Online Church is Exhausting

A worldwide pandemic, forcing self-quarantining, has forced the church to consider the important elements of church life and wrestle through a season of online church while missing and longing for in person gatherings. I would like to offer some observations in regard to “online church.” Some of these are musings. Others of them may likely be convictions. None of them are substantiated by any significant studies. So in essence, I’m probably acknowledging questions more than making statements, although I will offer them as statements.

I have had the opportunity, maybe the disappointing responsibility, to have a large number of video calls (Zoom calls) in the past month. I had a doctoral class meet for three days in which I sat in front of a computer for nearly 8 hours a day in a video class of 6 people. A number of pastor groups have wanted to connect to think through how each of them are navigating church in this unusual time. We’ve hosted numerous prayer meetings and after church lobbies through Zoom over the past few weeks. The leadership team has met via Zoom each Sunday evening. As well, I’ve simply scheduled personal meetings by means of Zoom. As a result, I’ve found myself weary of online video meetings and longing for in person interaction.

Maybe you’ve experienced some of the same things.

  1. You see yourself throughout the conversation. Not all churches have implemented online video meetings, but many have. While I’ve just lately come to realize you can remove your own video from the screen, most people likely find themselves acutely aware of their own video feed. We likely wonder about the background others see, that poorly placed blanket strewn over the couch, a pile of clothes in the corner, or maybe you’ve just labored long and hard over a creative background so you can simply erase the image of your room. As well, you’re significantly more aware of your own facial expressions. We fidget in our seats as we become aware of facial expressions and blemishes. We maneuver ourselves in order to offer the most gracious and flattering perspective. In normal conversations we don’t wrestle with these innocuous realities. We primarily focus on the other participants in the discussion.
  2. The faces of an entire group stare back at you. In typical conversations or meetings, we typically focus on one face at a time. Maybe a couple of conversations are going on simultaneous and various people look in various directions. On video calls, you’re forced to stare at everyone’s face the entire time. Instead of reading one person’s facial expressions, you catch yourself trying to read the facial expressions of everyone present in the meeting. You may be even relieved when a couple of people simply put up their generic picture for their screen – one less person to try to read.
  3. Varied backgrounds distract from the content of the discussion. Typically when we talk with one another, we share the same physical space. We stand or sit in the same room, often a familiar room. Yet, in group video calls, we are all ushered into each other’s homes or office spaces. We begin to be distracted by the different photos on walls or children running by or animals crawling on shoulders. Our visual senses are overwhelmed with all the additional and unnecessary backdrops.
  4. We leave the meeting having sensed presence without substance. We leave thinking we were together while knowing that we really weren’t. While meeting with a group of people has helped in the midst of self-isolation, these video meetings do not offer the same social fulfillment as in person interaction. I’m left missing something. I’m not exactly sure what I’m missing, but I still long to see people in real life, to shake hands, to offer hugs, to see their faces in person, to hear their voices unhindered by internet static and feedback.
  5. We present a façade on camera. I don’t use the word façade in a condemning way or in order to imply hypocrisy. Yet, if you’re like me, I know that my condition during most video calls is far from what I would allow for myself if I were in public. Regularly I’ve been in pajama bottoms or shorts with a more appropriate top. I’ve often succumbed to the temptation to avoid a shower until later in the day, if not the next day. Sometimes, I’ve nearly forgotten to jump on a meeting and race to comb my hair – at least a little. I doubt anyone cares. And, if you do care, I don’t really care that you care.
  6. The natural flow of conversation and cross talk are cut off. Typically, within any group of people, participants engage multiple conversations at once. We as well tend to talk over each other and interrupt one another. Maybe this is rude. We may even need to grow in this area. But, video calls can really only allow for one person within the whole group talking at a time and everyone’s attention is then drawn to that one person. In these meetings there is a lot of “no – you go. Sorry, no – you go.” While there may be some value in developing this in real life meetings, in video meetings this is often clunky and awkward.
  7. We really don’t need additional screen time. Our lives are already consumed with more screen time than our eyes should handle. Within this time of isolation, we likely are consuming inordinate amounts of screen time. I really am looking forward to looking at someone in the face without that being by means of a screen.
  8. We are forced to engage everyone when we’re used to only engaging a select few. This has advantages but is likely exhausting. When we walk into a room with a significant number of people, we tend to gravitate to the people with which we are most comfortable. That may often result in cliques, but that’s really not the point in this conversation. In an online meeting, you are forced to face and potentially engage everyone, those with whom you are comfortable and those with whom you are not. I actually think this may end up being an advantage that comes from this period, but this reality does produce a certain level of exhaustion and potentially even a little social anxiety.
  9. If you are the kind of person that feels obligated to involve everyone in a conversation, all of a sudden your sense of obligation escalates. I often feel this way. Like most pastors, I sense the responsibility to make everyone present feel included and a part. I often find myself trying to draw others into a conversation I’m having so that they sense they are part, appreciated, and included. In a Zoom meeting, my pastoral sense kicks into overdrive as I move from potentially attempting to draw in one or two people to attempting to draw in every participant in the video meeting. And Linda adds the very true point that those participants may very well not want to be drawn in.
  10. You’re stuck in one spot. Usually we move around in conversations. I suppose it’s normal to sit in a meeting in one chair and only move around as much as you would in a video meeting. But, I feel more confined. I feel the necessity to stay within the video frame. I don’t feel at liberty to stand up and stretch and have all the participants only see my chest down to my knees. My self-awareness kicks in once again and I feel obligated to stay fairly still. This is unnatural and seems to add to the exhaustion of video meetings.

So then, I find video meetings a helpful tool for a time such as this, but I’ll be happy to be rid of them. Maybe they will find their appropriate use as we implement them for members who can’t show up in person. Maybe we’ll be able to include members in a bible study that otherwise may not be able to come. Maybe a small group could implement video calls for a specific time and purpose. But, for the most part, I hope to see them diminish in use as we move forward to in person meetings. I miss people. I want to see people’s real faces. I want to feel the energy that only a physical gathering can produce as we mingle and worship together.

But for now, we proceed with what we have available to us. But, I am less confused as to why I seem more exhausted after a video meeting than an in life meeting – even if I am still in my pajamas.

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