What are our churches going to do with all the people who have suddenly connected to our churches through online worship?

While the people problem is not universal, many of our congregations are reporting that they have a large extended community through online worship, Bible and book studies and prayer meetings.

MC church

Mill City Church

One such church is First Presbyterian, Mill City, located about 30 miles east of Salem toward Detroit Lake. The Mill City church is currently being served by the Rev. Carol Swanson. I interviewed her and the Clerk of Session, Becky Hilkey, last week to find out about their not-so-unique experience after discovering they had seen a 750% increase in “worship attendance” since the pandemic began. Yes, that is not a typo! A 750% increase.

As reported by Carol and Becky their congregation typically averaged about 35 people in worship before the pandemic. Following the decision to stop in-person worship they began recording their services and uploading it on two platforms, Facebook and YouTube. In a typical week they now have between 200-250 viewers and have seen as many as 390 viewers. Asked about when people are “clicking on” to view they reported that some view it as soon as it is uploaded on Friday or anytime over the following week. But many people still click on exactly at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning in order to maintain their Sunday ritual as much as possible.

mapTheir software allows them to track the location of their viewers. Based on the statistics of their most recent service about 40% of the views came from people in the Mill City/Gates area most proximate to the church. Another 20% were tuning in from communities that could be considered driving distance (Stayton, Sublimity and Salem). After that it appeared that a small group of people in Las Vegas were regularly tuning in and then a smattering of people all across the United States as well as Nigeria, Germany and Poland.

Asked about the profiles of these people they responded that a certain portion were either extended family members of regular in-person attendees, former members who had moved away and then a large percentage of “unknowns,” just people who found the service and the community attractive, at least for one Sunday.

Like many of our congregations Mill City is just starting to think about what worship will look like when the pandemic passes and they are able to return to in-person worship. At the minimum, they anticipate returning to their former worship in their sanctuary and continuing to offer the online presence that they currently have.

Asked about the extra resources that doing a hybrid worship would require they felt that it only required an additional technical person who could handle the taping of the service and the uploading of it to their platforms. They are already doing this so why not just continue it, they implied.

Mill City smoke

Mill City Church during September, 2020 Wildfires

More importantly they noted the benefits of continuing to provide an online presence. First, they said, it has given extended families a way to have a shared experience. Former members have been able to stay connected to their church community despite the distance and, often, membership in a congregation close to their new home. One distant member has resumed pledging and others are sending in one-time donations.

Most importantly, the Rev. Carol Swanson reported that it gives the church a chance to answer its calling, stating, “In this difficult time people need to hear a hopeful view preached. It seems important that we bring people under our wings.”

All of this leads me to think about what comes next. We know that hundreds, even thousands of people, are taking advantage of our online church presence that weren’t before the pandemic. Here are questions that are on my mind that your church might want to ponder and pray about:

  • What needs for community and spiritual resources do these people have?
  • How will the church survey online participants to find out what their spiritual needs are?
  • Can the church structure itself to provide more than just a viewable worship service and actually provide ways for people to connect and care?
  • If these people live all over the country and world might the church provide opportunities for mission, education, and spiritual development not tied to a location?
  • Can the church not only provide hybrid worship, but a hybrid community made up of people geographically connected and people connected through the internet?
  • Might the church become a hybrid between local church and retreat center with offerings for regular attendees as well as annual pilgrims?
  • Many have spoken of the future of the church as learning to become “buildingless.” Is this the right opportunity for your church to build a bridge to that future?
  • If you plan to discontinue an online presence what resources will you provide to help people find other spiritual communities and resources once you return solely to in-person worship?
  • Finally, as always, what is God’s invitation to you in this time?

This blog courtesy of the internet to all my readers, wherever you are.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

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