MagazineWhat's the Digital

Full Zoom Ahead?

COVID–19 forced many church leaders to change the way they held services and interacted with their congregations. Will this be the future in a post–pandemic world?


After COVID–19 caused the cancellation of church services in Concord, N.H., Major Rick Starkey bought 20 frozen pizzas and delivered them to his congregation one Wednesday in March.

The pizzas came with instructions—”cook them up and be on Zoom at 6 p.m. for a ‘virtual pizza party’ with worship to follow.”

“We knew it was going to be at least a couple of months that we wouldn’t be meeting together,” Starkey said. “I just tried to continue to have fellowship and to bring people together. We wanted to keep everyone focused and let them know we hadn’t forgotten about them.”

As COVID–19 raged, it seemed as if everything in the USA Eastern Territory went virtual through Facebook Live, Zoom, and other platforms (see sidebar).

Did COVID–19 drag Christian ministries into the digital future kicking and screaming?

Phil Cooke, a writer, producer, and media consultant who has helped several prominent Christian organizations engage the culture and move into the future, believes so.

“Since the lockdown, I’ve probably worked harder than I have in the last year,” Cooke said. “Ten or 20 years ago, we could not have launched a global movement like this in two or three months.”

 

Seeing the future

Before the quarantine, Cooke said LifeWay Research found that 41 percent of churches in America had never offered anything online to their congregations.

“No services, no resources, no products, no small groups, nothing,” Cooke said.

“That has all changed dramatically since the COVID–19 shutdown,” Cooke said. Before the pandemic, he recalls pastors telling him they didn’t mind live streaming their services, but they also said, “That’s not real ministry.”

“Well, those guys have completely changed their tune,” Cooke said. “They realize that it’s go online or die.”

Cooke recently spoke to 200 pastors across Russia about improving their livestreams, as well as 50 pastors in South America and several denominational groups in the United States. He also led an online class on the topic for Oral Roberts University, his alma mater.

“There’s just been a huge uptick in the number of pastors and ministry leaders who understand that online is the future,” Cooke said. “What I’m essentially telling them is that, as we start to go back to church, this is not the time to take your foot off the gas with your livestream because, frankly, a significant number of people will not come back to church.

“We’re going to get a significant number of people who will come back, but they’re going to reduce their church visits to one or two times a month. They’re going to watch the livestream the other two times a month. That’s why we need to be really intentional about the livestreams that we do.”

 

It’s about engagement

Cooke said he’s been working for years to help churches with their livestreams. Several church leaders have told him that they generate as much as a third of their income from the livestream audience. One pastor in South Carolina said his livestream audience gave more than his 6,000–member congregation.

“What we’ve discovered is your congregation will support you whether they’re in the building or not,” Cooke said. “They’ll respond if you treat them intentionally, if you take them seriously, if you really engage with them and not just set up a camera off to the side somewhere and show them a glimpse of the service. If you really talk to them, welcome them to the service, look them in the eye, they’ll really get on board.”

Cooke said another pastor told him that before the shutdown, he only had eight subscribers to his YouTube channel. He now has 23,000 subscribers and 30,000 to 50,000 people a week watch his livestream. The church’s Easter service drew 1.5 million people.

“This church only has 900 members,” Cooke said. “He told me, ‘I feel guilty saying this, but I really am not anxious to go back into the building because we’re having more of an impact than we’ve ever had in our history.’ So, the bottom line is, pastors who take it seriously and treat their online audience intentionally are going to see some really remarkable things happen out there.”

 

Virtual worship

However, it was during Sunday worship that Facebook and Zoom had the most influence. Some corps leaders pre–recorded their services and played them on Sunday, while others preferred livestreaming them.

“It has drawn a lot of our congregation members together and we’ve been able to connect in ways that we probably haven’t before,” said Captain Charles Adams of the New Haven, Conn., Corps.

Majors Rick and Bethany Starkey prepare to hold a virtual service with their congregation in Concord, N.H.

Meanwhile, Starkey and his wife, Major Bethany Starkey, used Zoom and Facebook to interact with the members of their corps.

On Sundays before the livestream from Territorial Headquarters, Starkey would go live with praise, prayer, requests, songs, and Bible readings.

Starkey also periodically posted Facebook videos to encourage his congregation.

“It was fellowship as if we were in church together,” he said. “It helped to see each other and talk to each other as we were worshipping. It’s us seeing each other’s faces and expressions and singing the songs together.”

For couples like Sean and Caitlyn Bohanan, who attend the Concord Corps, Zoom has been a huge help in keeping them connected since they have two small children.

Sean said evening events at the church happen just as he’s getting out of work or preparing the kids for bed. With Zoom, he can still take part.

“This is a good balance because the kids still have somewhat of a routine, but we’re still able to partake in church services,” he said.

Caitlyn agreed, adding, “It’s nice with Zoom because you can still see everybody and chat with everybody and hear everybody’s praises and prayer requests.”

 

Greater connections?

Lieutenant Michael Borrero, the corps officer in Meriden, Conn., said he saw his congregation “take church out of a building and into their own personal lives” during COVID–19.

“We did Bible studies via Zoom and we saw the potential for our members to be able to see what the Bible and a verse is saying,” he said. “They would give opinions and were more active.

“We’ve seen an increase in that and it’s been a great blessing to see how our congregation has grown when they read the scriptures and meditate and worship on their own. They’re finding ways to connect with God outside of a building.”

Lieutenant Bree Barker, the corps officer in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., said it has been difficult not having live church, but she sees advantages to virtual worship.

“We did Zoom meetings with our people, and I think we actually got closer to each other spiritually, at least those who were on the calls,” she said. “They were more honest and open with each other. To be honest, I had time to chat with the adults, when usually on a Sunday morning I feel like I’m herding cats.”

In Spring Valley, N.Y., the corps held weekly Bible studies, Sunday school, and worship in Haitian Creole, Spanish, and English, via Zoom.

“We did as many programs as we could on Zoom,” said Major Tom Hinzman. “We continued to reach out to all of our people with electronic programs.”

Hinzman said he often tags several government and community Facebook pages to draw a larger audience. Some people have sent in money and mentioned that they saw the videos.

“It’s amazing how many people who we’ve never heard of or seen before are watching the videos and are responding,” he said. “We’re hoping that will open the eyes of the people to what the Army is doing and just help people feel more connected to what’s available and what’s being done at the corps.”

 

Getting them back

Cooke said some pastors have expressed worry that parishioners won’t return after COVID.

“I think the answer to that is you’ve got to really have an experience worth coming back to,” Cooke said. “If all you do is play a few songs and get up and preach and go home, I could watch that online. I don’t need to see that in a live service. But if you have something for me to come to and be a part of community, that’s different.

“You’ve got to be just as intentional about creating connections in community live as you were about doing it online. If you can do that, you’ll have a better chance of getting people to come back. They want to get plugged into something. They want to change the world. They want to be a part of something big.”

Cooke said livestreams and Zooms can’t replace fellowship with church family, corporate worship, and prayer, but the younger generation sees things differently.

“You talk to anybody 35 years or younger and you’ll find that online is fellowship to them; that’s community,” he said. “For these folks, being on a Zoom call, being on FaceTime, and being live on Zoom is just as much community as real life. So, we have to look at it from their perspective, not just our traditional perspective.”

Cooke said changes brought on by the pandemic may be here to stay because church leaders realize the future is online. He remembers the criticism Commissioner James Knaggs received when he launched the Salvation Army’s Vision Network in 2011, but the times have changed.

“I hate saying there’s a plus side to a pandemic, but if there is, it’s made thousands and thousands of pastors and church leaders aware that there is a serious, legitimate congregation online out there and we need to take them more seriously,” Cooke said.

“To say today that ‘we’re going to do ministry without online’ is like saying 100 years ago that ‘we’re going to do ministry, but without books.’ That would have been ridiculous 50 years ago. Now, to say I’m going to be a pastor, but I’m not going to mess with the online thing, is just as ridiculous.”

Cooke said the implications for evangelism are staggering. With a world population of 7.8 billion and a nearly 85 percent literacy rate, that means 6.6 billion people could connect through online networks.

“Why are we not jumping into that, full bore?” Cooke said. “We think of missions only in terms of geographical boundaries. Let’s start thinking about missions in terms of digital boundaries. Many of them have cell phones. What can we do to start reaching the world with the gospel through the online technology we have at our fingertips?

“This is the greatest opportunity available that’s happened in the last 200 to 300 years. This could be a game–changer if we just take this seriously.”

by Robert Mitchell

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