Larger organizations such as the 3,000-member Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh were already using streaming services and recording them before the pandemic, but they jumped at the opportunity to do more and connect more deeply with their congregation during this time of crisis.

“We have really increased our chat functions during the service,” said John Erwin, the executive pastor. “This includes engagement strategies with special moments that individuals watching can respond to by clicking a link and/or virtually raising their hand to trust Christ or be prayed for.” 

Retired pastor Danny Lemons, who most recently led discipleship for 14 years at the 400-member Messiah United Methodist Church in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, says Messiah is experiencing as much as a 100 percent increase in online attendance. To keep their members engaged, they distribute digital versions of their bulletin and hymn lyrics in advance.

At Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, pastor Andrew Taylor-Troutman not only uploads a recorded sermon weekly that may be viewed asynchronously from their website but also offers a virtual weekly communion service. Participants prepare their own bread and cup at home, and after the prayer, they take turns serving themselves, all in real time.

Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, which hosts a religious school and early learning center, supplements online lessons with surveys from polling apps and word cloud generators to keep their students engaged.

Build New Bridges

During the height of the pandemic, and after the murder of George Floyd, Taylor-Troutman reached out to pastor Larry Neal of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, a historically African-American community also in Chapel Hill. “When I suggested that our two churches pray together,” said Taylor-Troutman, “Reverend Neal didn’t just say yes, he offered up a plan calling for our people to join together weekly.” The two faith leaders then coordinated a weekly conference call, and they recently upgraded to Zoom, where participants interact and pair up as prayer partners.

The internet has also provided a much safer and more flexible alternative to handing around the traditional offering plate. Visitors to the website for Chapel in the Pines now give to the mission of their choice online through a customized drop-down menu. This approach fostered new initiatives such as a partnership with a local restaurant to provide meals for those in need, a project that serves the community and spurs economic development. With this new approach, said Taylor-Troutman, revenues at Chapel in the Pines rose by 8 percent.

Michael Fulp, pastor of Cedar Square Friends Meeting in High Point, North Carolina, credits innovation with helping his congregation retain their youth, a challenge for churches across the nation. “Young people are far more comfortable with iPhones, iPads and computers than the older generation, and this helps keep them connected to us. The same goes for social media. Our Facebook followers have doubled from 200 to 400.”

“Another benefit of technology is that it allowed us to bring together other congregations from the Reform Jewish community across the state and nation,” said senior rabbi Lucy Dinner of Temple Beth Or. “For example, we hosted a joint Shabbat service to honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and soon we’ll also be offering a virtual lunch and learning event with two hours of education, featuring rabbis from other temples.”

Seize the Power of Content

While faith communities may not be the first to adopt the corporate “cloud-first mentality,” we can think outside the box and put valuable in-house resources to work for our benefit. For the first time in years, the Science Hill choir wasn’t able to assemble to practice for our annual Christmas Cantata in December. In lieu of an in-person event, we simply streamed a favorite performance from our DVD archives, and all viewers, whether online or at the meeting house, enjoyed the nostalgia of watching familiar faces gather and sing.