Churches taking ministry online in the midst of pandemic

By John W. Coleman

Virtual church is taking off big-time across our conference and beyond. Congregations are self-exiled from their sanctuaries by the coronavirus pandemic, as they practice social distancing. But some now prefer the term “physical distancing,” as they try to maintain social ties online. 

What many say to God in their benedictions they are now saying to each other: “As we leave this place but never your presence…” Indeed, more pastors and church members are being present with and for one another online via free conference calls and affordable video-conferencing and livestreaming options. The menu of options include Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, Facebook Live, YouTube, Vimeo and so on. 

They are using virtual technology for worship, Bible study, devotions, prayer and church meetings—all of which may be more crucial than ever during these trying times of anxiety, separation and possible financial decline.

More churches are also trying to prevent financial decline by turning to online giving, using a variety of apps, to sustain their weekly giving. They are learning how to use—and convince tradition-bound members to use—Tithe-ly, Venmo, Vanco, PayPal and other giving apps, as well as virtual banking and text-to-give solutions. (We will explore online giving more in a future article.)

Also increasing are the online instructions being offered to church leaders to help them get started and discover the broad possibilities in using online tech, including how to creatively enhance the presentation of sermons and Bible lessons. More possibilities become apparent when growing numbers of viewers and callers—even some from afar—join a livestream or Zoom worship service or Bible study, often far exceeding the number who would attend these gatherings onsite. 

Online worship brings viewers, givers

Moreover, viewers often use the text-chat feature to engage by offering comments and questions. And if they are told about the church’s online giving portal, many generously use it to donate to its ministry. Tindley Temple UMC in Philadelphia, which has livestreamed its Sunday worship services and Monday evening Bible studies for several years, received a dramatic increase in viewers and donations March 22 and 23. The Rev. Robert Johnson, pastor, also received numerous chat greetings from people he has known throughout his 27 years in pastoral ministry. 

First UMC Palymra began “live-casting” its services via Facebook Live two weeks ago. “While we are still perfecting the system, we were able to share our worship with many people,” reports the Rev. Jim Anderman, lead pastor. “Our first week of services was viewed by over 1,000 people….That means more people watched on Sunday than our average attendance.

“We will continue to livestream our services,” he added, “so that even after the crisis has passed the unwillingly absent will be able to participate from afar.” The church, like many others, plans to use Zoom video-conferencing for small group gatherings also.

The Rev. Lorelei Toombs, pastor of Willow Grove UMC, gathered and shared with us a partial list of churches that have been livestreaming worship services for awhile. You can find them and others on our website’s Coronavirus Ministry Response page. Please send us your church’s livestream or videoconferencing worship information, so we can add it to our roster.

No doubt all of this new connectivity will change and expand the ways many churches do church long after this pandemic crisis ends. It’s a virtual silver lining around the dark, ominous cloud that COVID-19 has cast over us presently. 

Here are some of the online sources available to help church leaders take their worship and other gatherings from their now-empty sanctuaries into all the world.

Helpful info, instruction offered online 

Our conference’s “Take your church to the world. Connect through technology webinar, March 19, maxed out with 300 grateful participants who logged into Zoom to learn about live streaming, video calls and online giving. Hosted by the Revs. Dawn Taylor-Storm and Kevin Babcock, the two-hour, experimental, highly interactive recorded Zoom training, and its beneficial chat comments, can still be viewed at any time. View it now.  

With the scheduling of a conference-wide, virtual, Holy Week worship service on Wednesday, April 8, at 11:30 AM, the conference cabinet paid Zoom extra to expand its capacity to 1,000 viewers for that special occasion. While basic use of Zoom is free, it limits calls to 40 minutes and 100 participants. But upgrading to unlimited time and more participants costs under $20 per month, with annual fee discounts also. 

United Methodist Communications offers “Zoom for Churches,” a new basic training resource on how churches can use Zoom to conduct ministry, engage members and strengthen community. See resource. You can find more online training programs on UMCom’s Resource UMC Facebook page, including daily Local Church Learning Sessions through April 2. Topics include: online worship, copyrights and licenses, E-giving and connectional giving, using Zoom for virtual small group meetings and connecting through text messaging.

The UMC’s General Council on Finance and Administration has been steadily increasing its services to churches and conferences through its new UMC Support initiative. That includes helpful, interactive online training and resourcing programs. The first in a series of Facebook Live sessions, March 25, taught about basic livestreaming and online giving. A recording is currently available: GCFA Workshop Wednesday.

Respect copyright protections

One necessary consideration for any church that livestreams or webcasts its services is copyright protection of published music and words. You must acquire licensing or direct permission to use any copyrighted content—and most popular content is privately copyrighted, save for very old music that may be in the public domain. 

A license or permission to perform protected music or published works in your church is not the same as the license or permission needed to share it over the Internet. And as someone warned recently, intellectual property attorneys are looking for violators to sue.

Be sure to read and share UMCom’s Ask The UMC: How can we livestream worship legally? and  also UM Discipleship’s Copyrights for Live Streaming. Penalties for copyright infringement are high. See “Copyright 101: Penalties for Copyright Infringement (USA Only).”

Finally, Eastern Pa Conference’s NEWSpirit Communications is looking for more accounts from churches about how they are creatively doing ministry now in new or different ways—including online worship, giving, Bible study and meetings; drive-in worship, which Tindley Temple plans to try on Palm Sunday; livestreaming Christian education lessons to students’ homes; mission outreach efforts that respect physical distancing guidelines; and so on. 

Please send your good news accounts to us via our Submit News webpage or email us at communications@epaumc.org. You can also post your news and photos to our social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—by using the hashtag #epaumcministry. We will gather accounts and publish more stories of how we are doing “ministry in the midst of coronavirus.” Please visit our Coronavirus Ministry Response webpage periodically, as we add more content there throughout each week.