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Churches use technology to minister in coronavirus world

 

The coronavirus pandemic resulted in manifold disruptions to the American way of life. Churches certainly were not immune to the changes — in a matter of a few days, Kentucky pastors went from the mindset of "we're going to have church as usual" to dismissing live gatherings at the prompting of Gov. Andy Beshear.

While church assemblies came to a grinding halt by mid-March, it didn't take long for many Kentucky Baptist churches to find a way to connect not only with their members, but with people who may have never darkened the church doors.

Churches that didn't have a presence on the Internet moved quickly to be able to broadcast services from sanctuaries where the pews were empty.

Churches that already were online explored ways not only to improve the quality of those services, but to add new content in addition to the Sunday services.

When Gov. Beshear asked churches to not continue with services in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the importance of technology came to the forefront.

Five Kentucky Baptists pastors gave their views on how technology has impacted the mission of the churches they pastor.

"In those first few Sundays, it was easy to see the importance of livestreaming," said Brandt Lyon, pastor of Twelve Oaks Baptist Church in Paducah.

"During this time of social isolation, it (livestream) has been helpful to our own people," Lyon said. "Many of our people who couldn't be in the sanctuary for services could join in from the comfort of their own homes. While it is not the same experience as gathering in worship, we hope that it met a need and glorified God as we continued to worship together, yet apart."

Lyon is among many pastors who believes that the virtual telecasts expanded the church's impact.

"We have seen no fewer than 400 YouTube hits on each service. We have also seen that there are viewers from all over the world. Obviously, most viewers are right here in the U.S., but there have been viewers from Canada, South Africa and Ireland. It is wonderful to see Twelve Oaks have a global reach with the gospel."

But televising its Sunday services is not the church's only use of tech- nology. It has discipleship groups that are encouraged to meet by utilizing the Zoom app. Also in the works are video testimonies that can be posted on Facebook. Those videos include a member telling what life was like before Christ, how the person knew his or her need for Christ, what took place when the person received Christ and how the person's life has changed since being saved by Jesus.

Lyon is quick to point out that technology does not meet all the church's needs. "We have members who get groceries for shut-ins, we've served meals at hospitals for medical professionals and we've hosted a blood drive."

At Corinth Baptist Church in London, Pastor Andrew Dyer says there are some positives that can result from the shutdown caused by COVID-19.

Corinth's services are live both on Facebook and YouTube, but the coronavirus "has forced us to be proactive in thinking through how we do things. We dusted off our YouTube channel and have dusted off a few things that we weren't using. It has made us very intentional regarding things we were doing with media — to make sure that things were being done as well as they could be done. We want to stay on top of what we are doing in terms of social media and video."

One idea being explored is recording a video invitation for church members to use on social media. "It's the equivalent of handing out an invitation card to go to church. It targets those who are unchurched, unbelievers, inviting them to connect with us."

The attention being given to "virtual" church services presents a new opportunity for churches. "People are curious about the message of Jesus, but coming to church can be intimidating for some people. In this pandemic, people are looking for something. This is a great way for them to connect with the message of Jesus and the gospel without the barrier of having to choose what church to attend.

"There is great potential. I have heard anecdotally that people in several other states are watching our services. A lady told me that her unsaved brother in Arizona has been watching our services. We're praying for him."

Dyer said his hope through this pandemic is "it gives us a greater understanding that the church is not a building, and that the mission carries on. I think we probably will see some traditions that we thought were essential not be essential any more. Anything that drives us forward is good. I think the gospel will go forth greatly in these days, and I trust the Lord that He will build His church. It may be hard (for us), but it will be good."

Among the churches that had to improvise quickly to have its services available online was Blue Springs Baptist, located halfway between Princeton and Cadiz. Pastor Ronnie Sivells uses Facebook — posting Sunday and Wednesday night services on his wife's (Sandy) Facebook page.

He is in the process of exploring various options, including people staying in their cars while he preaches or trying to work through an FM radio station. "If we can do it different and better, we will," he said. The church closings came at a difficult time for his church, which has several people waiting to be baptized. "We've got some folks who just started attending, we've got some who are not saved — this knocked the feet out from us in trying to win them. But when this is over, I think we'll see a good harvest. A lot of people understand how serious this is. Some have lost jobs and they're searching for something. I think this will be a good time for the church."

Sivells writes a daily devotional that is emailed to approximately 600 people — often recipients share those devotionals on Facebook to expand the reach. Now by posting sermons on Facebook, there is opportunity to increase exposure to the gospel.

"The first week we had more than 400 views, and there were a lot of families who were together watching the service," Sivells noted. "That is a whole lot more than we have been having at church," he said, noting attendance is usually in the 125-140 range.

"I will be glad when it (pandemic) is over. I believe people miss the fellowship and miss seeing their church family. It's a case of absence makes the heart grow fonder. But it's all in the hands of the Lord, and we believe all things work together for good — that's for His children, not the world."

When the pandemic is over and churches can resume meeting together, Sivells said the church could continue posting its services on Facebook.

"We really haven't thought that far ahead. There are folks who would view it, and it may be the best outreach tool we have. There are lots of names viewing it on Facebook who I know are not in churches, families that are not faithful to a church. We don't know what the Lord will do with it. We may very well continue with it on Facebook if someone would volunteer to do it."

At Burlington Baptist Church in northern Kentucky, Pastor Harold Best said the church's livestream has about 3,000 views.

"Obviously there are people watching it who don't normally come to church. We encourage our folks to share the livestream and do outreach that way."

"We had been streaming live on Facebook but didn't have the best quality," said Best. "We were looking to upgrade our equipment, so when this (pandemic) happened we moved that forward. We video our service early and then edit it through Facebook Premier. You can schedule it — it looks like it is live — and people can comment and you can respond as though it was live. When we tape it, we try to be intentional to make it look like it's Sunday morning."

With Sunday school and other groups, Burlington has had success using Zoom. "As soon as leaders saw it, they set up Zoom with their classes. Some of our classes have been meeting several times a week," Best noted.

"For our older members, some may be a little intimidated by Zoom, so we put the Sunday school lesson and other resources on Facebook." The church has different Facebook posts and videos throughout the week that are geared to various age groups. "We try to have something every day for our folks," Best noted. "For instance, we have a praise team that plays some songs on Friday evenings.

We actually taped it on Monday night, then edited it and showed it Friday."

Best agrees that this interruption of normal activities will challenge church leaders to examine their programs. "I think we're trying to decide what we want things to look like in six months. Obviously we want people to gather together, to worship together, and we want to use technology to reach people we haven't been able to reach."

He cited one example of a life group which had a few couples who had stopped attending. But that group started using Zoom and invited those couples to participate, resulting in them becoming reconnected to the church. "This might be an avenue for some who have become disconnected to come back," Best said. "This (pandemic) has pushed churches to be creative."

Best pointed out that there are numerous resources available for churches, and credited associational mission strategist Jim Woolums with "a great job sending resources."

The website of Calvary Baptist Church in Bowling Green has taken interaction with members and the community to a new level. Pastor David Gifford said the church has livestreamed services for about a year, but recent times have spurred the church to include more offer- ings on its website and Facebook page.

Its Sunday morning service involves more than a few songs and a sermon. The website has a worship guide to lead viewers through the service. There are song lyrics provided, and there's a time for corporate prayer which includes prayer prompts. Following the sermon, there are discussion questions listed. There is also a portion of the service where Gifford asks members to practice Christian stewardship and the website lists ways for people to give.

"We want to take people through a worship experience rather than just watching a service. The idea is not ours — we found a church in Portland, Ore., that was forced to do this before it (coronavirus) was on our end of the country." Gifford said that church originally encouraged groups of fewer than 10 to get together, but when the restriction was tightened, the church then encouraged families to get together.

But Calvary's engagement with the public goes far beyond the Sunday morning service. The website has a new video daily which spotlights members. One of those included a Zoom video with two of its members who are nurses. "We talked with them about the unique things they face and how we as a church can pray for them." The website also has a daily devotional.

Views on Calvary's mid-week service "have been tremendous," Gifford said. The church has been intentional in creating videos that are intended to encourage and bless those who watch them. "We had our pianist (Mrs. Donna Lawyer) in one of them — we did a brief introduction and then she played hymns. We wanted people to be blessed by hearing worship music in the middle of the day."

Gifford said he believes "a massive paradigm shift for the church is coming" as the result of COVID-19. "The connection between brothers and sisters in Christ is what we miss the most. Absolutely we want to care for people when we cannot meet together. This situation has manifested the truth that the church is not the building. We are still actively being the church in our community."

Gifford concluded that when the restrictions are lifted and churches can resume congregating as they have in the past, church leadership must continue to provide opportunities to have a strong gospel witness and the church body must be engaged in carrying out that mission.

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