the Inland community at-large falls into the same categories. Learning to tailor his pastoring style to these specific needs amidst the coronavirus pandemic was less like a speed bump and more like a total paradigm shift — and it was exhausting.
For two and a half months, Welty did a daily lunchtime video for his congregants. Working through the book of 1 Peter, Welty hoped to grow his people’s understanding of what it means to live as Christians in exile — since COVID-19 was already breeding a feeling of exile and disconnection. Summing up the experience, Welty says it’s been difficult.
“I hate ministering to my phone, and I miss hospital visits and laying hands on folks to pray,” he says.
The pandemic brought with it a host of challenges to which churches like Welty’s needed to adapt. Perhaps most, if not all, of those challenges can be summed up with one word: “embodiment.” As regulations and declarations were issued in spades by government leaders, pastors and church workers scrambled to enact solutions. These solutions came in the form of innovations previously tucked in the realm of tech companies and health care professionals, as church leaders sought to bring the experience of the embodied church into a sanitized, digital sphere.
A software developer for an educational technology company named Joel Carter knows well the routine of trying to recreate an embodied experience with wire and plastic. Carter has been working remotely from his home in Niceville, Florida, for several years, and his church was one of the last spaces where he routinely experienced face-to-face interaction. It was a situation many remote workers faced, which makes the loss of weekly meetings in person sting all the more.
“As a remote worker, what you miss is the common, humanizing interactions with coworkers the way you would in an office setting. What’s sad about working remotely is that you often miss out on those things. What’s good about working remotely is that with the extra time it affords, you can replace those things with a community that you decide to be part of instead of one that’s just thrust upon you by virtue of where you obtain a paycheck,” Carter says.
He also observes, “That’s where the church is more important to remote workers — because what they lack in the communal interactions through work, they make up for in the church communities that they choose to be part of.”
Working remotely, Carter says, was initially a decision he made to combat what he describes as the “unsustainability” of the American lifestyle. As partners at management consulting firm McKinsey have already noted, it’s an attitude that will only become more widespread after pandemic restrictions have eased. According to Gallup poll data collected in May, three out of five U.S. workers who worked from home during the pandemic stated that they would like to continue the arrangement going forward.
Home-based work has been significantly on the rise since at least 2013, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report. Some analysts estimate that as much as eight percent of the U.S. workforce was already working from home even before the pandemic hit.
With a possible recession on the horizon, some big companies are already moving to cut costs by making work-from-home recommendations permanent. NBC’s famous 30 Rock office space in Rockefeller Center will stand mostly empty until January 2021. Macy’s and Airbnb are also subleasing significant office space that they no longer plan to occupy — though it’s unclear who, exactly, is going to want it. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has taken the unprecedented step of offering employees a full-time work-from-home arrangement until Summer 2021 — a full year away.
Despite the growing work-from-home demographic, there remains a dearth of discipleship opportunities geared toward meeting the needs of this population. While Christian coffeeshops-cum-hip-church-event-landing-pads abound, regular check-ins and opportunities for structured discipleship for creatives and the self-employed prove to be more of a challenge. And this unmet need of discipleship for freelance and remote working congregants was made blatantly obvious as church staff hurried to make church work for a congregation that moved suddenly online.
“I love all the teaching work but I wish I was doing more life work with folks,” Welty says. Over the course of the pandemic, he course-corrected, noting that now he limits the amount of video conferencing that the church does and tries to keep it to phone calls and text whenever possible as a way to help people who were growing “exhausted” by Zoom.
Broadcast tools, such as those developed by TVU Networks, were first envisioned with livecasting sports events, conferences, and concert experiences in mind. Jared Timmins, the senior vice president of solutions at TVU, says that TVU quickly found themselves broadening their offerings to adapt to support houses of worship during the pandemic. TVU’s simple, user-friendly production tools and broadcast-quality video conferencing made it possible for church leaders to blend together a single church service experience from multiple broadcast locations (or just a couple of dispersed living rooms).
At the same time, Timmins says that TVU also came to understand that simply distributing video was no substitute for an actual church service. Missing audience cues, such as laughter or applause, made the act of leading worship disorienting for pastors even as they adapted to the one-touch broadcast technology.
Community components, like live chat and feedback tools, were equally essential. Because church isn’t remote work, simply adapting the tools of remote work to church was not enough. TVU reacted by building dynamic ways of giving audience feedback into their church livecasting products, and has been dedicated to continuing to make updates.
So what’s the right way to create community inside of a pandemic? Fralin says innovation is key. “I don’t know if there is [one right] way. But I do know that personal connection is super important. Impersonal meetings totally miss the point.”
As a five-year veteran of remote work myself, it’s been interesting to watch as the whole world finally began to adapt to what I see as “my” way of life. At first, it seemed like streaming “church” through my WiFi would be a welcome change to my routine of struggling to cart two young children to a service over an hour away, usually by myself and after a string of work benders that had kept me up all night for days on end.
But as I opened up the app to watch a children’s service on Easter Sunday, I felt a profound sense of loss. What I gained from working remotely was freedom to invest with intention in my children (something many nine-to-five working parents can pull off, but I could not), to meditate in my quiet moments whenever they appeared, and to spend long, languid afternoons sharing about Jesus to a friend on the phone. These gains, when confined and consolidated in a setting apart from meeting together with a church, felt cheapened.
Perhaps the rush to move church online using only the tools of remote work simply reveals a misunderstanding about the nature of what a church service should be. As Fralin points out, “Without community, it’s just theology in your living room.” Indeed, hurrying to recreate some version of normalcy online left some church members feeling like there wasn’t room to grieve the weight of the catastrophe that forced us here in the first place.
After weeks of volunteering to preach video sermons and contributing video devotions for his church throughout the pandemic, Joel Carter has spent a significant amount of time thinking about what it means to be a “remote church.”
“I don’t think the pandemic forced the church to catch up to the remote workforce, but I think it did force them to grapple with the existential question of, ‘What are we beyond just a Sunday gathering?’ There’s really two possible answers to that question. Either ‘nothing’ or ‘so much more.’”
As church leaders attempt to move forward, pastors are indeed reckoning with this question, as well as many others. In the absence of clear guidance about prudence and necessity in the midst of a pandemic, there are few easy answers.
Some churches, like Welty’s, are planning to create small discipleship “pods” of only a handful of members that recreate the intimacy of gathering together, while mitigating risk. As Welty counts the costs of this and other decisions, he’s also making moves towards sharing the burden. “I imagine we’ll continue our live-streaming services and midweek events indefinitely. Which means I’ll need to equip more people to join me.”
The struggle of soulful communion with other believers while we live inside of our bodies is not new, but it has been made newly difficult. Our bodies, carriers for sin and shame, are now also the vessels of an unknown and terrifying new disease. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, being a vector of spread has taken on an elevated social and political component. Between the mask-wars, raging conspiracy theories, and elected officials throwing all their energy into making the most out of a good crisis, we need the church to feel embodied as much as ever.
“Living room theology” isn’t going to cut it, especially not in times like these.
Carter sees this moment as a learning opportunity for churches. “Remote ministry can be a fantastic opportunity for the church to reevaluate how they minister to people who may have otherwise been on the fringes of the community and whose ministry needs would otherwise die in silence, such as the immunocompromised who are forced to stay home even with no pandemic and those whose job schedules preclude them from attending the big Sunday event, etc. In that respect, I think it’s a real win for the marginalized communities and I hope that continues to improve for their sake.”
Technology certainly has its place in building relationships between church members, but it’s worth taking the time to really understand what these tools contribute to relationships. Remote workers have used these tools as a way to enhance their efficiency and make their “real lives” more fulfilling. Churches would be remiss not to take the lesson.
“With whatever degree of normalcy we return to (if any), I hope that the church doesn’t just rush back to recreate what was already there, but views this as an opportunity, when everything that it held so dearly was burned to the ground, to rebuild a more sustainable faith,” Carter says.