One of my “talking points” during my many years working in radio on behalf of Presbyterians was the phenomenon known as “the electronic church.” The term referred to the churches founded more on the rock of broadcasting than on the faith of the disciple Peter. There is still quite a remnant on air today, with the main parsonalities (get it?) raking in millions as they hold forth on luxurious theatrical sets and build their multi-million dollar mansions with money pledged to the toll-free phone numbers tattooed on their chests.

Prior to my pastoral ministries, I was a church broadcaster, but always “sponsored” by and accountable to my denominational ties, never needing to ask listeners/viewers for money. I didn’t have to build my own church, since we had lots of local Presbyterian churches to choose from. When I did move into parish ministry, the churches I served were far from electronic.

I’ve already written of my serving one church that had been a pioneer in radio in Richmond, Va., having put Richmond’s first radio station on the air (was it 1924?). And that is the church that bought video equipment back in the mid-1970s for my use in any creative way that occurred to me. So, maybe that was a sort of electronic congregation.

Not so much the next church I served. Certainly, the Bon Air Presbyterian Church was making use of the requisite audio-visual equipment most churches has access to. And the PA system (public address, it was called back then) was sufficient. But the first week we introduced our new wireless microphone system led to a very embarrassing Easter morning.

The senior pastor and I learned a couple of lessons that morning. First, it is probably not advisable to introduce new technology on Easter Sunday, when sanctuaries are more full than usual. Second, those spiffy new wireless mics have quite the reach. Now, I was familiar with the technology, having used it in my media work. I knew what the on/off and mute switches were for. But Pastor Bob was new to this stuff. You know what’s coming, don’t you?

Before the first service on Easter Sunday, I was robing up as I walked across the hall to Bob’s study, where he was attaching his mic to his robe. My mic was in place, muted, and as we gathered thoughts and manuscripts for the service, I did something I don’t believe I had ever done just ahead of leading worship. I told Bob a joke I had heard somewhere. I don’t recall the joke, but I remember that the color was somewhat “off.” (Now that I think about it, there is one detail that comes to mind, but I best not share it here.)

As soon as I delivered the hilarious punch line (Bob barely chuckled), a woman came quickly down the hallway, saying, “Now Bob and Jeff…you’d best not tell any dirty jokes this morning. We can hear you in the church!” You’d have to ask someone who would admit to being there that morning at 8:30 how much of the (ahem) “story” they actually heard while awaiting the organ prelude. I’m sincerely hoping all these years later that since it was Bob’s mic that was on, my voice would have been a little muffled and the joke had been merely perceived instead of clearly received. But the racing woman had gathered something racy about the story, so…

But what I do know, is that those mics were worth every penny; they had transmitted our voices into the next building. I am pleased to offer a grace-filled footnote here. Bob muted his mic, we walked to the sanctuary hallway and had a prayer with the musician (maybe we should have broadcast that!), and processed red-faced to our chairs behind the pulpit. (Memo: get a much wider pulpit.) We then led the congregation in a glorious celebration of Easter joy! As the service came to an end, if we thought we’d be taken to task as we greeted folks at the door for that pre-service mishap, we were wrong. There were a few smiles, maybe a wink or two, and one beaming elder leaned in and said, “Glad those mics are working well.” One or two beats…and then, “Best be real careful with them.” Pure grace there.

Bob and I never spoke of that again. But did you ever hear the one about …? Never mind.

Next post: When the Internet Came to Rural Vermont

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