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From the heart - conversations with God online, and offline

From the heart - conversations with God online, and offline

Photos: Church of Norway

30 June 2020

A reflection by Marianne Ejdersten* This is a revised version of an article published for a Norwegian magazine in June, 2020.

The year 2020 is one etched forever in our memories. The unimaginable happened when a virus seized the world. Vulnerability became the norm, and fiction became a reality. Overnight life became more precious for all of us, the world’s billions. Normality took a break; frustration set in. Everything we took for granted went on hold. Society closed; F schools halted; churches sealed their doors; the haemorrhaging of money accelerated from the public purse. Anxiety and the grip of fear cripple as the most vulnerable face worsening exposure. The pandemic is hitting the world hard. So, being a church in a time of vulnerability has enormous relevance. As a present church, God’s presence in the world precedes all. It is in God that we live, feel, and exist. The mission of the church is to provide space for that presence at all of life’s stages.

Suddenly, the world – small and big -- was in my living room. The pandemic has made us ponder what is vital and what is not. Relationships and caring for our fellow human beings, matter as they stretch the neighbourly hand of love in our beautiful, fragile world. We are one world, one humanity. We must live and act together in love and care for our Creation.

I am sharing my reflections after ten weeks in Geneva under a state of emergency dubbed an “extraordinary situation” in Switzerland, where I live and work. Reflecting on the meaning of being a church during the pandemic and how churches around the world respond, the Church of Norway is one that provides a sound pointer on how to handle the situation. Millions of people attend weekly online services around the world. Many had not been in a church for a long time, but as the pandemic spread, their spiritual longing has grown, and they have found peace through online worship.

I have worked for the World Council of Churches since 2013; and as director of communications since 2014, keeping track of current issues concerning our 350 member churches in 120 countries. Since its inception in 1948, the World Council of Churches has worked for unity, justice, and peace.

Glimpses of the world

If we look around the world, an excellent place to start is in Asia. In Seoul, South Korea. Pastor Jonggoo Kim[1] is the leader of one of the largest Methodist churches in Seoul, with just over 2,000 visitors every Sunday. When the Korean government issued instructions regarding a state of emergency, the church closed and arranged services online. The church furnished a small television studio in its large building so the surroundings would be familiar to people.

Five people directed the Sunday service, with a reading, a sermon, music, and reflection. They invited people to join in a conversation in a YouTube chat, which a team moderated after the sermon.  They also offered weekly Bible study, prayer groups and discussion groups. A pastoral welfare team made face masks, sent to everyone in the parish.

In Jerusalem, Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem said in an interview[2] that, for the first time, they were unable to hold Easter services in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A small team of church leaders conducted services in the church, broadcast live online, bringing together more than a million followers over Easter weekend.

‘The power of prayer’

In another interview, Orthodox Archbishop Anastasios of Albania[3] underlined the importance of following the instructions of the authorities and not putting people’s lives at risk. He said, “We must cherish every human life as being in God’s image.” The religious leaders of Albania worked closely with the authorities from day one.  Archbishop Anastasios reminded me of the important of praying and showing the solidarity of love. The church must instill hope and courage at such a time. In my conversation with Archbishop Anastasios about the role of churches, he spoke about the choice between giving instructions, making statements, or sending pastoral letters. “Pray, the power of prayer is what we need today. Prayer gives strength and inspires hope,” he said.

In the United States, Germany, and Finland, where there is extensive experience of televised church services, a trend was observed that parishes with a long history of online activities were able to transition within a couple of days. Others had much greater difficulty in finding their role. Three categories of churches were observed:

1) those that live-streamed the Sunday service on the internet without adaptations. These were the ones without much experience of being an online church.

2) those that adapted the liturgy to suit the online setting, that took great pains to create presence and an intimate atmosphere. They made special programmes, sometimes pre-recorded.

3) those that created teams of priests, musicians, communicators, and volunteers who devised an entire concept of worship, conversation and reflection, more in-depth knowledge, and Bible study. The third category also strove to continue to take the collection online, with the aim of giving to the most vulnerable.

Coffee meetings

In the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Archbishop Elpidophoros invited people to attend online services and subsequent coffee meetings, the head of the ecumenical department Dr. Nicolas Kazarian tells me. It was important to plan the liturgy to be recognized from meetings in physical church buildings, and that it was handled with equal dignity. The Archbishop and his team have been available for continued discussions on social media using mainly tools such as Facebook and Twitter.

In Latin America, some parishes have chosen to combine hybrid live-streamed services with a few people present in the church building along with a WhatsApp chat. Those taking part in the broadcast service write their names and location and who is with them in a WhatsApp group, at the beginning of the intercession. The sermon is short and conversations with the priest are conducted on WhatsApp.

Dealing with false information

In Africa, priests and church leaders have played a vital role in dealing with false and misleading information and unsound theology regarding COVID-19. This has lingered as a threat during the COVID-19 crisis intensified by a lack of water and food in different parts of Africa. In Africa, many have found the best way to reach people with church messages is to use WhatsApp and radio. Many prayer groups meet on WhatsApp. Local priests combine WhatsApp chat, sharing pre-recorded video clips of sermons and testimony.

There are other parts of the world with no internet access, so they have had to work with church services on the radio, or sermons and prayers printed on posters outside post offices or grocery stores.

Early in the crisis, Pope Francis promptly decided to live-stream services. This also included his blessing in St Peter’s Square, which brings together hundreds of thousands of people each week. St Peter’s Square for some weeks lay empty, except for a few journalists reporting on the video broadcast from the Pope’s library.

A Protestant church priest friend in Italy, one of the hardest-hit countries by the virus in Europe, told me that in normal cases, 25–30 people turned up at his services but there are now 225–270 people attending online every Sunday. They get in touch and need to talk and receive pastoral care more often. So, the role of preaching and prayer has been strengthened online. It requires greater preparation, however. My friend commented: “I will keep my online congregation going forward.“

Norway

Pathfinding Church of Norway

The Church of Norway was a pathfinder in online worship. I began my relationship with the Church of Norway back in 1992, when I worked in Sollentuna parish, outside Stockholm. It had an active twin parish scheme with Nordic and Baltic countries, in accordance with the Porvoo Common Statement. My first meeting was with the Oppegård parish outside Oslo. When I joined the Central Church Office in Uppsala in 2003 as head of national communications, I worked closely with our Nordic communication colleagues. Work on coordinating communication for the 2003 Assembly of the Conference of European Churches in Trondheim offered an opportunity to work with the then director of Communications Dag Stange in Oslo. I made many visits to Oslo and Bergen, as well as to Trondheim. Several of the Church of Sweden’s communication strategies are drawn from Norway. The idea behind the Church of Sweden’s web portal [4]comes from the Norwegian Church Abroad in Bergen. It was a privilege working with and visiting the Bergen church many times during my time with the Church of Sweden Abroad. Online pastoral care was brought home in 2010 from Kirkens SOS in Bergen. The Church of Norway has been at the forefront with its online presence and with the Faith Learning Project for several decades. This has made the Church of Norway well equipped to deal with the current global pandemic.

Being a contemporary church

The church does so much good! And therein lies a challenge — not to take the responsibilities entrusted to us lightly. For the sake of our fellow human beings; for God’s sake. But most importantly -- we have a mission – a calling as it is described in the Lutheran tradition! A few years ago, we celebrated the Reformation, which began 500 years ago. Once again, we have reason to consider what it means to be an Evangelical-Lutheran church, in fellowship with other Lutheran churches throughout the world and in our ecumenical relationship with other Christian churches.  It is now time to reflect on being a church during the pandemic and to consider how we operate as a church, now and in the future.  The interim activities with online congregations cannot be shelved, and we cannot go back to simply holding services in our beautiful church buildings when there are thousands upon thousands of souls longing to join us online. They may not be able to come to church for a variety of reasons. But they have found an online home.  So, how do we shape the mission of being a church in 2021?

Can spiritual meeting places and services combine using church buildings and online?

Following the global pandemic, I think the activities of churches will move with the times due to our limited resources. I also believe that many church websites will be redesigned. That will empower them to become more of a church hub at the centre of life – a church for all, a resting place, a meeting venue, and a haven in which to grow. It is important to broaden our perspectives while thinking locally, and globally. Notably, many Lutheran churches have more institutional websites where they offer services such as baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals. I believe in a more vibrant online church that generates curiosity in God and the church, a down to earth church which touches the heart and that invites people to engage in prayer and learn more about their faith.

In such times, it takes courage for the church to seeks new paths. Change often meets resistance and questioning. But we must build courage to sustain faith in our mission, to go out and convert everyone into disciples. How this is achieved varies in each era.

Courage to be a pioneer

My own development work with Church of Sweden team in 2009 comes to mind. It concerned the 2009 church elections, a vital task, to generate attention for the Church of Sweden and invite 5.6 million people eligible to vote.  The budget was 10 million Swedish kronor. The big question was how to arouse people’s curiosity about God and the church and to invite people to the church election. Working with an advertising agency, we came up with a concept that led people to ask the question[5]: can we really do this? Is this the right way to go? It was challenging, and I was asked to evaluate the messages with my team. I received a searching question from a couple of bishops and some representatives from the management team: do you really believe in this idea? A couple of them asked an even tougher question. Was I prepared to leave my post if it didn’t turn out well? I answered yes to both of their questions. The controversial question: is it possible to pray online? We launched a prayer web, and our church was one of the world’s first with interactive prayer.

Conversation with God online

That was eleven years ago, and then it was a bold move to take the heart’s conversation with God online. Now almost everyone has a prayer web – despite some internal resistance in 2009. You’re never a prophet in your own hometown, as the Bible says. But the venture was accepted with immense joy by the Swedish people, the media loved it and we received over 20,000 prayers in two months and visitors from 98 different countries. Bishop Eva Brunne and I had around 200 media interviews in a month. The campaign garnered a string of awards, including the Gold and Grand Prix as the best interactive and digital venture of 2010 in Europe. It was followed by a paperback book featuring a selection of the prayers.  From this I learned the value of believing in one’s ideas, of pondering being a contemporary church and of working in a team for no one is an island. It is important to follow the existing policies and guidelines. The Central Board of the Church of Sweden established a communication platform in 2004 with guidance focusing on presence, openness, and hope. Theology and communication must go hand, integrated and all-pervasive.

The World Council of Churches at the heart of this world

Finally, what role has the World Council of Churches played? We have continued to play a crucial role working with member churches all over the world, [6]with international Geneva and with the World Health Organization (WHO), five minutes from the Ecumenical Centre. The UN, UNICEF, ILO, UNHCR, IOM and Red Cross are all within walking distance, and all are close partners of the WCC. The WCC’s employees have served as advisors to the WHO on issues regarding churches and other religions. It has acted as a hub for reaching out to the global population with vital information. These have been intense weeks. It took just over two weeks to transform the WCC in Geneva into an online organization, along with the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey with its Masters’ students and our Jerusalem, New York, and Nairobi offices.  The digital journey went smoothly, possibly because we are used to working globally and meeting online. For three weeks, the management team headed by the then general secretary Olav Fykse Tveit met every day on Skype, Monday to Friday at 9 a.m. We then trimmed this to twice a week. We chose to quickly cancel meetings and trips. We invested in new technology platforms.  Nine members of staff have formed a panel of experts to provide member churches with advice on theology, collaboration, gender, children and young people and pastoral welfare. Pastoral letters were sent out to all churches ahead of Easter weekend about praying at home. [7]

A dedicated web page for COVID-19 [8]was created in four languages: English, German, French and Spanish. My communications team works in eight countries, and from four continents. I reorganized them from day one, and they have been divided into different groups to manage online production; materials for churches such as those for Bible study and more in-depth knowledge; strategies and support; and to file all the good suggestions from around the world. Demand for information, communication and advice has been high. It has been a special time to be WCC Director of Communications, when most of our organization requires support, ongoing training, and advice from the communications team. We have sought support in each other’s skills sets and formed an advisory group of communications officers in regions in different parts of the world. We will emerge with more experience, wisdom, and new, positive thoughts about being a prophetic voice. We are focused on searching for new pathways and having the courage to choose and make changes. Sören Kierkegaard’s words sum up: “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”

* Marianne Ejdersten is, since 2014, Director of Communications at the World Council of Churches with its headquarters in Geneva. She is former Programme Director of National Communications at the Church of Sweden (2005–2013), project manager at the Swedish Bible Society (2002–2003) and was head of Information at the Church of Sweden in Sollentuna (1995–2002).


[1] https://www.oikoumene.org/en/press-centre/news/webinar-draws-lively-global-audience-seeking-how-to-be-the-church-when-buildings-are-closed

[2] https://www.oikoumene.org/en/press-centre/news/wcc-questions-posed-to-his-most-godly-beatitude-patriarch-theophilus-iii-of-jerusalem

[3] https://www.oikoumene.org/en/press-centre/news/archbishop-anastasios-let-us-transmit-from-heart-to-heart-the-light-of-hope-1

[4] https://www.svenskakyrkan.se/

[5] https://forsman.co/work/church-of-sweden/campaign-for-prayers

[6] https://www.oikoumene.org/en/press-centre/news/one-human-family-wcc-publishes-its-annual-review-2019

[7] https://www.oikoumene.org/en/press-centre/news/wcc-urges-give-highest-priority-to-protect-life

[8] https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/covid-19

Links:

"Hjärtats samtal med Gud på nätet En reflection" - article in Swedish

"From the heart - conversations with God online, and offline. A reflection by Marianne Ejdersten, Director of Communications for the World Council of Churches, Geneva, Switzerland, Norwegian version published in June, 2020