Early in the pandemic, St. Philip’s, Buffalo began holding services online as a way to gather while COVID-19 made it unsafe to be together in person. Now, what began as a short-term solution has become a long-term commitment to a new way of worshipping. The congregation has transformed its space, installing technology that will allow in-person and online attendees to worship together as a single congregation once pandemic restrictions have been lifted.
“Online worship has been so well received,” says the Rev. Stephen Lane, St. Philip’s priest-in-charge. “We have out-of-town people on a regular basis and we have homebound people that have reconnected with us. Our Sunday attendance is up and our giving is up. And we are not going to let it go.”
The St. Philip’s vestry came up with a plan to prepare their church building for hybrid worship. “We’re putting up three big screens, multiple cameras and multiple microphones,” says Lane. “The people that are in the church will be able to see the people on Zoom and the people on Zoom will be able to see the people in the church.” Readers will include both those present in-person as well as those attending online.
The vestry approved a $25,000 budget for the project, which accounts for almost 10% of the congregation’s annual budget. “And there was no dissent,” says Lane. “This is one of the big opportunities that COVID has given us. You don’t have to come to the building to be part of our congregation.”
When the congregation started the process of soliciting bids to complete the work, it was difficult to explain that it was not simple “live streaming” they were interested in, but a setup that would allow for full participation. “We’re not going to compete with the National Cathedral’s live streaming services,” says Lane. “This is something different.”
Early in the pandemic, St. Philip’s started its experiment with online worship by holding evening prayer twice a week. It quickly became apparent members wanted to gather more often, so the congregation now meets online for evening prayer five nights a week. “We get to know people’s challenges and their joys because we share them in the intercessions,” says Lane. “It’s become an important part of my life.”
On Sunday mornings, the congregation is committed to allowing for as much interactivity as possible. “I have about 30 different people that participate and do one of the readings,” says Lane. “We break everything up. Rather than just going online and watching someone else do worship, they’re doing worship together. And that seems to be the key that really matters to people.”
Lane uses resources available online as his building blocks for services. The free PowerPoint presentations published by Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition provide the “rhythm of the service,” says Lane. Additionally, he draws weekly Prayers of the People from Rite Planning. The congregation hires a musician to play piano and sing live during the service. This slide-based format has been so well received that it too will carry over into hybrid worship.
Ultimately, the congregation dreams of constructing a new building designed specifically for hybrid worship and other events. “St. Philip’s is in its third second-hand church,” says Lane. “They’ve never had their own building. Picture theater in the round, but one half is screens and the other half is chairs. This is a historically Black church that is intentional about saying ‘Yeah, we’re ready to be multicultural. Are you?’ Imagine a new multi-cultural center for the partnership designed to bring us together in a new way.”
Find links to St. Philip’s online worship on the congregation’s website.