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The digital church arrives

Is it here to stay?

By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today

The COVID-19 pandemic had the Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston’s congregation worshiping with their pastor from the safety of their home computer screens. Steve Mellon

A holy silence filled the cavernous sanctuary. The gilded organ pipes shone brightly from the lights hitting them. This morning, though, there would be no choir accompanying the bellowing pipes. The Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston, dressed in her Sunday best — doctorate robe, white collar and purple stole — stood in the center of the chancel. Taking a deep breath, she surveyed the empty pews, turned to the camera and smiled.

Friends, it is good to be together to worship the Lord virtually …

The pastor of Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon, Pennsylvania, came to preach the Word that morning, and preach it she would, in a new way for a new day, embracing the use of technology that allowed her to livestream a worship service into the homes of her congregants who were sheltering in place, due to the global outbreak of a coronavirus known as COVID-19. She was not alone.

This spring, the phrase “March Madness” took on a very different meaning with a drama being played in sanctuaries across the country, rather than on basketball courts. With government officials issuing edicts of no gatherings of 10 or more people in public, 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 was able to stay connected to her congregation — even the littlest ones — through the use of online worship. It is a medium that will continue playing a vital evangelism role going forward, she says. Courtesy of Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon

It was a steep learning curve for pastors who were not videographers. Failed audio, bad lighting and buffering video streamed into many a home. But there was no other option. The family of God could no longer meet physically together out of fear of spreading a deadly virus. The only way to stay connected was through the use of technology, using platforms — such as Zoom meetings and Facebook Live — that had traditionally been looked upon warily by churches.

Ask any pastor who, in the last five years or so, has tried to take the church into the digital era, and you will hear a litany of reasons from session and worship committee members resisting it, among which are that the congregation is not “tech-savvy” to the lack of reliable internet services in the community. The most common concern, though, has been the fear that if worship was offered online, no one would come into the church building.

A Barna Group study, “The State of the Church 2020,” in which data was collected in December 2019, confirmed this resistance, citing that while the use of technology has grown in the last decade, it was still a novelty in the church, with just 2% of practicing Christians saying they attend a church that produces a digitally videotaped or livestreamed service.

COVID-19, though, has changed that statistic. How great its influence on churches remains to be seen. For now, though, the question is whether or not churches that were forced into the world of technology will continue to use such services for ministry.

A new congregation emerges 

According to Giver-Johnston, Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon made the decision 21/2 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. “Even if we had just a handful of people watching, it would be worth the investment,” said Giver-Johnston. The initial cost was about $1,000 as the church was already equipped with a sound system to plug into, Mellon says.

The investment for a “handful of people” was a wise one, as Giver-Johnston found herself amid the COVID-19 crisis with a virtual congregation of hundreds of participants. Among those tuning in were members of the greater Ben Avon community, not just the church family.

“We spent the first 14 days of the COVID-19 shutdown getting the word out about our services being online to the greater public,” said Deb Sadowski, a member of Community Presbyterian.

Up until then, she says, 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.

An evangelism opportunity

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

For the Rev. Richard Hong, the COVID-19 crisis revealed what he has known already for many years: Technology is a powerful community builder.

Hong, who is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Englewood, New Jersey, became aware of the value of an online community about 25 years ago before he went to seminary.

“I was part of an online forum in the early days of the internet. Many of us communicated daily about technical topics,” he said.

But then one morning, when he awoke to a message that one of the group members had been a bystander in a store robbery and been killed, he cried, even though he had never met the man in person. “In my tears, I realized that our online connection was real and meaningful. It was different, but not less,” Hong said.

“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.

Giver-Johnston at Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon agrees with Hong because she had to make sure camera angles were up close, creating a more intimate environment. And, she says, she now makes sure that when she greets worshipers, she greets those in the sanctuary and those watching online.

How to stream online in a way that produces a professional and seamless order of worship is very important, Giver-Johnston says, in creating a worshipful experience. But it is just one part of the virtual church. The other part is tapping into a powerful evangelism tool, Hong says.

“What churches have been given with online worship during this crisis is an opportunity for evangelism. It’s an opportunity not be squandered,” he said.

For example, First Presbyterian Church of Englewood increased its budget for Facebook advertising, casting the viewership net even wider. Hong says that more opportunities to advertise the church’s online presence will be explored going forward.

First Presbyterian Church began streaming services live in August 2017, about a year after a fire destroyed its grand and historic sanctuary.

“We wanted to invest more energy in reaching out and letting people see that we were vibrant. We also knew that the experience we gained by livestreaming from our temporary worship space (our gym) would translate into a better design for our new sanctuary,” said Hong. “We believe in livestreaming as a way of reaching out to the community. Online is where the people are, and it’s where people will come first to check out your church.”

Hong’s successful use of digital media didn’t happen overnight. And for churches feeling overwhelmed or still not sure if such technology is for them, Hong shares that the first “tech piece” introduced to his congregation was an audio sermon podcast.

“Over time we have built out our digital presence, and most of that is for outreach. Our members are not the target audience,” said Hong.

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.

Zoom becomes part of ministry

The season of Lent 2020 was to begin with something groundbreaking for the congregation of Fox Valley Presbyterian Church in Geneva, Illinois. They would try meeting for a weekly prayer gathering using Zoom, an online meeting platform that allows multiple people to call in or use the video from wherever they are.

The Rev. Stephanie Anthony says the idea was “dreamed up” in a staff meeting last fall before anyone had even heard of COVID-19.

“We hadn’t held midweek worship in Lent for a couple of years, so we decided to try something new, thinking we might get participants who usually can’t come to the church building for a midweek service, because it’s a long drive for a 30-minute gathering, it’s disruptive to the routine with kids, or they don’t drive at night,” she said.

The pastor was a little concerned about the learning curve of church members who might be new to Zoom, so she offered a few training sessions and tutorials.

“No one took me up on them,” said Anthony. Still, six people joined the 30-minute virtual prayer meeting that featured devotions church members had written, Scripture reading and the sharing of joys and concerns.

What surprised Anthony the most was not that there weren’t too many technical glitches, but that those gathered on Zoom were “a much older crowd” than she anticipated. In fact, one of results of the mad dash to get online due to COVID-19 for many churches is that it has finally brought along those in the congregation who were resisting digital church.

Anthony never would have imagined that just three weeks into Lent, Zoom would become a lifeline to Fox Valley Presbyterian’s entire ministry — not just its midweek prayer group. While admitting the experience of Zoom has been “a little clunky at first,” the congregation and pastor are finding Zoom meetings to be a helpful “way to join in prayer with one another and a real comfort for people during a lonely time.”

During COVID-19, with in-person pastoral visits suspended, Anthony also used technology to host “check-in chats” with the church and even fellowship times.

“Most members have expressed that they would like to continue meeting online in some way after the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us,” said Anthony.

She is all for it, especially considering how the culture of busyness that runs rampant in families, businesses and even churches leaves little time to stay at home.

“One more night out of the house for church fellowship on top of a string of nights out of the house for everything else, including church business, is a lot to ask and is more than many can give,” said Anthony. “But 45–60 minutes on Zoom just to talk to each other about how our weeks are going, how we can be praying for each other and our communities — that’s something we can do. It won’t replace our face-to-face gatherings when we are able to get back to that again, but it feels like it will support them. These practices will definitely outlast COVID-19 for our church community. I have no doubt.”

While Anthony has no doubt, Hong still wonders what the future of technology in the church will look like post-pandemic.

“Will some congregations breathe a sigh of relief and return happily to traditional worship on Sunday? Perhaps,” he said. “Sadly, though, if they do, they will miss a wonderful opportunity to grow in ways they never could imagine.”

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today.

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