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‘Why in the world would we do that?’


Pennsylvania church creates worshiping communities in retirement facilities

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Residents of the Maris Grove retirement community are excited that services from nearby Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Chester, Pennsylvania, are livestreamed each Sunday. Residents are pictured here in their theater, where services were held for two years before moving into the chapel.  (Photo courtesy of Westminster Presbyterian Church)

LOUISVILLE — When church leaders at Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Chester, Pennsylvania, began discussing the idea to livestream its traditional Sunday morning worship service, one of the reactions was, “Why in the world would we do that?” Some members were afraid it would be an excuse for people to stay home.

Westminster’s lead pastor, the Rev. Don Lincoln, floated the idea as plans were being made to build a retirement community next to the 2,000-member congregation. However, the proposal fell through during the 2008 economic crisis.

But Lincoln couldn’t get the idea out of his mind. He felt strongly that Westminster’s traditional service, which he said included “a great choir and organ,” might be attractive to those living in retirement communities.  He’d seen how both of his aging parents, who’d been incredibly active in church, had thrived with congregations were hospitable to them.

As a growing number of Westminster members began to move into Maris Grove, a retirement community four miles south of the church, Lincoln began to preach there occasionally. He also helped dedicate the Maris Grove chapel following construction. Aware that because of mobility issues, some Maris Grove residents couldn’t make it to Sunday worship on a bus provided by the retirement community, he decided to float the streaming idea at a retirement group luncheon in December 2016 attended by a number of Maris Grove residents.

Afterwards a church member in attendance asked him, “Don, what will it take for us to do this?”

Hearing the church needed about $50,000 to cover some of the initial costs, including hardware, to make streaming possible, the man wrote a check to cover half the cost. He told Lincoln that he knew how much it would mean to the residents there based on his experience caring for a homebound family member short-term.

The gift excited other church members at Maris Grove, including a man on the retirement community’s executive board. He helped get both the hardware installed and the kinks worked out — and, in addition, put together a small group at the retirement community to help run the equipment and prepare to livestream the service.

By October 2017 Westminster began streaming its worship live into the retirement community’s 200-seat theater. A few months later, Westminster members began having envisioning conversations about who and what they wanted the church to be.

While there was excitement around the streaming taking place, some in the congregation talked about wanting more young families to join the church.

According to Lincoln, the consultant Westminster was working with told members that all churches want this — but not many go after the 75-to-80-year-olds who want to sing hymns.  They were to be commended, the consultant said, for tapping into a market hungry for good, traditional worship.

“That was helpful for us to hear,” Lincoln said.

As part of their worship together, residents of the Maris Grove retirement community are provided communion and take an offering. (Photo courtesy of Westminster Presbyterian Church)

Westminster is now into its third year of streaming at Maris Grove. Some 75-100 people attend the streamed service each Sunday; of those up to 40 are Westminster members. Others grew up Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian and Catholic.  As part of their worship together, they celebrate communion and take an offering.

Recently, Westminster began streaming in two other retirement communities. One tapes the services and plays it back for about 20 people later that Sunday afternoon.  The other, reluctant to give the Sunday worship hour to just one denomination, streams Westminster’s service once a month.

Services livestreamed by Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Chester, Pennsylvania, provide people who are traveling or who can’t be in worship the opportunity to connect each Sunday with their friends and fellow members. (Photo courtesy of Westminster Presbyterian Church)

By leveraging what it has, Westminster has created opportunities for new communities worshiping together —and for members to stay involved with the congregation when they can’t come to worship.

One example is the church family that visited Australia over the holidays. Lincoln said that on December 25, one of their teenagers woke up unhappy because it didn’t feel like Christmas. So at 10 a.m. in Australia that family dialed up Westminster’s Christmas Eve service — and worshiped with the community of faith they love.

Lincoln also told the story of a couple who couldn’t be present at a wedding held at Westminster because their six-week-old child was in the hospital with a serious illness.  But together from the hospital room they got to watch the man’s sister get married. Another man whose father had died was grateful to worship with Westminster while traveling home.

Before Lincoln lost both of his parents over the course of the last 18 months, they lived in a retirement community in Akron, Ohio.  For the two months they were without a chaplain, his father figured out how to stream the Westminster worship service live.

About 10 minutes after worship concluded during that time — his mother was in the nursing home by then — Lincoln would get text from his father about his sermon. Each came with a poignant reflection provided by his father. Sometimes his dad would simply say, “I was praying about that too.”

“It was lovely to have that time with my dad,” Lincoln said, “and to know what a difference it made for him to worship and pray.”

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