Author Kate Rivera is a young person who is a member of Nichols Bethel UMC in Odenton. In her role as an audio technician at the church, she notes that even as churches are re-entering their buildings, many are opting to also maintain an online presence for worship. She offers some insights on keeping people focused on faith and creating online experiences.
If the People Cannot Go to Church, Then Church Must Go to the People
"Anyone else folding their laundry right now?"
This simple, apparently innocent question was left in the online chat of a church's live stream. However, if people are doing their laundry or engaging in other distractions at home, they are less likely to be paying full attention to worship.
Normally, no one would bring clothes to fold to church because their purpose in coming is to deepen their relationship with God and fellow Christians. Clearly, online worship is not engaging people but instead being viewed more like entertainment that people typically access on their electronic devices.
Yet, stay-at-home orders and lockdowns preclude convening together as a church community and force people to watch virtual services from their houses, creating the problem of congregations failing to continue their faith journeys. Pastors need an approach that encourages people in a "Martha world" to set aside their busy schedules and be more like Mary, who Jesus praised for taking a break from her chores to listen without distraction to his teachings.
Unlike in-person services where worshippers set aside a particular time and place dedicated only to hearing God's word, virtual services leave people at home with tempting diversions that cause them not to be completely present in their worship. To address this challenge, online services and activities should strive for deeper religious experiences that inspire people's hearts, minds, bodies, and souls.
Endeavoring to captivate people's attention, pastors and worship leaders should focus on offering participatory online worship, virtual small group activities, and interactive social media, which have people, even at home, actively partake in their faith. While implementing these three types of programs, worship leaders can employ many strategies that capitalize on the communal aspects of the digital world, thus helping to facilitate authentic, transcendent relationships with God and other Christians.
If pastors do not throw in the towel, they can stop their worship from being a "laundry service" and instead help people grow in their faith even when only at-home worship is allowed.
Participatory Online Worship
Worship leaders need to move away from passive online worship by creating an environment that gets people talking to each other about the message and relating it to their own lives.
In one approach, small groups of people gather together in watch parties using video conferencing services. Doug Powe and Ann A. Michel, the director and co-director, respectively, of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, remark that these online gatherings bring people together to chat about the sermon and readings under the guidance of a host. W. David O. Taylor, a professor of theology at Fuller Seminary, adds to this subject that, to assist people in growing their faith, the host should answer questions posed by guests but also present a series of questions about the sermon. The host can help monitor the group while also guiding them into more in-depth discussions through these questions and answers.
Going beyond live streams, video conferencing can also give guests the chance to interact with each other before and after the service, simulating the in-person social experience. Through these conversations, the congregants go beyond simple viewing, encouraging them to connect actively with others in their church family. Overall, watch parties foster interactions within the body of believers, creating deeper spiritual and social discussions and drawing them more fully into the worship experience.
In another approach to online worship, pastors draw more people into taking an actual part in the worship service. To do this, Taylor suggests that pastors "arrange for certain people in the community to pre-record a testimony of God's faithfulness in the middle of these trying times and to share it during the service."
Getting more people involved in the actual service gives those speaking a chance to share their own spiritual story while enabling the audience to transform their own journey by connecting to other laypeople. Congregations need a "true human connection and community, driven by empathy,” even through online church. As Paul wrote to the Romans, Christians must "rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn" (Romans 12:15). Without this, authentic relationships with God and others will not form. Cynthia L. Hale, founder and lead pastor of the Ray of Hope Christian Church, builds on this idea by testifying to her success by inviting panels and special guest speakers to talk to the congregation on different subjects. Listening to diverse people, from within and outside the church community, can provide unique perspectives that will bring a more profound understanding of God to the congregants. Church services should not mimic television shows that just tell a story but should inspire people to be active participants in developing their relationship with God and the people around them.
Virtual Small Group Activities
Additionally, weekly online services can be supported during the week with participatory, virtual small groups, affording people a continuous development of their faith. In more intimate online gatherings, worship leaders can encourage each person to explore their relationship with God and share their experiences of faith. One type of small group needed to provide a Christian foundation is Sunday school, which can be taught with video conferencing services.
The most basic part of forming a relationship is learning about each other. Thus, to have a relationship with God, a worshipper needs to learn and understand God's word from the Bible. In a Podcast interview, Dr. Kevin M. Watson, a professor who holds a Ph.D. in the History of Christianity and Wesleyan Studies, comments, "Do you know what you need to know to be a Christian?. . . That is the case for Sunday school.” Learning what is taught in the Bible is a vital tool for a faith journey. Watson explains that just like running shoes are essential for someone to take up running, knowledge of the Bible is essential for someone trying to get closer to God. Providing small-group Sunday school is therefore beneficial and should be undertaken even if people can only meet on the Internet.
The second type of small group, easily implemented virtually but vital to the Christian life, is prayer meetings. As Christians learn God's word, they must also talk to Him through prayer since communication is vital in any relationship. The act of sharing prayer not only strengthens the bond between a believer and God but also strengthens connections between Christians as they share life's petitions and thanks. Thom S. Rainer, former president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, writes, "During the COVID-19 pandemic, the roadways of digital technology became a major conduit for prayer ministries to travel. Groups would gather online for Zoom-enabled prayer meetings.” Gathering mid-week in small groups, video meetings provide an excellent opportunity for Christians to pray communally. A spiritual closeness is formed as people share their individual prayer requests and then pray an intercessory prayer out loud together as one voice, knowing that God hears them as a united group even though they are physically apart.
A third and more intimate type of small group that pastors can provide online is a Methodist church practice called "class meetings." Desiring an introspection of their own spiritual journey, some Christians participate in meetings where they evaluate how well they walk with Jesus daily in all aspects of their lives. Watson emphasizes that "the class meeting provides a structure that can connect everyone to a small group of people within the community of faith. And even more important than whether people are connected is whether they are in a relationship with Jesus Christ and are growing in that relationship"
These small gatherings encourage people to learn to interpret the relationship they have with God. The group members grow together as a Christian community while they share their experiences of God in their lives and encourage other members to be faithful followers of God.
Once again, virtual conferencing platforms can accommodate these meetings by allowing people to see and hear each other despite not being physically together. Even retreats held remotely have been successful. Hale described how her congregants broke down together during a men's virtual weekend while revealing the challenges in their lives, proving that, even at a distance, humans can show grace and empathy to each other. Nick Weatherford, a lay member, and class meeting member concludes, "We are not asked to, or intended to do this alone. I would argue from personal experience that our faith will wither away over time if we do not proactively involve ourselves in community with other believers"
From educating each other to connecting emotionally, holding small group sessions virtually is important, even when in-person meetings are not possible, to allow Christian communities to stay strong and continue to mature in faith.
Interactive Social Media
Still, worship services and group meetings are only specks of times dotted throughout the week, leaving large gaps of time for a silent church. Fortunately, the virtual world already reaches constantly into many people's homes in the form of social media. By leveraging social media, worship leaders can help people maintain human bonds by sharing experiences and emotions. But, people cannot share experiences if they do not know what, when, or how worship or activities will happen. Prior to the stay-at-home order, the fundamental methods of communicating logistics for worship and activities were conversations and signs.
However, Glenda Boone, a church marketing consultant for over 20 years, explains that "mobile devices permit ready access to members for special announcements, reminders, and notifications that services and programs are due to begin. Leveraging this new cultural norm provides new, immediate, constant and arguably, intimate contact with members in an unprecedented way.”
Because mobile device apps, email, and texts can relay information to people daily, churches can take advantage of this technology to keep people connected to their faith community between services and meetings. Even time-sensitive prayer and need requests can be pushed out almost instantaneously to all members of a congregation so that immediate care can be provided. In a world where face-to-face conversations are unsafe, churches can embrace social media to keep open lines of communication with their church family and their community, reminding and encouraging them that they are part of the church even online.
Not only can social media push information out to people, but social media can also collect information for pastors to gauge the needs of their congregations. Without pastors and congregants easily being able to talk spontaneously one-on-one, people's needs may not even be known. Addressing this concern, Boone points out that social media tools, like surveys, voting pop-ups, and questionnaires, can help congregants report their needs and interests. Since every person is in a different place on their life and faith journeys, pastors have the difficult task of determining what their church needs to grow spiritually.
A survey can appraise the pastors of what difficulties and hardships people, especially those not currently attending any small groups, are experiencing. This feedback improves a pastor's ability to plan topics for new discussion groups and classes. For example, Katie Saari, the associate pastor at Nichols-Bethel United Methodist Church, conducted a survey to determine what parents of young children needed from the church during the pandemic. The survey prompted two well-received virtual parent fellowship and study groups about intentional parenting and self-care. Also, during larger conferences or worship services, an appropriately placed pop-up question can engage the audience in a two-way exchange. During an in-person sermon, a pastor may ask attendees to give a descriptive word for how a biblical character felt when they encountered Jesus, such as when Thomas saw the resurrected Jesus's wounds from the cross; now, online pastors could ask with a pop-up question and read people's answers out loud. The question causes more profound thought about the message and how those feelings connect with their own relationship with God. In general, the use of digital questions can help pastors engage people on the other side of the computer and provide insight into what they are thinking.
Furthermore, social media can keep people actively involved in their Christian community by providing them a way to share an inspiring bible verse or personal story. As Powe and Michel indicate, "The simplest option is posting links to sermons or worship experiences to social media platforms. People can share the post and comment briefly about how the sermon impacted them or mention something that touched them in the worship experience.”
Worshipers can be encouraged to share sermons on their social media and bear witness to how the sermon relates to or has affected their personal lives. The sharing of God's message and their relationship to it not only enriches their spiritual growth but also influences others' religious progress. Worship leaders should not think of phone calls or hand-written notes as being replaced but instead value social media as an additional tool for communicating rapidly with many fellow worshippers. The effective implementation of social media promotes interaction and the dissemination of information, contributing to relationship building.
With the arrival of COVID-19, the use of live streams, virtual conferences, and social media became inevitable. In today's world, where meeting in person is not allowed and possibly unsafe, the next step is to educate worship leaders about the many ways to engage and transform their congregations through virtual means. Even when social distancing ceases, churches will need to know how to use technology for remote worship.
Although the concept of using technology may seem not only daunting to many pastors but even godless, these tools are not inherently bad for worship. Just remember, technology should never be used for popular entertainment but instead for the forging of transformative relationships with God and others. Christian services should skip the fancy camera angles (even if the tech crew got a shiny new drone for Christmas), the disco balls (even if the worship team knows how to do "The Hustle"), and the fog machines (even if the praise band reminds you of the Addams family), and instead focus on drawing people's active bodies, loving hearts, steadfast minds, and spiritual souls into worshipping God. With the right attitude and approach, relationships can be developed and strengthened, turning a challenging age into a time of spiritual growth.