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Virtual church goes viral


Presbyterian congregations see God growing the church online during the pandemic

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

LaGrange Presbyterian Church in LaGrange, Kentucky, is 30 years old this year. The commemoration of this milestone will take place sometime after the social-distancing requirements have been lifted. (Photo by Tammy Warren)

LOUISVILLE — LaGrange Presbyterian Church in LaGrange, Kentucky, had talked about posting its worship services online for years, but money and volunteer support seemed to be lacking. When the COVID-19 quarantine started, the church went into action to give members, friends and anyone else who might be looking for a virtual worship service an online option.

“Our technology guru got us up and running with two eight-year-old (smart) phones and a free software program off the internet,” the Rev. Al Earley said. “It was a real blessing to our congregation. Then, two weeks ago, I heard from an old friend at a church I served 22 years ago. She said she was reading a book on the seven last words of Jesus, and she felt God put my name in her mind. She looked me up and found our church’s website. She clicked through it and watched the worship service. God used the sermon to really speak to her personal struggles at that moment.”

This woman is now a faithful worshiper as part of LaGrange Presbyterian’s internet church, Earley said, which has motivated the church to continue the online option, even after the quarantine is lifted.

Melinda Lawrence Sanders, session moderator at Woodland Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and a member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, described what she sees happening with online worship at Woodland as “wonderful.”

Four years ago, Woodland’s pastor of 37 years retired, leaving about 30 faithful but primarily elderly members, Sanders said. The church worked with the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee to create a Training Hub model at the church. The “hubbers,” paid part-time ministry staff in their 20s and 30s, began planning worship, children’s activities, community outreach, and special events — even calling the plumber when necessary.

Just as the church started to make a profound turnaround from decline to growth with more than 40 new members in the past two years, tornadoes struck in 2019 and 2020. Those were followed by the global COVID-19 pandemic. By mid-March, Woodland had shifted to online worship services on Zoom.

“When we started the Zoom services, right from the beginning we had more than 50 in worship, a number of whom are parents who live in other states and love having the chance to worship with their children,” Sanders said. “Eight people attended a new member class — most, if not all of whom will be joining the congregation within the coming week. Amazingly, some had attended only a few times before the pandemic forced the closure of in-person services.”

Established in 1858, Woodland Presbyterian Church’s current building was completed in 1918, the same year the Spanish Flu pandemic began. (Contributed photo)

Sanders heard a member of the Woodland family say recently, “It’s nice to have worship where we all look at each other instead of the back of each other’s heads!” She wonders how to continue that kind of community and connection after physical-distancing requirements are lifted and in-person services resume. Everything from how bulletins are distributed to how offering is collected to how the Communion elements are served will have to be re-thought once physical-distancing requirements ease.

The Training Hub at Woodland has helped some young people who had been planning to attend seminary discover they probably aren’t suited for ministry, Sanders said, while others have left to attend seminary or move into other ministry positions in other places. Woodland, a Matthew 25 church, is also a More Light Presbyterians congregation, a network of Presbyterians committed to LGBTQ+ equality.

Three miles from Woodland, Eastminster Presbyterian Church, an English-Spanish language congregation, lost its building to two fires in 2016. Now, members of Woodland and Eastminster join together for a monthly potluck, a fall festival and a combined worship service four times a year. This blending of congregations has been energizing to both.

“Woodland is a very unique place,” Sanders said. “We want it to be safe for an idea not to work.” She said the church is comfortable in acknowledging that new ideas may or may not work. Although Woodland does not currently have a full-time pastor, Training Hub staff or pastors who attend when they are not preaching elsewhere take turns preaching at Woodland.

“We had 70 on Zoom trying to sing [for Easter],” Sanders said. “It was all kinds of glitchy. We’ve learned to roll with the punches in creating community. It’s great when a dog or a cat appears on screen. Our need to laugh is pretty strong; it’s great.”

Woodland had an online Maundy Thursday service with BYOB&J communion (bring your own bread and juice) and a candle. Everyone was instructed to gather by the light of their computer, phone or tablet and a lit candle, which they blew out at the end of the service as the screen went dark. Everyone sat in darkness for a few moments without speaking, similar to leaving an in-person Maundy Thursday service in silence.

COVID-19 has changed many things, Sanders said. Prayer requests used to be things like, “Please pray for Johnny, he’s coming home from college.” Now, she said, the prayer requests are more serious: “I don’t have a job anymore” or “I’m scared my mom has COVID-19.”

The Training Hub’s newest initiative is something called “The Hope Dispensary,” stories of hope shared on Woodland’s Instagram account or emailed to a member. Stories come from a wide variety of sources and are meant to inspire hope. Recent stories posted include a moving company offering free moving services to anyone fleeing domestic violence, a man and his family who made 5,000 sandwiches to thank hospital staff and a man in California serving free coffee to his neighbors from the window of his home.

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