Thursday, March 21, 2024

Rural Canadian Churches Connect Through Innovative Tech-Powered Network

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Volunteer working on the vMix computer to develop resources to be used for worship/Contributed

Challenges faced by rural congregations everywhere can be particularly extreme in Canada, where isolation takes on a robust meaning in one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries.

But in the wake of the pandemic, far-flung flocks of the United Church of Canada are connecting with one another in ways previously unimaginable. Technology is closing gaps between people of faith, even where infrastructure is still spotty.

The United Church’s Rural Connect program began as one “hub” congregation connecting with three satellites for virtual participatory worship in 2020. Now 12 hubs link upwards of 30 satellite congregations. Two more hubs are approved, funded and in development.  

“We live in societies of angry people these days,” said George Bott, an 80-year-old member of a hub church in Marathon, Ont. and an advisor to Rural Connect. “Part of this problem is that we’ve forgotten how to be with one another. Doing what we do right now [in Rural Connect] gives us a chance to model what being together is like. We hold ourselves as models in how we talk to one another, relate online and find ways to problem solve.”

Reimagining Sunday Worship Through Collaborative Technology

George Bott

Rural Connect’s hub-and-spokes clusters dot the landscape from Quebec to Vancouver Island. Participants no longer have to worry how they’ll do worship week to week without a pastor. And they’re building bonds with kin in faith despite long, desolate distances between them.

“The real issue that we’re trying to address is to get churches out of their silos and cooperating with each other,” said Randy Boyd, a retired pastor and educator who served as facilitator of Rural Connect until January. “We’re trying to say that there’s this technological revolution that the churches can use to start doing ministry in a different way.”

Worship still involves showing up at one’s local church on Sunday mornings, but what happens there has been reimagined. Worshippers at one outpost now might provide the day’s prayers; a church 50 kilometers away might give the sermon; a third church might offer a children’s moment or a musical piece from its handbell choir. The hub organizes each service so that all parts are covered. No one is there to watch a show created somewhere else. Everyone is a co-creator as well as an appreciator.

No Pastor, Tech Skills or Internet Required

Equipment used to connect hub churches in Canada/Contributed

What makes Rural Connect so remarkable is what congregations are able to do without. These remote churches don’t need a pastor — ever. That’s a big relief because most don’t have one and couldn’t successfully recruit one if they wanted to. Bringing in supply clergy to lead worship has little appeal due to the hefty costs. Having to pay more than $1,000 (CDN) per Sunday isn’t unusual after covering the cleric’s long-distance travel, lodging, meals and $232 (CDN) fee for leading worship, according to Bott. Not having those expenses frees churches to use funds more strategically.

They also don’t need anyone in the local church to be even slightly tech-savvy. The equipment is so easy that it’s just like using a TV remote control. It all comes in a black box that just needs to be plugged in.

Perhaps most remarkable: they don’t even need an Internet connection. The box comes equipped with a cellular modem. That means if they can make a cell phone call from the church, then they can download and upload all the video and audio they need for worship. It’s transmitted wirelessly to the hub, where it’s sent with no perceptible delay to the other satellite sites. It’s like a four-way call.

There’s a catch, of course, but it’s proving navigable in many rural settings. The system depends on having a control room to anchor the operation at the hub church. It’s equipped with multiple monitors, switchers and gadgets.

Equipment for outfitting a hub and its satellites costs about $30,000 (CDN) altogether, which can be financed through a loan from the United Church of Canada. Hub churches may collect rent on the boxes (e.g., $125 CDN), use the rental fees to pay back the loan over five to seven years, and then continue collecting rent as a hub income stream.

All told, participating satellites typically pay an estimated $195 CDN per week to participate, which is less than the $232 fee (not including travel) charged by ordained United Church supply preachers for one worship service.

For the money, they get a better setup than Zoom, which doesn’t transmit music well. Each site in the cluster gets three cameras, high-quality sound and minimal latency, which makes for a smooth, visually interesting experience.

Technological Connections Foster Spiritual Vitality

The feat of networking all these remote congregations isn’t just a technological victory. It’s also a spiritual one. Congregations with advanced tech tend to experience higher levels of spiritual vitality and greater optimism about the church’s future than those with low tech, according to a joint report from Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations and Faith Communities today.

“This correlation between being high-tech and being vital and highly optimistic could indicate that using several forms of technology has helped congregations through the pandemic and aided in their efforts to stay in contact with their people over the last three years,” the EPIC-FACT joint report reads.

As the United Church of Canada is showing, keeping the faithful connected can mean transcending congregational boundaries. It also means no one has to create programming or lead religious life alone anymore. That’s good news for pastors and laypeople who might feel overwhelmed, either by the task of post-pandemic rebuilding or by hybrid demands to be present both in person and online.

“When you get to a place where you’re asking the question: how can I do it all? Ask a different question. Ask: who can I do this with?,” Boyd said. “Because with the technology we have, there’s no reason that you have to do anything alone. There’s no project, no ministry, no study group, no anything that you can’t do with somebody else… Why not embrace some technology and start working together?”

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a freelance religion reporter, UCC pastor, church educator and author. His reporting clients include the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, which runs the EPIC project.