Zooming ahead in USA East
It’s a brave new virtual world and the Salvation Army’s Eastern Territory is right in the middle of it. When the COVID-19 pandemic brought a quarantine and new social distancing rules, several territorial events started going online.
First, it was “Worship Together,” which is pre–recorded and broadcast Sunday mornings. Then came the virtual versions of Commissioning, the Territorial Arts Ministries (TAM) Conservatory, Star Lake Musicamp, and the Youth Department’s “Morning Disco.” It also appears that the “Welcome to the Cadets” in September could be online.
“I do think this quarantine has really forced us to tap into new technologies that then help us to come together,” says Jon Knaggs, the Communications Department’s social media director.
The “Worship Together” service, which began in March right after the COVID-19 lockdown, is filmed on Thursday and undergoes editing into the weekend. The broadcast is Sunday morning in both English and Spanish.
“That’s been time-consuming, but it’s been a good experience for us,” says Joe Pritchard, the Communications Department’s media director.
“It’s basically taping a short TV show. Different elements are taped in different locations.”
Pritchard said Commissioning was “stressful” and a challenge, given that it was supposed to coincide with the 2020 Congress, which was cancelled. Alternate plans had to be made in a hurry.
One challenge was the constantly changing state guidelines on social distancing. Organizers finally decided to tape most of the events at the College for Officer Training (CFOT) with no audience, only a few camera operators and officers, and the cadets.
“Again, it was almost like producing a TV show,” Pritchard said. “We had to actually pre-record more than 60 percent of the whole commissioning event.
“We were able to do what we needed to do and film accordingly with very few people in the room, while sticking to the social distancing guidance and direction put out by the state.”
Pritchard said his team worked around the tight schedules of the cadets, who were finishing up classes, to get the video shot and edited in time. The final product was a mix of live shots and pre-recorded material.
“We really wanted it to feel like it was a live event, but I think overall people felt it was seamless and people had a pretty good feeling of how it all went down,” he said.
The entire Saturday night event at Commissioning, featuring praise and worship, was pre-recorded.
“We really wanted the cadets to have this time together and still make it special for them, while still abiding by all the protocols that were put in place because of COVID–19,” Pritchard said. “I think we were able to accomplish that, and I think most of the cadets had a good experience.
“We’ll always remember that time because it was unique and different.”
The virtual events this summer even extended to children. Beginning in July and running through August, the territory’s Youth Department invited children aged 6–12 and their parents to dance, laugh, sing, and learn about God’s love. The program is called “Morning Discovery: the online Children’s Ministry Show” or “Morning Disco” for short.
The 23–minute variety program includes upbeat songs, dancing, Bible verses, and friendly competitions between members of the youth department. Most importantly, Morning Disco is a reminder to young people that, despite everything going on in the world today, God is present and powerful in all our lives.
Captain Jason Knaggs, the Youth Department secretary, directed the first episode and provided color commentary for its “Let There Be Light” competition. He says that Morning Disco came from children’s worship ministries at Salvation Army summer camps, where he and his wife, Captain Leslie Knaggs, had worked for eight years as camp directors.
“We always had a vision to present what we had in camps for others to see, but COVID–19 made us speed up the process,” says Captain Jason.
Jon Knaggs said one challenge with all the virtual programming has been getting younger audiences engaged.
“Trying to get kids’ ongoing attention, all the time, is always difficult—even in person,” he said. “So, forget about not having them in front of you and trying to keep them engaged on a computer screen.”
The technical aspect has also been a “huge struggle,” Jon Knaggs said, including making sure everyone has the right cameras, microphones, internet connection, and Zoom capability.
“There are a lot of people tapping into technology they’ve never used before,” he said. “Who knew that Zoom was going to take over our lives? There are a lot of variables to actually make it happen.”
In lieu of the popular Star Lake Musicamp, held each summer in the mountains of New Jersey, the Eastern Territory’s Music Department created “SLMC Summer Series” featuring daily classes, concerts, recitals, lessons, songster rehearsals, and more.
The presentations started July 1 and run through Aug. 15 and will end with a virtual “Star Search” Awards ceremony and Finale concert.
“It’s a lot of masterclasses and resources for people that are interested in learning during this time,” explained Brindley Venables, director of music program development.
Venables said the department tried Zoom classes but found it better to use Facebook Live videos. “Unite and Sing,” which is a virtual songster rehearsal, will be the only class held via Zoom.
“We’ve had a good response from viewers,” Venables said. “There’s been lots of interactions. People from all over the world are tuning in and I think really appreciate what we’re doing. We’re just trying to fill the void of Star Lake Musicamp,” he said. “You can’t really fill it unless it’s at camp. There’s just a special atmosphere there that we are all missing for sure, but we’re doing our best to help make this time a little easier for everyone by having content available that’s enjoyable.
“If there is one positive in having SLMC online, it’s that you can reach people from all over the world, and maybe get the message of the gospel to someone that might not otherwise have heard it.”
TAM, which is usually held at the CFOT, was also virtual this year and called TAM-Q for “TAM Quarantine.” The weeklong event was held in early July.
“We had a really good response from the student body and from the instructors afterwards,” said Kathryn Higgins, the territory’s arts ministries director. “We got lots of feedback that it was a meaningful time.
“A student even sent in a video expressing that they had been to TAM before and this was their favorite one, which was a surprise. I think we were able to facilitate meaningful community time. Some students mentioned their favorite time was devotions and small groups.”
Higgins said students were online in the morning and had the option of afternoon sessions for more instruction.
“That was a really unique element we weren’t able to do in person,” she said.
Higgins said the TAM staff asked what it could provide through Zoom that it couldn’t in real life. The result was a series of celebrity interviews with Sherri Chung, who grew up in The Salvation Army and is now a film and television composer for such shows as “Riverdale” and “Arrow”; Chris Lee, who played Marques de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the Chicago edition of the play “Hamilton”; and Colin Mochrie from “Whose Line is it Anyway?” The last interview was prerecorded.
Higgins said TAM held a worship night on Zoom and, after some apprehension from wondering if Zoom was the proper platform, the show was a huge success.
It was our longest program,” she said. “It ran over an hour and people kept requesting music. It was very meaningful. We were watching kids worshiping in their living rooms and their cars. I was really amazed at how that turned out.”
Higgins said experimenting with the different platforms was a learning experience.
“We have a better sense of when to use each platform if you’re trying to create an opportunity for community and input from the students or if you just want them to sit and watch,” she said. “Every platform offers a different style of connection. That was the steepest learning curve for us.”
The Communications Department took student-provided videos from TAM students and created a 4-minute video for the finale.
Looking back at the virtual summer thus far, Jon Knaggs and Pritchard both believe livestreaming, Zoom, and other virtual platforms are the future.
“The livestream thing has been building for a number of years but has been absolutely crucial to our communication,” Jon Knaggs said. “I do see us coming together again, but I also see things like streaming church on Sundays becoming a normal thing for churches.
“If you’re sick or away, you can still be part of your local church. I do see the livestream thing continuing, especially at the local level. It could be a normal thing at the territorial level as well.”
Pritchard said the changes are necessary at least until there is a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I think we have to change,” he said. “We need to adapt. There are going to be people still concerned about coming into an environment where there’s a lot of people.
“If we as the Army can think of more creative ways to approach these live events, I think there’s opportunities to expand our audiences rather than just the same group of people that always show up to these things. I think we have to adapt, and we need to think about how we can change for the future, while still social distancing and protecting all those involved.”
By Robert Mitchell and Hugo Bravo