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The digital church arrives


Is it here to stay?

August 7, 2020

The Rev. Richard Hong of First Presbyterian Church of Englewood, reviews the order of worship, with special attention to camera angles, before the church’s livestreaming begins. Hung En Sung

This spring, Presbyterian churches, large and small, scrambled to get online using technology that they had either heard of, dabbled in or had been wanting to use in their own ministries.

The Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston, pastor of Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon, Pennsylvania, said her church made the decision 2½ years ago to livestream its Sunday worship service. The decision to launch an online format was not prompted by the blessing of suddenly having a “techie” join the congregation, but rather one made in order to care for the congregation more consistently and effectively.

“We were willing to give it a try because we saw how important it was for those in our congregation who couldn’t be with us — those who were in the hospital or at home sick,” she said.

As they began exploring what would be needed — a better camera, an upgraded computer, where to place the camera — not everyone was sold. “I remember the discussion well and I was skeptical about it,” said Steve Mellon, a member of Community Presbyterian. “I didn’t see the value in livestreaming.”

That was until Mellon’s wife became ill. “Having that connection to church and being able to experience worship with them online became valuable,” he said, adding, “You just don’t realize what it means to be part of the service.”

It was then the church agreed that going online would be part of their ministry.

Up until the COVID-19 shutdown, says Deb Sadowski, a Community Presbyterian member, the online worship option was “mostly for those in our church who couldn’t be with us.” But now there was an opportunity to reach those without a church home who might be needing a word of hope. Postings on community sites and utilizing email lists helped Community Presbyterian broaden its online reach. Such marketing and outreach will continue long after the crisis is over, says Giver-Johnston.

“This crisis has led us in seeing our community differently and how online worship can help us to reach out to those not just in our church family,” said Giver-Johnston. Online worship will remain, she adds, a vital part of Community Presbyterian’s ministry.

For the Rev. Richard Hong, the COVID-19 crisis revealed what he has known already for many years:

Technology is a powerful community builder.

“Different, not less” is how he says churches need to view their fledgling online communities, adding that when the COVID-19 crisis is over, pastors who hurried to offer online worship and Bible studies need to begin thinking more critically about what they are doing and what role, if any, technology will continue playing in their ministries.

“What we saw at the beginning of COVID-19 was churches setting up cameras to connect with their members,” said Hong. That was fine, he adds, as it filled an important and immediate need. But now the filming and technical glitches need to be ironed out.

“When people return to the sanctuary you can’t have a camera on a tripod standing right in front of the pastor,” said Hong about one of the many logistical concerns that comes with streaming live worship services. There are also the concerns of music licensing, lighting, audio, camera angles and even scripts to consider.

Hong also offers what is known as the “90-Second Sermon” that is used on social media.

“The 90-Second Sermon was something we started doing in 2013. We realized that our digital presence [Facebook, Twitter, etc.] had to be video-based. Full sermons are too long for most people. We tried extracting snippets from sermons but realized that most of the extractions lacked context. We settled on the 90-Second Sermon because that was the shortest time in which we could consistently present a message with a start, a middle and an end,” said Hong, clarifying that it is not a “teaser” to a sermon, but solid content in a snippet of time.

“Each week 300 people watch it, which is 50% more than our average in-person worship attendance. Our members often share them with people to introduce them to our church. It is not hard to ask someone to watch a 90-second video,” he said.

Donna Frischknecht Jackson, Editor, Presbyterians Today

Today’s Focus:  Digital Church

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
John Kim, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)
Lydia Kim, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray:

Dear God, we thank you for the witnesses within our communities who reveal to us that the most important thing we can do is be present for our neighbor in need, just as you are present for us in Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

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