None of us have done this before. It’s still incredibly surreal. And the situation is… fluid. Even the experts are looking to other experts for advice, and new data keeps arriving by the minute.
In the midst of it all, churches are trying to sort out out to be a healthy participant in a global effort to flatten the effects of a global pandemic. We believe in health, the healing of the nations, so we’re doing everything we can to keep people safe and well.
But we also believe prayer works, that the sacraments matter, that worship isn’t non-essential but essential. So how do we encourage and support continuing faith practices (and frankly, continue the mission of the church, and the financial support of it) when we’re canceling Sunday religious observances for weeks on end?
Well, in the 21st century, it starts with a question of access.
This weekend from our public school ten days worth of paperwork went home with kids who have no Internet connection. Chrome books went home with kids who have Internet connection but no device on which to connect to the Internet. Everybody else’s work is going to be on Google classroom.
Ask yourself: what are the varying levels of access the people of your congregation have to the media you implement to extend your ministry reach? Do they rely on a paper newsletter that arrives in their mailbox? Are they still on a flip phone? Do they have a phone?
Then ensure all the resources you provide during church closings reach everyone. If you offer a livestream of your worship service, or a podcast, make sure you include a transcript of the sermon in an e-mail or print newsletter.
If you don’t yet know the levels of access in the congregation, perhaps now is a good time to conduct a survey. Find out who needs a laptop, who needs an Internet connection, who needs a basic phone plan. Then find people in the congregation who might be willing to fund such items for those who don’t have access.
Finally, a certain amount of access is about familiarity and education. Over the years I’ve found myself borrowing more than one iPhone in order to walk the homebound parishioner through subscribing to our podcast. Once they felt comfortable doing it, they became regular listeners. So offer some one-on-one education through this time (in person or by phone or text) on how to subscribe to your podcasts or livestreams (reminder, there’s a tutorial for almost everything… search Google for starters to learn more).
The Layers Of Media, The Many Platforms
There are so many platforms, so many layers and accretions to the media we access these days. You probably still print some kind of paper newsletter while also posting regular updates on your Facebook page. Maybe you’re one of those creative places making announcement videos at church that play at the end of worship.
So let’s start with the obvious. We’re the people of the book. So there are theses things called Bibles. Hopefully most people have a copy of the Bible in their home.
But do they read it?
A moment such as this is an excellent opportunity to re-awaken and encourage what may have become atrophied exercises in basic biblical literacy.
But it’s the 21st century, and the Internet is a thing. So you can also read the Bible on your phone. There’s an app for that!
Not only is there an app for that, there are incredibly rich study tools online. And there’s a whole series on Youtube, the Bible Project, that will teach you more about the Bible than you ever thought possible.
Use your communications during this season to share these resources with your parishioners, while of course also writing your own commentaries and recording your own sermons.
Best weekly commentary on Sunday’s lessons? Check out Working Preacher. There’s a brief essay on each of the lessons for the upcoming Sunday.
Best online in-depth study tool? Check out Logos.
You can still go to church, just do it solo. Some churches during this time are leaving their facilities unlocked so parishioners can stop by for prayer, Adoration of the Eucharist, etc. At our facility, for example, people can stop by any time to pray in our outdoor columbarium chapel, and to walk the labyrinth. This is a great moment to encourage increased use of such readily available physical plant resources.
This is also an excellent time to teach “body prayers.” Even if we are supposed to social distance for a time, we can still engage our relationship to God physical through many spiritual practices like yoga and other forms of physical prayer.
The New Media Everybody Is Using
E-mail: In many contexts, this one has become the primary dissemination tool for church communication. Great tools include Constant Contact and MailChimp, although depending on the size of the congregation, a group e-mail list can work just as well. Use the pandemic reboot to examine and experiment with the additional tools available to you: surveys, document attachment, insertion of videos, analytic data, and more.
Facebook: Honestly, everybody is here, so you should be using it. The trick is getting better reach. Algorithms on Facebook right now don’t necessarily privilege “pages,” even though pages are the primary space churches can use to publish on the public level. Use the analytic tools to extend reach, and use the many Facebook video and blog posts to learn how to create donation buttons, engage additional fans of the page, and much more.
Texting: Honestly, this is also where everyone is. Our congregation has not implemented group texts yet, but I’d love to learn from readers what they are using. Here’s one good article surveying available tools.
Youtube: A lot of people are here, obviously, and enough video footage to keep the whole universe busy watching dog videos for all eternity. But it’s also an incredibly easy space to create your own channel and begin streaming video, of worship, but also just personal videos on any topic of your choosing. Become Youtuber.
Podcasts: Personally I prefer podcasts to videos, which may be related to my age. I’m Gen X. But truly audio is incredibly popular right now, with the growth of Audible serving as only the most obvious example. We use Audacity to amplify and Buzzsprout to upload our audio recordings to the cloud, which then pushes the recordings to the major providers like iTunes.
Of note, Augsburg Fortress is temporarily expanding permission for all ELCA and ELCIC congregations and worshiping communities to include Augsburg Fortress administered liturgical text and liturgical music copyrights in a livestream or podcast. From March 15 through May 31, 2020, you have permission to livestream or podcast ALL liturgy and music content under copyright to or administered by Augsburg Fortress when that content is being used for worship. No reporting is required.
The New Media You Might Consider
Twitch: This is the main platform for streaming of games. If you are completely unfamiliar with this format, it’s really that simple. People play games, and they broadcast their game play (and typically also a small video headshot in the corner). Most people simply watch the popular streams, but anyone can create a Twitch stream and broadcast their gaming. Once you are playing a game, viewers and the player can chat about anything they want, so there are many possibilities. Here’s a brief introduction to streaming on Twitch.
Slack: Slack is my favorite proprietary instant messaging technology. Basically, it’s like chatting in text, except organized as a shared workspace. Many workplaces use it as co-work space. Personally, we use it in our church office to plan, share documents, organize information and more. And then my Dungeons & Dragons group uses it to play role-playing games when we aren’t face-to-face. It’s that versatile. Encourage Slack use by small groups in your congregation, to conduct bible studies, plan events, discuss prayer life, or even pray together.
Discord: Discord is Slack for gamers. It may have a wider user base than Slack, and also allows you to overlay audio or video conversation over other things you are doing in a shared workspace, like playing video games. The possibilities are endless. And there are even many Christian Discord servers.
A Few Outside The Box Ideas
During these unusual times, engaging with those of other faiths and traditions remains important. Some ideas we are brainstorming right now include hosting shared conversations between faith leaders of various traditions; creating group lists of needs and strengths so people can share resources (like toilet paper) with each other; encourage people to use Google Hangouts or Zoom in order to preach to one another and offer mutual consolation and prayer.
We also sent out a pdf copy of our church directory, and have asked our parishioners to call or text everyone on their page each Sunday.
Finally, this is a culturally and globally enforced sabbath or jubilee, not unlike some of the sabbaths and jubilees encouraged in Scripture. I love this recent poem that accentuates this time as sabbath.
How Shall We Deal With The Sacraments?
So the sacraments are not extras or non-essentials. They are integral to Christian life together? So how shall we steward them during this time. Well, first, it’s important to remember that the main communal sacrament, communion, can be distributed and hosted with any group of any size. Families home and quarantined, those in nursing homes, any group or even in an emergency an individual, can break out some wine and bread and share the meal Christ instituted.
Although it’s wonderful and good to receive communion in a church, with the pastor presiding, and the full beauty of the Sunday liturgy, in other moments, out camping or on a boat, on the road or at a hospital bed, Christ is just as present wherever we gather and say, “This is Christ for you.”
Similarly, baptism can be remembered all the time. We have a shower curtain that helps us remember it daily when we shower. And since we’re all supposed to be washing our hands almost constantly these days, all the more opportunity to remember our baptisms.
None of these practices require fancy digital media tools. They simply require us to creatively integrate the sacraments into daily living.
As we continue in this pandemic season, we will likely find some simple ways to also help our catechumens prepare for baptism at the Easter Vigil. Not sure if this will be a Zoom conference call, or some small group gatherings in a park. But there are ways to cultivate sacramental imagination and life while also following the best guidelines of the CDC.
Last But Not Least: Fund-Raising
Let’s be honest. We still can’t do what we do as churches without the regular giving of the people of God. We rely on it. And a lot of what comes to the church comes through regular offerings given on Sunday mornings.
We offer a method for setting up regular, automated giving on our church web site, and honestly, that is the best and most reliable way to fund the work of the church. If you’re reading this, and like what you’re reading, consider supporting our work.
Additionally, there are new and effective ways to raise money for congregational ministry. One of the best is the Facebook donation button. It takes a bit of leg work to get a button approved for your page. You have to prove you are a non-profit. But once that is set up, Facebook is very effective for fund-raising.
Of course, encourage all the ways to give. Members can mail in their checks, and churches might want to create drop-off locations for giving. Use all the communication tools above to invite giving, and do it regularly throughout this season. Consider it a way to increase the percentage of parishioners who commit to giving through an automated method.
When Martin Luther was dealing with The Black Death plague, he wrote these wise words that can help inform the way we approach things happening in our world right now…
“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash no foolhardy and does not tempt God.”
Luther’s Works Volume 43 pg 132 the letter “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague” written to Rev. Dr. John Hess