Long before the pandemic struck, Science Hill Friends Meeting in southwestern Randolph County, North Carolina, was slowly bleeding to death, like many small churches in rural America. Once a thriving Quaker community of nearly 100 Friends, over the years many of our youngest members grew up and moved away, and core members of an increasingly elderly population died. Attendance dwindled to just 60 on a good day. Our country setting, the rolling hills of the ancient Uwharrie Mountains and what we loved most about our community, wasn’t drawing new people quickly enough to fill our pews.
We weren’t alone; in fact, according to Thom Rainer, a former pastor and national expert on revitalization, at least 20 churches just like ours close every single day.
The arrival of the coronavirus could have been our literal death knell, especially as our governor issued an executive order in March 2020 halting mass gatherings. If a pandemic wasn’t bad enough, in October our pastor resigned. We had to act fast or risk shutting our doors forever. But God does indeed work in mysterious ways, and divine intervention flew in on the wings of technology. Along with faith communities everywhere, we’re rejoicing in the science of communication. What we’ve learned might help you and your leaders too.
Embrace New Ways to Gather
Science Hill had to accept that our beloved meeting house, built by the original Friends in 1894, wasn’t the only place where members could gather. Although our governor lifted the moratorium in May 2020 to allow limited indoor assemblies, many members resisted meeting inside the sanctuary, even with masks and social distancing, for fear of getting sick. As we scheduled a series of dynamic speakers to fill the absence of a dedicated pastor, we knew that we needed to branch out and offer more ways to come together beyond meeting in person.
A progressive group of elders invested in Science Hill’s first-ever computer—a generational leap for a country church that first met under a brush arbor. Elder Kelly Kunz, a professional engineer, used his tech acumen to connect a refurbished desktop computer to a new camcorder with an HDMI output. With the help of shareware, we streamed our service live on Facebook and on a 72-inch screen on our porch, broadcasting the sound through a loudspeaker and an FM transmitter. Now people could watch from inside the meeting house, socially distanced, or from lawn chairs outside. They could tune in from their car radios in the parking lot or from home. For someone like me, a 20-year warrior of multiple sclerosis, having the option to occasionally worship from home was especially appealing. The same goes for anyone still in quarantine, recovering from another illness, or otherwise homebound.
And I wasn’t alone. Zooming the Kaddish, the ancient Jewish mourning prayer, which ordinarily requires a quorum of 10 adults in person, was a special accommodation for the Beth David Synagogue in Greensboro, North Carolina. “Going online meant that people as far away as Milwaukee and Florida could participate,” said Rabbi Joshua Ben-Gideon. “Even after we can gather in person again, we plan to find a way to make sure that members beyond Greensboro can continue to take part in our services.”
For Aditya Sharma of Durham, North Carolina, a facilitator of the Bhagavad Gita study sessions on the Hindu scripture, the internet presented a unique opportunity to connect and share the teachings of the Gita as interpreted by well-known and celebrated spiritual teacher Swami Mukundananda, who travels the world. Sharma’s weekly online sessions, coordinated as a part of JKYog Academy, attract a global audience with as many 58 to 120 attendees each, with just about 60 percent from the US, 30 percent from India, and 10 percent from other parts of the world.
Engage Your Audience
Larger organizations such as the 3,000-member Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh were already using streaming services and recording them before the pandemic, but they jumped at the opportunity to do more and connect more deeply with their congregation during this time of crisis.
“We have really increased our chat functions during the service,” said John Erwin, the executive pastor. “This includes engagement strategies with special moments that individuals watching can respond to by clicking a link and/or virtually raising their hand to trust Christ or be prayed for.”
Retired pastor Danny Lemons, who most recently led discipleship for 14 years at the 400-member Messiah United Methodist Church in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, says Messiah is experiencing as much as a 100 percent increase in online attendance. To keep their members engaged, they distribute digital versions of their bulletin and hymn lyrics in advance.
At Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, pastor Andrew Taylor-Troutman not only uploads a recorded sermon weekly that may be viewed asynchronously from their website but also offers a virtual weekly communion service. Participants prepare their own bread and cup at home, and after the prayer, they take turns serving themselves, all in real time.
Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, which hosts a religious school and early learning center, supplements online lessons with surveys from polling apps and word cloud generators to keep their students engaged.
Build New Bridges
During the height of the pandemic, and after the murder of George Floyd, Taylor-Troutman reached out to pastor Larry Neal of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, a historically African-American community also in Chapel Hill. “When I suggested that our two churches pray together,” said Taylor-Troutman, “Reverend Neal didn’t just say yes, he offered up a plan calling for our people to join together weekly.” The two faith leaders then coordinated a weekly conference call, and they recently upgraded to Zoom, where participants interact and pair up as prayer partners.
The internet has also provided a much safer and more flexible alternative to handing around the traditional offering plate. Visitors to the website for Chapel in the Pines now give to the mission of their choice online through a customized drop-down menu. This approach fostered new initiatives such as a partnership with a local restaurant to provide meals for those in need, a project that serves the community and spurs economic development. With this new approach, said Taylor-Troutman, revenues at Chapel in the Pines rose by 8 percent.
Michael Fulp, pastor of Cedar Square Friends Meeting in High Point, North Carolina, credits innovation with helping his congregation retain their youth, a challenge for churches across the nation. “Young people are far more comfortable with iPhones, iPads and computers than the older generation, and this helps keep them connected to us. The same goes for social media. Our Facebook followers have doubled from 200 to 400.”
“Another benefit of technology is that it allowed us to bring together other congregations from the Reform Jewish community across the state and nation,” said senior rabbi Lucy Dinner of Temple Beth Or. “For example, we hosted a joint Shabbat service to honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and soon we’ll also be offering a virtual lunch and learning event with two hours of education, featuring rabbis from other temples.”
Seize the Power of Content
While faith communities may not be the first to adopt the corporate “cloud-first mentality,” we can think outside the box and put valuable in-house resources to work for our benefit. For the first time in years, the Science Hill choir wasn’t able to assemble to practice for our annual Christmas Cantata in December. In lieu of an in-person event, we simply streamed a favorite performance from our DVD archives, and all viewers, whether online or at the meeting house, enjoyed the nostalgia of watching familiar faces gather and sing.
Similarly, at Kadampa Center, the community dedicated to the practice of Tibetan Buddhism in Raleigh, the gompa, or meditation room, remains closed because of the pandemic. Donna Seese, spiritual coordinator, replays teachings online that their instructor Geshe Gelek gave last fall. Participants review the points of each lesson or join one another in silent meditation each week.
At Science Hill we can’t imagine ever going back to a world without streaming. The variety of speakers has sparked more interest in our community than ever before. In fact, our meeting house would have to be enlarged at least five times to hold the 555 people who viewed a recent service online.
David Millikan, pastor of Asheboro Friends Meeting, just a few miles away, concurs. “We have followers as far away as Australia now, and this year someone there actually donated to our local ‘Stockings for the Homeless’ project.”
“After a decrease in views as we reopened physically,” said Providence’s Erwin, “we’re now seeing increases in both physical and virtual attendance. We’re continuing to embrace digital missions, and this will be part of our ministry after the pandemic is over.”
“Zoom has been a wonderful benefit during this terrible pandemic, as it allows us to continue offering teachings and, equally important, allows us to see and talk with one another, even to a limited degree, so it helps preserve the sense of community,” says Seese. “I definitely plan to continue offering virtual classes when we are able to get back into the gompa for in-person events. So, while we have the unfortunate collective negative karma to be suffering this pandemic, we also have the good karma to have access to online tools that allow our community to remain in touch and continue the teachings.”
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“For churches, the technology that helps people feel most connected to each other will be adopted the quickest,” said Andrew Barnes, Providence Baptist’s director of production. “I do think we’ll try to become better content developers and attempt to carve out space on platforms dominated by secular voices.”
“The next step for faith communities could be the frontier of virtual reality,” said Sharma, who is also a professor of technology and business. “Picture this. One day you may be able to watch your own avatar—a digital version of yourself—sitting in the temple setting and virtually lighting a candle.” Sharma sees no conflict between God and technology. “God put the principles in place for us; scientific endeavor is discovering these principles by which the material world operates.”
At Science Hill, we’re not planning to don virtual reality headsets or replace person-to-person relationships. In fact, we bolster our online activities by doing what we’ve always done: dropping off gift baskets and food to those in need. But we’re looking forward to hiring a pastor to help us continue to learn and grow. We’ve posted our vacancy on electronic message boards across the nation and world, and our elders recently held the first online meeting of our search committee. And this latest leap comes just in time, because applications for our pastor position are coming from as far away as North Dakota and Tanzania.
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