The heart’s conversation with God online
A reflection by Marianne Ejdersten, director of Communications for the World Council of Churches, Geneva, Switzerland. The article published in the Norwegian Magazine for pastors in June, 2020.
The year 2020 is a year we will always remember. The year the unimaginable happened. The year of vulnerability. The year of frustration. The year of fear. What we have read about in fiction or seen in films took place. Suddenly, the whole world was affected. Life changed overnight for you and me, for billions of people all over the world. Life took a break. Everything took a break. Society closed. Offices closed. Schools closed. Churches closed. The public purse is hae morrhaging money. The anxiety and the power of fear is crippling. The most vulnerable became even more vulnerable and exposed. The pandemic is hitting all of us hard – throughout the entire world. Being a church in a time of vulnerability is even more relevant. Being a present church. God’s presence in the world precedes everything else. It is in God that we live, touch and exist. The mission of the church is to provide space for that presence at all stages of life.
Suddenly, the world – the small and big world – moved into my living room. The global pandemic makes us all ponder life and what is important and less relevant. What matters are relationships and caring for our fellow human beings, stretching out the hand of love to our neighbour in the beautiful but fragile world we inhabit. We are one world and one humanity that must live and act together in love and care for our Creation. I am writing this after ten weeks under a state of emergency in Geneva, where I live and work.
Thank you for allowing me to share my reflections with you. I have been invited to reflect on what being a church means in the midst of the global pandemic and how churches around the world, especially the Church of Norway, have handled the situation. Millions of people visit and attend weekly online services around the world. Many of them have not visited a church in a long time but amid the pandemic, their spiritual longing has grown and they have found peace through online worship.
I have been working for the World Council of Churches since 2013 and as director of Communications since 2014, keeping track of current issues in society and life in the 350 member churches in 120 countries. The World Council of Churches works for unity, justice and peace and has existed since 1948. For the past seven years I have worked with the former general secretary, now bishop and preses (presiding bishop) Olav Fykse Tveit. My relationship with the Church of Norway started much earlier, back in 1992when I worked in Sollentuna parish, outside Stockholm, which had a very active twin parish scheme with the Nordic countries and the Baltics, in accordance with the Porvoo Common Statement. My first meeting was with the parish of Oppegård outside Oslo. When I joined the Central Church Office in Uppsala in 2003 as head of national communications, I worked very closely with our Nordic communication colleagues. The work of coordinating communication for the Assembly of the Conference of European Churches in Trondheim in 2003 gave me 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 Trondheim. Several of the Church of Sweden’s communication strategies are drawn from Norway. The idea behind the Church of Sweden’s web portal comes from the Norwegian Church Abroad in Bergen, which I had the privilege of working with and visiting 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 global pandemic.
In addition, it has a flexible team under the leadership of Acting Preses Atle Sommerfeldt, along with a well-equipped communications team headed by Ingeborg Dybvig, ready to assist the activities of the church.
Focus on the Church of Norway’s work
The Church of Norway was one of the 30 member churches in the world best equipped to transfer its activities online, meeting the requirements of both the everyday church and Sunday church.
I have a great admiration for the vital and innovative work of the Church of Norway, as well as for it switching to digital. Having attended a number of online services and taken part in online conversations, I think a major part of their success is authenticity – having the courage to be a local church. It is the local bishop or priest who welcomes their congregation to the service online; there is warmth and the sense of a personal encounter, giving rise to thoughts and instilling courage, conveying the message that you are not alone, that you are embraced by the congregation and by God. It is not technically perfect but it is genuine. Meeting each other gives rise to heartfelt joy. The priests are often very present, do not read from a piece of paper and dare to look into the camera. The services involve candlelight, icons, images and flowers as well as music, fostering spirituality and creating depth. And most importantly: it is familiar to local people. The Church of Norway’s bishops are good role models, sharing aspects of their everyday lives on social media, and their way of communicating and writing texts on their own is rather unique. I am happy to follow bishop Solveig Fiske, bishop Herborg Finnset and bishop Ann-Helen Fjeldstad-Junes on social media – they are good role models. Another role model is general secretary of the Church of Norway Council on Ecumenical and International Relations Berit Hagen-Agoy, who is a specialist in storytelling and portraying encounters in a warm and inviting way. Many church leaders in the world have a more formal style of communication that is often handled by their team, but once again it is very personal, authentic and real. I hope the bishops continue down this path that is now established. I think the secret of success is daring to be authentic and personal without being private.
Glimpses of the world
It’s time to take a look around the world, and we start in Asia: in Seoul, South Korea. Pastor Jonggoo Kim 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. They furnished a small television studio in the large church building so that it would be familiar to people. Around five people directed the Sunday service, with a reading, sermon, music and reflection. They invited people to join in a conversation in the YouTube chat, which a team moderated after the sermon. They also offered weekly Bible study, prayer groups and discussion groups. A pastoral welfare team began to make face masks, which they then sent out to everyone in the parish.
Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem told me in an interview that, for the first time ever, they were unable to hold Easter services in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. A small team of church leaders conducted services in the church and everything was broadcast live online, bringing together just over a million followers over Easter weekend.
In another interview with Orthodox Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, he underlined the importance of following the instructions of the authorities and not putting people’s lives at risk. As 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 said in his interview with me that what is important is to pray and show the solidarity of love.
The church must instill hope and courage at a time like this. In my conversation with the Archbishop about the role of churches, he said that given 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.”
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 make the transition within a couple of days, while others had much greater difficulty in finding their role. They observed three categories of churches: 1) those that live-streamed the Sunday service on the internet without making any 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 a special programme, 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.
In the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Archbishop Elpidophoros has invited people to attend online services and subsequent coffee meetings, the head of the ecumenical department Dr. Nicolas Kazarian tells me. What was important to them was to plan the liturgy in such a way that it could be recognised 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. They have mainly used Facebook and Twitter.
In Latin America, several parishes have chosen to combine live-streamed services with a few people present in the church building and a chat on WhatsApp. Everyone following the broadcast writes their name and location and who is with them in WhatsApp at the beginning of the intercession. The sermon is short and conversations with the priest are conducted on WhatsApp.
In Africa, priests and church leaders have played an extremely important role in dealing with false and misleading information and unsound theology regarding COVID-19. This has been the main threat during COVID-19, after the lack of water and food in various parts of Africa. In Africa, the best ways to reach people with the church’s message are WhatsApp and radio. Many prayer groups meet on WhatsApp. Local priests combine WhatsApp chat with sharing pre-recorded video clips of sermons and testimony.
Other parts of the world have no internet access, so instead they have had to work with church services on the radio, or sermons and prayers printed on posters outside post offices or grocery stores.
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 month. An empty St Peter’s Square, with the exception of a few journalists who reported on the video broadcast from the Pope’s library.
A friend who is a priest in a Protestant church in Italy, one of the most hard-hit countries in Europe, told me that in normal cases, 25–30 people attend 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. The role of preaching and prayer has been strengthened online. This requires greater preparation. His comment: I will be keeping my online congregation going forward.
About being a contemporary church
The church does so much good! Therein lies a challenge to us all — not to take the responsibilities entrusted to us lightly. For the sake of our fellow humans. For God’s sake. But the most important thing is that 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 had reason to consider in our time 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 in the midst of a pandemic and 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 waiting and longing to join us online. They may not be able to come to church for a variety of reasons. But they have found a home in the online activities. How do we shape the mission of being a church in 2021?
Can we combine church services and spiritual meeting places in church buildings and online?
I think that following the global pandemic, the activities of churches will move with the times because our resources will limit us. I also believe that many church websites will be redesigned so that they become more of a hub for the church in the midst of life – a church for all, a place where you can rest, a meeting place and a place in which to grow. It is important to broaden our perspectives and think locally and globally. Most 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, with a salt and a light in life that touches the heart and that invites people to engage in prayer and gain more in-depth knowledge.
I think it takes courage to seek out new avenues for the church in our time. All change is met with a certain amount of resistance and query. But we must have the courage to have faith in our mission to go out and convert everyone into disciples. How this is achieved varies from one era to another.
Courage to be a pioneer
My own development work in 2009 with my team in the Church of Sweden comes to mind. It concerned the important task ahead of the 2009 church elections to generate attention for the Church of Sweden and invite 5.6 million people to vote. The budget was 10 million Swedish kronor, and the big question was how to arouse people’s curiosity about God and the church and invite people to the church election. Together with an advertising agency, we came up with a concept that led many people to ask the question: can we really do this? Is this the right way to go? It was very challenging, and I was asked to reconsider things with my team. At this time I even received the question from a couple of bishops and a number of representatives from the management team: do you really believe in this idea? A couple of them asked me if I was prepared to leave my post if it didn’t turn out well. I answered yes to both of their questions. The controversial question was: was it possible to pray online? We launched a prayer web, and we were one of the first in the world to have one that was interactive. That was eleven years ago, and at this point it was a bold move to take the heart’s conversation with God online. Now pretty much everyone has a prayer web – despite some internal resistance in 2009. But the venture was received with immense joy by the Swedish people, the media loved it and we received over 20,000 prayers during the course of two months and visitors from 98 different countries. Bishop Eva Brunne and myself had around 200 media interviews in the space of a month. The campaign garnered a string of awards, including Gold and Grand Prix as the best interactive and digital venture of 2010 in Europe. It even resulted in a paperback featuring a selection of the prayers. What I learned from this was the value of believing in your idea, of pondering being a contemporary church and of working in a team — no person 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 that provided guidance, focusing on presence, openness and hope. Theology and communication must go hand in hand and be integrated and all-pervasive.
The World Council of Churches in the midst of the world
Finally, what role has the World Council of Churches played in the centre of all this? We have been able to carry on playing a crucial role in the work with member churches all over the world, with international Geneva and with the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is five minutes away from the Ecumenical Centre. The UN, UNICEF, ILO, UNHCR, IOM and Red Cross are all within walking distance, and all of them are close partners of the World Council of Churches. The WCC’s employees have served as advisors to the WHO on issues regarding churches and other religions— a key hub for reaching out to the global population with information. These have been incredibly intense weeks It took us just over two weeks to transform the World Council of Churches in Geneva into an online organisation, along with the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey with its Master’s students and our offices in Jerusalem, New York and Nairobi. The digital journey went incredibly smoothly, possibly because we are used to working globally and meeting online. The management team headed by the then general secretary Olav Fykse Tveit met every day on Skype, Monday to Friday at 9 am, for just over three weeks. We then chose to reduce this to twice a week, because the crisis looks set to be protracted. We chose to quickly cancel all meetings and all trips. We invested in new technology platforms. Nine members of staff have formed a panel of experts able 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. 
A dedicated web page for COVID-19 was created in four languages: English, German, French and Spanish. My own communications team works in eight different countries and from four different continents. I reorganised them from day one, and they have been divided into various groups to manage online production; materials for churches such as materials 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 very special time to be director of Communications at the World Council of Churches, when most of our organisation requires support, continued training and advice from the communications team. We have looked for support in each other’s skills sets and formed an advisory group of communications officers in different regions in different parts of the world. We will come out of this with more experience, wisdom and new, positive thoughts about being a prophetic voice. It is all about looking for new pathways and having the courage to choose and make changes. I will sum up with a few words from Sören Kierkegaard: “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”
Marianne Ejdersten, director of Communications at the World Council of Churches with its headquarters in Geneva, since 2014, former programme director of National Communications at the Church of Sweden from 2005–2013, project manager at the Swedish Bible Society from 2002–2003 and head of Information at the Church of Sweden in Sollentuna from 1995–2002.
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