Education

Churches Adjust Quickly With Solutions to Stay Connected

Across the country, churches were left to find alternatives to in-person live worship services in early March, as a vast number of states instituted stay-at-home orders in response to the spread of COVID-19, preventing houses of worship from hosting congregations for much of three months.

For many churches it has been an incredible challenge, as each has contended with how to best deal with the COVID-19 spread. Many churches have had to close their doors from in-person services for much of the last three months.

Faced with finding ways to stay connected to their respective congregations amidst such limitations, churches have not held back in unveiling a variety of solutions. 

Among churches from Connecticut to California, such creative ways have shown to be significant, as detailed by eight church tech staff members, with each now working toward eventually fully reopening their doors to in-person worship services. 

From setting up new webpages to help those in a congregation to ask for assistance in picking up groceries, along with offering drive-in services, and actively trying to connect with members by phone, churches have found the best ways to stay connected.

Most common among those initial steps by churches – as COVID-19 began to spread in early March, and with it, limit the ability to hold in-person worship – was the ramping up of social media posts and emails to congregation members to provide updates, on things such as accessing streamed services.

Getting The Message Out Fast About Significant Changes

As explained by Tim Ottley, worship and media administrator at Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the early goal was to inform its congregation quickly about the full switch to streamed services. “Our plan was kind of like the blitz,” said Ottley. “We did a physical mail out, a huge email blast, along with website changes.” 

Todd Heft, director of media arts at Hillside Community Church in Bristol, Connecticut, took a similar approach. “There was an immediate increase in our social media postings and email. It was to get the word out that we were no longer doing anything in person in our buildings indefinitely.” 

Among the other first steps at Hillside was to create a webpage, “specifically for COVID-19 updates. It would have anything about what the church was doing (including information about how to watch services online). In addition, there would be community resource links, to help members have one place to go.” 

Social Media A Crucial Tool In Spreading The Message

Across social media, Hillside began to also increase its visibility on Facebook, with two live updates each weekday. That included “one in the afternoon as a prayer time, with one of the pastors doing Facebook Live,” explained Heft. 

To Heft, he envisions that once in-person services resume, Hillside will still continue doing Facebook Live. With it having proven so valuable, the church will do it about six times a week, Heft said. “The Facebook Live sessions help people engage and stay connected,” he explained.

Such ramping up of social media by churches has resulted in some congregation members using it for the first time. At West Asheville Baptist Church in West Asheville, North Carolina, lead production assistant Luke Ward  noted, “Facebook became invaluable. We had members in their 80s, who’d never been on Facebook. They’ve been getting accounts, and saying ‘this is great!’ after getting on Facebook for the first time.”

Websites To TV Options Used By Churches To Connect

Another measure helping to keep a congregation connected was initiated by Cross Church, in Springdale, Arkansas. Brian Dunaway, the church’s director of communications and technology, detailed the creation of a webpage. It asked among other things, whether the church could help on things like picking up groceries.

Therefore, by April, a planned conference at Cross was cancelled. In response, the church was proactive, creating new offerings online for its members and beyond. “We packaged our resources (from that conference). People could download it for free. As a magazine package, they were editable files for other churches to use, so that they could brand it,” said Dunaway. 

Among the more intriguing creative steps done by the various churches, was begun by Asbury shortly before Easter. As a result, “We found TV stations didn’t know what to do this Easter (with the uncertainty brought by the pandemic),” said Ottley. With Asbury’s senior pastor, Thomas Harrison, well known for a radio segment, Perceptions, “a local TV station called. They asked about creating a Perceptions TV show for Easter.”

As a result, Asbury was asked again to do an additional segment for Mother’s Day. Segments for Memorial Day and again for Father’s Day followed. It showed there “was a demand, to have some spiritual comfort,” noted Ottley. “I think it will become something regular.”

Photo courtesy of BRIAN DUNAWAY – Students line up behind a bus in mid-March, during an outreach event by Cross Church in Springdale, Arkansas, with the church partnering with area schools to feed students in the community, a short time after schools had been shut down because of the pandemic.

No In-Person Services? Church Tries Drive-In Services

At Harvest Church in California, the church found another creative way to stay connected. As noted by lighting designer/programmer Christopher Eguizabal, “We started doing drive-in services, to have some sort of in-service attendance. We did one, then took a few weeks off, but continued them the last few weeks. That was because the results were so good.”

Using The Phone As A Valuable Tool To Stay Connected

Once Asbury postponed in-person services, the phone was an effective new tool. “The object was to stay in contact and in touch with people who were isolated,” Ottley said. It proved very helpful, he added, “since we have an older generation and they enjoyed getting the call. They were happy to hear from somebody.”

In a similar fashion, Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, located in Fountain Valley, California, used the phone to remain connected with members, explained teaching pastor Karl Vaters.  

Crediting lead pastor Gary Garcia, Vaters said, “He was the one who was adamant immediately, to reach out in a low-tech way, to have them hear our voices on a regular basis.” 

Similar to the experience at Asbury, Vaters said that at Cornerstone, for its older members, the calls birthed “a cross-generational appreciation.” As a result, (older members are now) “more connected to the youth, than when they saw them in church each week.” He then added, “A healthy church shares the opportunity to reach out to others.”

The phone also proved to be a useful tool at Water of Life Community Church in Fontana, California, noted production manager Debbie Keough. “We found through making calls from this call list, what their needs were. That included to where we can get food delivered, as we have a fully functioning food bank.”

Churches Turn To Adding Chat Or Text To Service

With worship for a large contingent of congregations accustomed to in-person services now making the switch to streamed services, many churches have sought “to make it as much of a church experience as possible and enhance the online experience,”  Vaters noted. 

One of the first steps at Cornerstone was to add live chat through its YouTube and Instagram channels. It “creates as much of a conversation online, much like after church,” with its online audience, added Vaters. In addition, California-based Harvest Church added a similar feature, noted Eguizabal. “Having the pastor chat, that was planned to be rolled out” in the near future,” he said. After in-person services in March were suspended, it was quickly implemented. 

At Cross Church, Dunaway cited rolling out a similar option, where viewers can send a text to the church while viewing a livestreamed service. It resulted in “12 people wanting to accept Christ or needing to talk to a minister.” After 12 weeks with the new feature, Dunaway added, “we plan to keep that tool going forward, since people are so used to texting.”

Even when a livestreamed service typically winds down, churches have not turned off their creativity. Heft noted that at Hillside, it chose to keep “our livestream going. It gives members an opportunity to converse with each other. We saw it as a different way to meeting in the lobby.”

Discussions Of How To Stay Connected Moved Quickly

As quickly as the coronavirus thrust itself into the consciousness of the country in March, discussions on what to do next at many churches on ended up being incredibly quick and efficient.

“One week, we went from fully operational, to having a women’s conference cancelled that same week. It happened so fast in California,” said Keough. A few days after an all-staff meeting in the worship center, “everything got shut down.” 

For Bryan Bailey, minister of media for Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, he described such discussions taking place, “within a week, and we went from zero to 100 within five days. We didn’t have much of a chance to super strategize.”

Heft noted that for Hillside, the discussions began the second week of March, with in-person services postponed March 15. A couple days later, the church began posting COVID-19 related information to its website.

At Cornerstone, Vaters explained that even though discussions at the church started quickly, they continue on. “You never stop having regular conversations on how to improve what you are doing.” 

Even With No Live Services, Churches Have Seen Growth

Surprisingly, even with the limitations of no in-person services these last few months, has still seen a rise in overall attendance at some churches.

“A goal going into this year (at Asbury) was to increase worship attendance, and I was looking at the numbers (last week),” noted Ottley. “Last year, we had three different weekly services, and our online service. (Last week), we had two online services, and no in-person services. We increased to 2,273 (a slight increase), over what we did last year.”

For Harvest Church, having aimed to hit 100,000 in attendance between its Crusade events, held in Boise, Idaho and at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif., this year, neither has yet taken place, but Eguizabal noted, “We have reached that goal halfway already online, without any live events.” 

For Harvest’s livestreamed services, Eguizabal said, “we have seen a huge attendance boost. It’s been 15 to 20 percent more than we would see in-person. On Palm Sunday, we had more than 1 million viewers, which was nice. The president even tweeted about watching on Palm Sunday.”

In the case of Prestonwood, the growth in online viewers has been eye-opening, explained Bailey. “Right at the beginning, we decided to add a midweek service online. The response was huge. We had 30,000 people watch, which was shocking. We realized that it is what people want to see.” 

Facing The ‘New Normal’ As States Begin To Open Up

Even as states have begun to open up in recent weeks, Vaters acknowledged that the “new normal” for many churches will be one where much of what they have done recently will continue, with more change to come. “What it did, it made everyone aware of needing to reassess immediately. The pace of change has stayed the same; the amount of change that needed to happen was massive.”