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‘COVID-19 has not brought many blessings, but this is one’

Ministry grant helps intercultural church better connect its ‘hybrid’ congregation

by Gail Strange | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Naomi Brown Ingrim looks forward to members of the congregation being able to engage with a speaker in person or via videoconference as a result of an upgraded AV system for the First Presbyterian Church of Copperas Cove, Texas, which Ingrim has served for almost eight years. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE ­— COVID-19 has exposed many discrepancies as well as learning opportunities for society and for the church. One of the greatest lessons for the church is the need for and use of technology.

Technology has permitted churches to reach individuals beyond their membership rolls, including people who would not have attended the church pre-COVID-19. Although the price of today’s technology can be cost prohibitive for some congregations, the First Presbyterian Church of Copperas Cove, Texas, did not let that deter their efforts to upgrade their sound system. They applied for and received a grant from Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries to help meet their need.

FPC, a 79-member church chartered in 1965, is about an hour southwest of Waco. The congregation is the epitome of an intercultural congregation. While most of the members are white, the church’s membership includes African American, Haitian, German, Cameroonian, Ghanian, Filipino, Korean, Chinese, Hispanic, and biracial/multiracial persons. Currently there are 37 children/youth (infant through college age) who are a part of the membership. For the past seven years there has been an LGBTQIA+ presence on the church’s session.

The diverse congregation is a result of the church’s proximity to the Fort Hood Army installation about 15 minutes east of the church. Membership at the church has grown significantly in recent years, not only in the number of members but also in programming, mission giving, operational budget and financial reserves.

“At any given time, we find ourselves to have a very diverse family of faith with all ages and many races, ethnicities and cultures represented,” said the Rev. Naomi Brown Ingrim, pastor of FPC.

“What describes us best, rather than our ‘makeup’ demographics, however, is how we function together,” she said. “The prayer, the one we’ve prayed together for years, in different languages, in responsive litanies, and in song is ‘Holy Spirit, change us as you move in our midst.’”  

“We feel that God has answered this prayer over and over again. Not only have we been able to accomplish a great deal, but there is a deep understanding and respect for each other in our congregation,” she said. “We have been changed from being individuals with many, many innate differences into a family that focuses on the mutual exchange of ideas and deep relationships. Here, each person becomes part of an intercultural union … in Christ. We are not perfect by any means, but to have this in today’s world is something about which to ‘Shout to God with loud songs of joy!’ (Psalm 47:1).”

Ingrim says the congregation has a particular passion and energy to ensure that people who are isolated can participate with and feel a part of their family of faith while engaging online platforms.

“We have come to accept and embrace the understanding that we will always now have a virtual community in addition to an in-person one,” said Ingrim. “COVID-19 has not brought many blessings, but this is one. Currently we estimate that the sum of virtual plus in-person attendance for a typical Sunday service averages around 60-80 people. This, we hope, will continue in an upward trajectory following COVID.”

The congregation feels passionately that the online members of their family of faith need to be able to hear well the services or other gatherings, to feel that they are singing with a congregation, and to be able to engage easily with those who are present in person. Church leaders have expressed concern that without this ability, members could feasibly join another online church option or worse, forego worship. Ingrim says that for a small, multicultural church like FPC, relationships and the sense of having a family to belong to are extremely important for many congregants who may be displaced from their native countries or on assignment with the military in their community.

“As we further consider the goals for our AV system improvements, we have realized that the two groups of people in our now ‘hybrid’ congregation simply need to be married, not only in their worship experience on Sunday mornings but in other ways throughout the week, in ways that make a church, church,” said Ingrim. “We have come to realize that we need to accept and embrace the two different groups for who they are, and channel our efforts into creatively uniting them and growing them.”

A grant from Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries will assist the church to upgrade speakers, soundboards and other AV equipment to better serve its “hybrid” congregation. (Contributed photo)

Ingrim pointed out that members of the virtual group needed to know that they can participate in educational classes, seminars, and Bible studies, and that their prayer requests will be prayed for ­— just as members of the now smaller in-person group need know that they can count on their friends from the virtual group to be present during fellowship events, congregational meetings and mission projects.

She says it will require the congregation thoughtfully making available, for their YouTube and Facebook viewers, the video conferencing links and then also the projection of the video conferencing attendees onto a big screen TV in the room in which the educational, fellowship or ministry event is occurring.

“Their voices need be adequately amplified into the room,” said Ingrim. “In addition, the mics and cameras in the room need be adequate for the video-conferencing group to hear and see the persons attending in person. Then interaction can occur between the two groups, relationships begun in the worship space can continue and grow, and the hybrid congregations can be indeed one church. The risks in not being able to do this are significant.”

“We are very excited to begin to work with our AV system improvements, we are grateful for the support in procuring them, and among other changes, we look forward to investigating their full potential,” Ingrim said. “Indeed, God has begun a good thing in us and will carry it on to completion.”


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