Destiny Yarbro is the author of multiple books including, Home Early…Now What? and Good Enough For Now: Living the Gospel with Chronic Illness. She served a mission in the Hungary Budapest Mission and then as an online FamilySearch Indexing missionary after her “early” return from the mission. She loves serving in the branches of the Church, finding her time in Turkey, Germany, Mexico, and Vietnam especially life-changing. Destiny has served as branch missionary, Relief Society president, ASL interpreter, ward organist, and teacher in the Sunday School, Relief Society, and Primary. You can find Destiny’s books on Amazon.
With vaccines available to more and more people, all of us are dreaming of the day when we can go back to “normal.” But, I think it is vital to take the time to review what parts of “normal” are worth returning to, especially when we consider the circumstances of ALL members.
I have noticed a resistance in some wards to using technology to stream Church. If it is used, some see it as simply a necessary evil.
I feel an almost panic that when we return to “normal,” those in leadership positions may choose to return to an in-person-only church.
It’s important to realize that for some members of the Church, the transition over to technology has been not only welcomed but cherished and an answer to numerous prayers.
The Joy of Connecting
I am someone who is unable to go to church at times – and even when I can go, I am rarely able to go for the full two/three hours. The opportunity to watch church from home has been one of the greatest blessings of my life. And I am not alone.
If you take a moment to visit LDS disability and mental health groups, you will see a flow of posts on the beauty of being able to attend from home when necessary. And for some in these groups, it is the only way to attend Church. For some, this has been the first time they have been able to attend their wards in years or even decades. Here are just a few of the saints who can benefit from online meetings:
- Homebound (in care centers, permanently horizontal, etc.)
- Caregivers who miss church regularly to care for their loved ones
- Members who are fighting cancer, have auto-immune disorders, or severe allergies that compromise the immune system
- Members with PTSD or social anxiety disorders
- Family members of those with disabilities, such as autism, where a stimuli overload on Sunday may make church attendance very difficult
For the first time in 11 years, I was able to attend Church every single week in 2020. Not only sacrament meeting, but I have been able to attend more baptisms this year than the 10 years previously, go to every Relief Society activity, meet with others from my ward regularly, and even give a talk in Church (by proxy).
Meet Members Where They Are
I think it is important to remember that often our ward leaders are ones who are able to attend church in person and are often those who have never had to miss church more than a week at a time. They see the COVID restrictions as a temporary thing. These are the leaders who are making the decision on whether online Church options should continue to be available post-COVID and they may not remember that there is a group of members, an “invisible” group, who have been unable to attend for many years, but who are finally able to attend because of technology.
I think even the best-intentioned souls who have always been able to attend in person, may not know what a JOY this has been for me and many others! An absolute answer to prayer!
I remember sitting in a ward council about five years ago when a member of the bishopric said that the sacrament should not be passed to those in the foyer; believing that this would bring people into the chapel. I am eternally grateful for a bishop who saw the big picture. I am paraphrasing but in essence he thanked this counselor for his perspective but then made clear that the fact that these members made it to church, period, was a big deal and passing the sacrament to those in the foyer was a way to meet the members where they were.
He recognized that for some, even being in the foyer was beyond their ability, let alone stepping into the chapel. For the few of us in the ward council with physical and/or mental health issues, we breathed a sigh of relief as this bishop gently corrected and taught all of us in the ward council about priorities.
Empathizing with Isolation
In this same way, ward leadership who are pushing for in-person-only church attendance as soon as possible may not see the big picture. Perhaps it is helpful to remind ourselves that:
- There are members who may be able to attend more now than ever before (or attend, period)
- There are investigators or inactive members who may be open to attending online before making the step to attend in-person
- Members who are able to attend in-person but refuse to do so may not be a symptom of having online church meetings but a symptom of testimony struggles
- Those who are able to attend in-person and are committed will come, regardless of the online option – they do not need to be forced to attend in person
I understand the concern of these leaders. They may see only the faces who have not returned back to Church since COVID and forget that there is a group of members whose faces are never seen but are feeling more connected to their wards than ever before.
Perhaps this is a time when we should not command or compel members but invite them to attend in whatever way they can.
Taking Responsibility for Our Testimonies
We have seen that Come Follow Me has been a test and an opportunity to embrace individual responsibility for our testimonies. I believe that streaming Church is another way in which we are challenged to take full responsibility for our testimonies. Again, those who can attend and committed to do so, will do so.
I think leaders in the Church should not be overly worried about this. (And if a priesthood leader finds himself in a situation where no members are attending in-person, an unlikely scenario, there are other options rather than ending online streaming altogether. He could give out a private link to stream Church to those who need/request it directly from him.)
We Expand Our Reach
There have been opportunities open up this year that are only possible BECAUSE we’re allowing online streaming in church. A couple of weeks ago, a baby was blessed and the whole ward, including family members of the baby’s mother who live in Canada, were able to attend this special event! Families can watch their missionaries speak in church!
On Saturday, I attended the baptism of the daughter of my mission trainer. The bishop and the immediate family were the only ones in attendance. And the bishop turned to the daughter and said, “If you would have been baptized a year ago, all of your family in Australia would have been unable to be with you when you were baptized! But because of COVID, all of your family from around the world can be with you!”
It was such a sweet way to celebrate an opportunity that had been impossible in the past (while also cheering up this little girl who may have felt sad that she did not have many people coming in-person to her baptism).
Consider Every Soul
In my work at the Church Office Building and in the process of writing my books, I have often thought about how we assess need in the church. It may be tempting to only see need in terms of numbers. For example, “there are 20 members who are only able to attend church online, thus providing an online option is worth it.”
But what if there is only one member who is only able to attend church online? If we look at the numbers only, we may disregard this. But if we remember the worth of EVERY soul, when we consider how much this one member needs church, then we see that this is THE best way to support them on the covenant path. We see that the need is indeed great for online church.
Perhaps this year is the time to consider that having in-person-only church is quite exclusive, not inclusive. It turns away members who are eager, yearning, and desirous to attend but are unable to for whatever reason (and the reasons are plentiful here in mortality).
As leaders, do we recognize that for some, COVID-restrictions have been their daily reality for decades? Do we seek greater understanding during COVID to understand the needs and desires of those who have been homebound or unable to attend?
Rescue Work – Tune In and Try Again
I think it is vital to realize the value of online church options in helping inactive members return to church.
In the example of the baptism above, I was surprised to see that one family member attended the baptism online who I believe would never step into a church building – they’ve been quite anti for years now – but they did come virtually!
We do not know the reasons why members may stop attending but we do know that attending virtually is as low pressure a way possible to introduce them back into the Church. They are able to tune in and try again with the Church without undue anxiety or pressure.
Ever since the invention of the radio (130 years!) the technology to include members at home has been available. At one time General Conference was only available to those in person, but eventually this transitioned over to radio (in great part due to the Influenza epidemic after WWI), and for decades now we have been able to attend General Conference from home. Personally, I think it’s a beautiful year to make online Church a permanent addition to our congregations!
I recognize that there have been Church meetings shown on BYU TV for some time now. (If you had BYU TV.) But there is a completely different feel to “attending” your home ward and not some ultra-formal (dare I say, “sterile?”) church meeting on BYU TV. When your ward meetings are streamed, you see your bishopric and your ministering brothers and sisters. You cheer on the speakers and text them afterwards to thank them for their messages. You feel engaged in the work in your area! The first week I got to raise my hand to sustain members of my ward this year, I almost became emotional because I felt the Spirit so strongly. It felt so good to be fully a part of a ward again!
COVID has been and (I pray) will continue to be a lens by which all church members, leaders especially, can view the needs of members previously excluded or misunderstood in the past. We have a generation of missionaries who may better understand the hardships of “early”-returned missionaries because many missionaries have had to return home unexpectedly during COVID. We have members who feel stir-crazy at home, who want to help others in normal ways but are unable to with the restrictions, just like homebound members have been feeling since the beginning.
This is the most obvious time for us to reassess what “normal” should be in the Church. And I am immensely grateful for this year where I have been able to participate more fully in Church than the year before. This “new normal” has been such a tender mercy in this way!