Saturday, October 21, 2023

Pandemic Pushes Churches to Embrace Technology in Ministry

By Tracy Simmons

Screenshot of Washington Avenue Christian Church service premiered on YouTube

Rev. Nathan Russell still isn’t sure how, during the pandemic, his congregation in Elyria, Ohio picked up a 90-plus-year-old new member living in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.

“I don’t know how she found us. Google?,” he said.

He does know why she keeps coming back, though: Accessibility.

“One of the key things I learned is that access is an issue of justice within the church, and that applies online,” he said. 

So when Washington Avenue Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) moved their services to YouTube, Russell was sure to have the hymn lyrics in large font on the screen, and closed captioning available during spoken word.

Since COVID, Washington Avenue Christian Church has embraced technology in its ministry. The church’s website describes its in-person and online worship service as an emerging system that is rising from the global pandemic.

Because the church prioritized accessibility, the woman from Maryland – named Shirley –  kept coming back, virtually. Today, three generations of her family tune in regularly to services and are giving members to the congregation.

Digital Prayers

When Shirley’s son had a heart attack and needed invasive surgery, Russell wanted to offer pastoral care. But because of COVID and the distance between his home and theirs, he couldn’t be with their family.

“There was no way I could make a visit, it was at the peak of everything,” Russell recalled. 

So he recorded a prayer for them on his iPhone’s voice memo app and sent it to them, offering for them to use it as they saw fit.

“What I didn’t know, what I couldn’t even have imagined, is that they forwarded that prayer to all their distant family,” he said.

And, Russell said, the prayer was played in the pre-operating room.

“The prayer was in the places where I could not physically go,” he said. “So now that’s a routine part  of my pastoral care, post-pandemic. It goes places I know I cannot get. Sometimes it’s really too emotionally compromising for people (for me) to pray with them in a hospital room, but listening to a recorded prayer again and again isn’t.”

He said it’s one outcome from the pandemic of how the church is using technology in a new way.

Premiering on YouTube

Like most congregations today, (73% of congregations, according to the most recent report from Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations) Washington Avenue is hybrid. However, they’ve chosen not to livestream their services.

A few unobtrusive cameras are placed around the sanctuary and record the Sunday morning service. Afterward, the pastor edits the service in iMovie and then posts it to YouTube at 6 p.m.

He said the church does this in part because of personnel and technology limitations, but also so that the broadcasted service can be more engaging, which includes intentionally using the YouTube live chat feature.

On Sunday mornings about 55 people attend, and the church just surpassed 100,000 views on its YouTube Channel.

The Scroll Culture

More recently, Russell began utilizing Instagram reels to reach more people. He said he posts 30, 60 or 90-second ‘hot takes’ from the sermon, which regularly get between 500 to 2,000 views.

“They have a life of their own,” he said, adding that in this ‘scroll culture’ people are more likely to watch a short sermon reel than click on a 30-minute YouTube sermon. 

Adam Graber, co-host of the Device & Virtue podcast, said when it comes to technology, churches have control over what type of experience they want online users to have.

Adam Graber

“Whether it’s Zoom or Facebook Live, the features of those platforms certainly dictates, to some degree, the kinds of interactions people can have and that churches can have with those people,” he said.

For example, he said if a church wants there to be engaging online conversation, Zoom may not be the answer since it’s difficult to have multiple conversations going at once.

Larger churches, he noted, tend to be able to produce high quality broadcast experiences, which are highly valued there. Smaller congregations, though, might focus more on creating a conversational hybrid experience.

Technology and Church Culture

“The culture of the church matters,” Graber said. 

He said churches trying to navigate the digital world should have structures in place and plan how they want to engage online. He explained that the internet can feel chaotic, when really every platform has rules to make it more navigable.

“Don’t think that means you can’t be playful or have fun, but it’s playfulness in a structured way. Even Red Rover has a set of rules,” he said.

For that reason, he said his theory is that more liturgical churches may find it easier to navigate the hybrid world than charismatic congregations.

Still Graber, an Anglican, said he’s noticed some things work better online than others. Call and response, for instance, he says gets lost in the virtual world. Prayer though, he said works well.

“Prayer can and should be a central part of the life of the church and the fact that it translates online so well could mean that the church finds an opportunity that they haven’t maybe seen flourish in their community,” he said. “You can’t lay hands on one another, but hybrid actually offers maybe a little degree of safety that some people might need if they’re feeling anxious sharing a prayer request, it lowers that barrier a bit.”

Social media and Zoom are common platforms used in churches, but Graber said there are lots of other digital ways to stay connected. According to EPIC data, over half of surveyed congregations use a social media host like Facebook Live, followed closely by 47% of churches that employ a video hosting platform such as YouTube, and a third using a conferencing service like Zoom.

He’s seen some congregations use Discord or Slack or text message threads for small groups, noting that text messaging is the easier option for most people.

“I think people get some of the relational benefits of connection when their phone lights up throughout the day,” he said.

Graber’s also been a fan of Alter Live, which is a platform that essentially allows users to sit in a row with up to three other people – like a church pew experience. During the livestream users only see those in their row and can interact with them, similar to an in-person church experience.

However a church chooses to go digital, Graber said, “intentionality goes a long way.”