Web-based video conferencing is an amazing technological revolution. By that I mean surely it is my punishment for some horrible thing I must have done earlier in life. With just the press of a button we can be face to face someone across town, across the state, or across the world. And we can see the frustrated look on their face because we can’t hear them or hear the frustration in their voice because they can’t see us. Without the time and expense of travel, people can have the experience of being in the same room. That being a room filled with some sort of alien radiation that causes people to suddenly freeze while words still come out of their mouth and suddenly appear and disappear for no apparent reason. Platforms like Adobe Connect, Zoom, GoToMeeting and others can make me sound like some sort of genius from the future in front of my bosses. That is, until things go wrong and they start wondering who hired me in the first place.
The current state of video conferencing solutions available for churches (i.e. stuff that doesn’t cost the same amount as the total of your annual budget) is, well, not horrible. It’s not quite horrible and we should be using the heck out of it.
Okay, I have been a little hard on the state of video conferencing. When everything goes right, it is amazing. I have hosted and participated in some video conferences that were nothing short of technological marvels. However, I have also been on a conference where only one person could get their video to work, one participant kept dropping in and out, most were dialed in by phone and one was sending me emails because he couldn’t log on. As I see it, the main problem with video conferencing is not the technology of the host. Adobe, Vidyo, Zoom, even Skype and Google have their act together. The problem usually falls to the limitations of the participants. This is not to blame the participants. The problem is that we are not all yet on equal footing when it comes to access. Not everyone can be sitting in a conference room with dedicated fiber broadband, a 60″ display, an HD camera, and Bluetooth speaker/microphone. Most don’t even have access to a newer computer with a built-in camera and broadband access. In the new Rio Texas Annual Conference, we have some pastors and churches who don’t have any sort of internet access or computers new enough to handle video. We also have people, through no fault of their own, that don’t have the experience and comfort level with computers to engage with the technology without some serious help.
So, what do we do? We keep muddling through. With the geographic challenges of Annual Conferences (which are getting larger, not smaller) this technology is an amazing gift. We have resources spread out across hundreds of miles of Texas. And we have people who need access to resources spread over the same geography. In our old reality, our meetings together centered around the Conference office, sort of centrally located in San Antonio. That is, at least, 3 hours from our churches in San Angelo, 4 hours from our churches in Brownsville. To do the important work of the conference, this meant a limited number of meetings. The expense of a meeting in both actual costs to the conference and the non-measurable costs of the time and energy of our clergy and laity made it impractical to meet often enough. Some of this was addressed in a new conference structure that pushes much of the decision-making and work to the district level. However, even that is difficult. Some of our districts are so large that travel is still difficult. (For instance, Loredo is in the Las Misiones District. The district office for this district is in San Antonio.) Video conferencing allows meetings to be fairly close to free. The expense to the conference is small and the investment of time and energy from our clergy and laity is much less.
Now, the objection that will always be raised is the issue of the importance of physically being together. I couldn’t agree more. We need to be present together. We need to break bread together and spend time in the same room. This doesn’t take away from that. There will still be opportunities to be together. But, just like before, there will always be a limit to the number of times we can do that. Video Conferencing allows us to be together between those times and include those voices who would otherwise not be able to join us.
So, what do we do? We keep muddling through. We keep using the technology even when it is not perfect. Here are some other ideas that might help:
- We can help churches that don’t have access to computers and broadband get that access.
- Those churches who do have access can invite churches that do not to use our facilities.
- We can gather together locally to share equipment for meetings. I hope one day to host a meeting where the participants are each gathered in front of a camera with one or two other people from nearby.
- We can offer help and training to those who aren’t comfortable with the technology.
- Those who are technically inclined can offer to help churches near to them get connected.
We are in the midst of an exciting time in the life of the Church. There will be bumps in the road. However, I believe amazing things are about to happen. Hold on tight.