COVID-19: Numbers and beyond, what Churches of Christ need to know
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The rules are simple: Work from home. Eat at home. Stay at home.
The reality is harder: Is it time to change out of pajamas? Is it trash day?
Right now, a lot of people are struggling. That includes ministers.
“We all need prayers and grace,” said Doug Crum, preaching minister for the Taylor Street Church of Christ in Hobbs, N.M. “Rather than judging each other for how we are handling the situation, just encourage and pray for us.”
The situation to which Crum is referring? Online church.
Because people can now virtually attend any worship service — or all of them — ministers are feeling pressure to produce high quality and engaging worship.
“Never has church been so accessible,” said Travis Akins, husband of this writer and minister for the Heritage Church of Christ in Edmond, Okla. “I enjoy looking around, but I try not to be hard on myself when my livestream fails or a Zoom class doesn’t succeed.”
It’s a slippery slope — for church leaders and attendees — to compare the successes and failures of one church to another.
“Stay-at-home participants now have thousands of options, not just the ones within driving distance,” Crum said. “Therefore, churches that produce a more polished worship will likely get more online visitors.”
Most Sundays, about 175 members worship with the Taylor Street congregation in the southeast corner of New Mexico. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Crum’s church only offered a physical service and an audio podcast. He and his staff now provide livestream worship on Facebook and YouTube during the nationwide shutdown.
“Stay-at-home participants now have thousands of options, not just the ones within driving distance. Therefore, churches that produce a more polished worship will likely get more online visitors.”
“There is definitely a learning curve for me, but our efforts have been well received,” said Crum, who is confident he will reach his church members but acknowledges he could benefit from a seasoned online church’s advice.
Ministers at megachurches shared what has worked for them in the past decade of streaming online.
Rusty Peterman, online campus minister at The Hills Church of Christ in North Richland Hills, Texas, recommends checking out JayKranda.com for quick, free introductions to online streaming. “The videos, courses, wisdom and experience will save you tons of time and effort,” Peterman said.
With a quick scan of the website, choose between “3 Free Video Trainings for Dialing in your Churches Online Experience” and “11 Steps to Embrace Facebook & YouTube Streaming” or watch a webinar on “Simple Steps to Providing an Engaging Online Church Service.”
Kranda, online campus pastor at Baptist megachurch Saddleback in Lake Forest, Calif., is speaking from a place of experience. He oversees a weekly crowd of 20,000 people and sees church online as a new frontier with limitless opportunities.
But Googling isn’t always the answer. Ministers should look around and reach out to each other during this digital transition, experts said.
After gleaning advice, churches will need to pick a streaming service. Facebook, YouTube and Life.Church seem to be the top contenders, with churchonlineplatform.com, developed by Life.Church in Oklahoma City, being the best choice in Peterman’s opinion.
This free platform boasts more than just a video player: It offers chat, live prayer and synced video streaming. Ministers and worship leaders can pre-record and broadcast as “simulated live,” allowing people to watch a service at a synced starting time. Viewers can discuss the message or ask questions as the sermon is happening, according to the website. Churches that use this platform will choose a third-party provider, such as YouTube, to stream their content.
Many ministers sing the praise of this service, but Akins, who preaches to 140 on a good Sunday, is content with Facebook.
While he acknowledges he hasn’t used Life.Church’s service, he feels his small church enjoys the accessibility and option to easily share with friends on Facebook. The beauty is, each church can assess options and decide what works best for it.
Outside of choosing a platform, Taylor Walling, teaching minister at The Hills, says his biggest advice is to start simple, find ways to make it personal, choose engagement over excellence and be consistent.
“Figure out whatever is essential for your stream,” Walling said. “If you’re jumping into livestream for the very first time, it’s wise to have a pre-recorded sermon ready just in case the stream fails. Then you can send that link to your church, and they can still hear the sermon.”
And online doesn’t have to mean “live,” he insists. For some, it’s more feasible to pre-record songs and a sermon and post it to YouTube and share a link at 8 a.m. on Sunday than it is to try to livestream when the congregation has never done it before.
Another key piece is making it personal during this socially distant time. “We are including several moments when we invite the church to read out loud or turn and answer a question or pray together,” said Walling, an Oklahoma Christian University graduate who has worked at The Hills for five years. “This can help worship still feel physical and personal.
“And, of course, be consistent,” he added. “Pick a broadcast schedule, and stick with it. This helps give people a sense of normalcy. Consistent presence makes a big difference right now.”
While some churches only provide online worship, others offer children’s class, adult classes, small groups and other personalized group meetings.
The most popular class option is Zoom Video Communications, a remote conferencing service that combines video and chatting. This service is currently free and will allow organizers to host up to 100 participants, with a 40-minute limit on group meetings. Church leaders can purchase other packages that allow for longer meetings.
“Social distancing is the scariest phrase to a small church right now, so the greatest thing we can do is stay connected face to face.”
Walling and Akins say using Zoom is a no-brainer, allowing families to connect face to face during this isolating time.
“Social distancing is the scariest phrase to a small church right now, so the greatest thing we can do is stay connected face to face,” Akins said.
The best part? The only thing needed to reach members at home is a smart phone or computer.
“But buy a quality microphone,” Akins urged. “There are inexpensive lapel mics and boom mics that will make all the difference. You can put the best message out there, but if no one can hear you, it’s worthless.”
And with more and more unchurched people tuning in, preachers must be heard clearly.
Blake Mitchamore, a 30-something single man living in Moore, Okla., wasn’t regularly attending church until COVID-19 came to town.
“The coronavirus has spurred some feelings in me of hope,” said Mitchamore. “I feel God pulling me back in.”
“This pandemic is scary enough as it is. The thought of possibly having to endure it alone makes it even worse.”
“This pandemic is scary enough as it is. The thought of possibly having to endure it alone makes it even worse,” said Mitchamore, who has been watching the Heritage church online and plans to attend a physical church when it’s safe to attend again. “If something like this ever pops up again, I want a place and a group of people to belong to.”
Online church matters. Working through the failures, the kinks, the new way of worshiping – matters.
“Our workload has increased,” Crum said. “But, we believe, so have people’s desire to connect, to be encouraged and to hear a message of hope.”
LAURA AKINS is the Reviews Editor for The Christian Chronicle. Reach her at [email protected]
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