Online Worship Shifts Our Perspectives on Modern Ministry
May 6, 2020
By: Aimee Yeager
With stay-at-home orders across the state of North Carolina, United Methodist churches in Western North Carolina found creative ways to “gather” for worship, missions, and other discipleship activities. For many churches, this means moving online. The reality of online worship has affected every aspect of our congregational and communal lives as clergy and laity. And, depending on our social context, it has had a variety of impacts on our churches and ministries – shifting our perspectives on ministry and online engagement.
Perspective Shift #1: Maybe live streaming is the new church doorhanger.
For some churches, streaming their services online is not new. Many congregations across the Conference have been supplementing their in-person ministries with livestreams or uploaded recordings of their services for years. While the pandemic has moved their services to fully online, the Shiloh/Wesley Chapel Charge in Statesville has been streaming their services for almost a year. Rev. David Miner, pastor of the charge, says that since they began airing their services online last year, attendance at Shiloh UMC has increased by nearly thirty percent.
“Online to offline” (commonly abbreviated O2O) is a fundamental phrase in digital marketing that refers to moving customers from a digital experience (i.e. shopping at Target online) to a physical experience (picking up your item in store). Online to offline models are not just for retail stores, however. Churches are now experiencing the benefits of O2O. Consider, an online visitor completes a Google search for churches in your area. They find your website and begin exploring. They follow your social media accounts. They watch your services. They attend a Zoom small group. When we begin meeting face-to-face again, they walk in your sanctuary doors for the first time.
Canvassing the local neighborhood handing out flyers or leaving door hangers used to be the go-to outreach for the marketing arm of the church. Online worship may be shifting that perspective.
As Rev. Miner shares, “…even though we can’t be together in person, we are together in spirit, greatly assisted by Facebook and technology.” The same Spirit that holds us together, draws in our neighbors as well. We must simply make ourselves available to serve.
Perspective Shift #2: Stepping into cyberspace allows us to increase the reach of the Gospel.
As we refrain from gathering in person, many congregations are lamenting their inability to safely gather for traditional events. During one such discussion about the upcoming Spring Revival season, Rev. Dr. Otto Harris, pastor of St. Mark’s UMC in Charlotte, and Rev. Dr. Stephanie Moore Hand, vitality strategist for the Metro District, determined to attempt an online revival.
“We also wanted to contribute to the perpetual Christian/Methodist voices of hope in cyberspace,” Dr. Harris said. “It has gone better than expected. It was a pretty quick cycle of dreaming, planning, coordinating, and executing (about two weeks). So far, we’ve had 960 views from four days of revival. We’ve had (known) participants from Charlotte, Greensboro, High Point, Fayetteville, Martinsville, and Richmond.”
Online worship is not without its challenges and downfalls, however. In many black churches, the preaching moment is energized through the vocal feedback, or ‘talk-back’, from the congregation. The absence of this shared experience is hard to overcome online. “It is difficult, if not impossible to capture with an online experience,” Dr. Harris observes. “We encourage the virtual congregation to ‘talk-back’ in the chat rooms and message boards. But it is not real time and not voiced.”
And yet, in so many ways, moving the revival online increased the reach of the Gospel – allowing viewers from across the state to watch preachers who were able to participate regardless of the usual travel or schedule restrictions. Dr. Harris also notes the event provided opportunities for volunteer participation from their ministry teams, which built internal trust and opened the door for God to use their many gifts and talents.
This revival has been “a mighty move of God,” one viewer responded.
Dr. Harris rejoices, “People are not coming to ‘visit God’ in a central space, but God [is] ‘visiting’ people in their homes.”
To watch St. Mark’s Spring Revival, Diaspora Methodists, visit their YouTube page at http://www.revival.saintmarks.church.
Perspective Shift #3 – “We walk around with the sanctuary of God every single day.”
Without a doubt, last Sunday’s service looked different than the worship services Rev. Nathan Snider led at the beginning of his career. Snider, pastor of Fair Grove UMC In Thomasville, is only months away from retirement, and this is not how he envisioned his ministerial career wrapping up.
“I was definitely not expecting my last few months of pastoral ministry to be like this,” Rev. Snider said. “It has been a challenge to learn to do Facebook and YouTube posting.”
Like so many retiring pastors, Rev. Snider had been planning to finish his ministry strong. He had a summer sermon series planned and his last Sunday scheduled. In addition, he had two new ministry initiatives ready to roll out this spring. The restrictions on gatherings has put all these things on hold for now.
After 29 years as a United Methodist pastor, Rev. Snider says this time has brought a new perspective on the way we prioritize our ministries and where we place our focus. He reminds us that we do not need a sanctuary to experience God – our bodies are God’s sanctuary.
“I have come to understand more fully, that although Sunday morning worship is an important part of living out our faith, there are six other days that are as important. We walk around with the sanctuary of God every single day. The church of God is indeed a ‘people.’ Jesus says in Matthew 28, ‘as you go about,’ make disciples. As you go about ‘being’ the people of God, make disciples.”
Shifting to online worship and virtual ministry has taken its toll on all of us – clergy and laity alike. It has been a challenge, to say the least. But the Church of God has always been ready to rise. It is not what we are used to, but it is what we have. And we know that God will bless and use all that we offer up. May our virtual Kingdom work continue to reach our neighbors, and beyond, as we go about being the people of God.