For a city that never sleeps, it has never been this quiet in Manhattan, New York. Broadway is dark, offices are shut, schools are closed, restaurants are empty and the streets are eerily quiet.

A ban on gatherings has forced churches to cancel services indefinitely. The “new normal” is a city of millions, alone and isolated in small apartments with just a phone and a laptop as their link to the world.  

NYC Times Square

New York City this week - Empty seats in Times Square. PICTURE: Marcus Cheong.

This poses a challenge to the church, not just in New York but around the world: How does the Body of Christ maintain a vibrant community in a time of social distancing? 

To fully appreciate the challenge, let me paint a picture of what fellowship looks like at our church. Most New Yorkers are from another state or country, which means they have left their longtime friends and family to be in this city. Here, the term “church family” is not just a figure of speech, but it accurately describes how people make a new family of close friends while they are so far away from home. Members of our church would often meet for parties, movies, road trips, games, prayer groups and meals throughout the week. 

One of the core building blocks of this community is the “connect group.” These are Bible studies and prayer groups that meet throughout the city. My wife and I have been running a connect group as part of C3 Church Manhattan for more than a decade in a small Midtown apartment with about 15 attendees each week. 

Now that face-to-face meetings are no longer possible, we have begun to formulate new ways of staying connected via the one channel that remains open - the internet.

If the church is a gathering of people, is it possible to gather in a meaningful way online? The goal of the first 'online connect', that was launched this week, is to stay connected to each other, learn from the Word and provide further opportunities for social interaction. The core idea is to use a pre-recorded YouTube video that encourages viewers to share their thoughts with the community. The group then uses an online chat system (in our case Google Hangouts) to share responses, pictures, questions and prayer requests.

To make this shift to an online experience, there are many things that needed to change, as content must be adapted to better utilise a new medium. We can’t simply do the same thing that worked in a face-to-face setting when the gathering is on the internet. 

Here are some considerations when using an online format:

1. Attention spans are shorter online. So rather than a two hour live meeting - the core of our online connect is 45 minutes. 

2. Participation is the primary goal. Unlike most videos and online sermons, which are viewed passively,  this video is designed to be interacted with in a group. The online chat feature in Google Hangouts allows people to share their answers simultaneously, so it is possible to get even more engagement than a live meeting, where only one person can speak at a time.

3. Online resources can be done at any time. For those who can’t make the scheduled Wednesday night group, they can still engage with the study at a later date.

4. Online connect is not limited by geography or logistics. There were people still able to attend even though they were working late or traveling interstate.

5. There is no limit to the number of participants online. Live meetings are limited by  the physical restraints of the location and group dynamics.

Like all new initiatives, this first meeting was an experiment with a lot of unknowns. However, the statistics from the first meeting demonstrate the potential. 

On Wednesday, 18th March at 8pm, 29 people attended the online connect group simultaneously. Twenty-five of that 29 actively participated in the online discussion. Three of that 29 were newcomers to the group.

This attendance is nearly double from our average live meeting and more people than could ever physically fit into our apartment. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and we have discovered even more ways to improve the level of connection for future weeks. 

In this time of increasing isolation, now, more than ever, there is a need for real fellowship, pastoral care and meaningful interaction. There is an unusual opportunity for the church to meet this need by adapting swiftly to this new normal. The challenge for the church is to think innovatively and embrace technology as we find new and exciting ways to reach our world.