Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
The plugged-in church
For dwindling rural flocks, virtual preacher could be the answer
No one available to preach the Sunday sermon? No problem.
Perhaps you could Skype in a former moderator of the United Church of Canada to speak to the assembled faithful.
"Just think how exciting it would be for (a church to have) someone experienced like David Giuliano to be Skyped in," says Gay Boese, who explores innovative uses of technology in worship for a group of rural Manitoba churches.
"It's a potential not only for churches who are struggling, but for all of us."
Having a virtual preacher may be a stretch for some congregations, but Boese and SPLOTB, the task group she works for, are all about looking at problems with fresh eyes.
Pronounced splot-bee, their name is the abbreviation for Selkirk Presbytery Thinking Outside the Box.
"We help congregations figure out what God is calling them to do," Boese says of her task group's mandate, which serves United Church congregations in the Interlake and eastern Manitoba.
"They (sometimes) cannot continue the way they are. They may have a way to continue within the community that would still be significant."
The task group was created nearly three years ago with the help of $90,000 from the former Rivercrest United Church in Middlechurch, just north of Winnipeg. The congregation decided to close and donated proceeds from the sale of their building to the SLOTB task group.
"Out of their ending came a new beginning," explains Laurie Beachell, chairman of the Selkirk Presbytery.
The presbytery has about 30 congregations in about two dozen pastoral charges, with several churches sharing a minister or only able to afford to pay a part-time salary.
"Many of these are viable in sort of a diminished capacity," explains Beachell, a longtime member of Rosser United Church.
"What can you do with a small congregation that's mostly older?"
That's the question Boese and the task group helps churches explore. Instead of closing their doors, the answer may be to use technology in some way to continue holding worship services on Sunday morning.
Whether state-of-the art or low-tech, incorporating technology might not be as difficult as some believe, says Scott Macauley, minister of Winnipeg's Sparling United Church and a consultant in ministry practices for his denomination.
"We've been afraid of technology in our church," he says, referring to the culture within the United Church of Canada.
"We've been scared of it. We haven't trusted those who are younger in our congregations to play significant leadership roles."
For the past month or so, Boese and others in the task group have led workshops in Stonewall, Selkirk and Portage la Prairie on using technology in the church. Their final workshop, titled Plugging into the Divine, runs 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. today at McKenzie United Church in Portage.
And yes, former moderator David Giuliano will be speaking to the 100 or so participants through a Skype connection from his home in Marathon, Ont., where he returned to the ministry at St. John's United Church after completing his term as moderator in 2009.
Giuliano's congregation regularly uses video clips, posts sermons on YouTube and connects with other rural congregations through digital technology. Occasionally, a congregation without a minister has hooked up with the Marathon congregation in time for Giuliano's sermon.
"Our goal is always that the technology is invisible," he says of how his congregation incorporates videos or other technology in worship.
The best advice for churches, no matter what size or location, is to see technology as just one more tool in worship, says Macauley, who plans to facilitate an online study with interested congregants during the upcoming Christian season of Advent.
"Don't limit yourself with the technology. The liturgy has been here 2,000 years. Don't decide your worship service according to the technology you have," he says.
In the end, who delivers the Sunday morning service, and how that's done isn't really the issue, says Beachell. The world has changed significantly in the last few decades, and he says the United Church of Canada may have been slow in adapting to the new reality.
"We're in a period of fairly substantial transformation for the church, for society," says Beachell.
"I think the church should be the leader in the transformation, to be true to what we're called to be."
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2012 J13
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