Technology helps Indiana churches reach flocks amid pandemic

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The basic model of churches is a gathering of people who interact socially and share fellowship — which often includes physical touching, such as Catholics shaking hands during Mass as a sign of peace.

Posted: May 11, 2020 9:49 AM

LOGANSPORT, Ind. (AP) — The basic model of churches is a gathering of people who interact socially and share fellowship — which often includes physical touching, such as Catholics shaking hands during Mass as a sign of peace.

The church has been that way since the start, said Paul Scott, Pastor at First Baptist Church in Burnettsville.

With COVID-19 limiting the number of people who can be in one place and direct contact, churches have had to get creative in reaching their flocks — especially the elderly and most vulnerable.

So they’ve turned to technology and the internet.

“For a lot of churches, it was like going from 0 to 100 mph on little notice,” said Doug Hood, President of CSD, an audio, video, lighting and acoustic systems firm based in New Haven.

Hood compared it to doing a television show for the first time, especially for churches with new advanced equipment.

“There are a lot of churches going through an evolution,” he said.

Pastor Bruce Vernon of Vineyard Community Church in Logansport said having roughly a week to prepare was an obstacle.

“That was the biggest challenge — having to learn a lot quickly and implement it. But we’re doing it, and it’s working,” Vernon said. “It’s been a learning curve.”

But it’s an advantage.

“Having this ability to go online has been able to keep the church together and maintain a church connectedness,” he said.

Because Scott shepherds a flock of about 40 people in Burnettsville, he never had much reason to incorporate the internet.

“I had to educate myself,” he said. “That was hard because it happened so rapidly,”

After streaming his first Sunday worship service, he’s moved on to other online offerings like Bible stories during the week.

Some medium-sized churches already had some online experience.

“We had dabbled in it a little before, helping the shut-ins,” said Pastor Beth Ann Cook of First United Methodist Church in Logansport. “We were trying to keep them feeling connected.”

That was done mostly through clips of the services posted on Facebook.

With COVID-19, her church started with a skeleton video crew in the sanctuary, combining the traditional 8:15 a.m. service and contemporary music 10:45 a.m. service into one English webstream at 9:30 a.m., alternating the music styles.

The church also has services for Logansport’s Burmese and Haitian populations.

To minimize contact as COVID-19 cases increased at Tyson Foods, she and Contemporary Service Worship Leader Ali Williams attempted to have everyone, including musicians, videotape from home. They ran into trouble merging those feeds into one video the first time, Cook said.

In addition to being online, the church still mails hard copies of the bulletin to people and uses group phone meetings.

“So it’s been a kind of mix of high tech and low tech so we can reach people,” she said.

Revolution Community Church in Logansport was already moving toward a bigger online presence but wasn’t in a rush before COVID-19, wanting to be thorough, said Worship Arts Director Nathan Scott.

“We had cameras ready. We didn’t have cameramen ready,” he said.

They were able to use existing volunteers and the church uses phone videos for the hosts’ pre-service messages and records the bands with more equipment.

“A lot of it is thinking differently,” he said. “Everything they see is pre-recorded because we want to minimize contact between people.”

Hood said, “There were some churches that were doing this for years. In a lot of cases, they didn’t know what it was for. They wanted to be prepared for the future. Four or five weeks ago, the future hit.”

Others needed a refresher course or some help with technology they hadn’t used in years, said Dave Singer, systems consultant for CSD.

Often CSD installed equipment for remote broadcasting during installations and upgrades.

Others had everything in place, but the production wasn’t good, so CSD has been helping with audio mixing and lighting, Singer said.

An option not done widely in Indiana is drive-in service, popular in the warmer states. Hood said churches create localized FM stations, similar to what drive-in theaters use, so people can hear from their vehicles.

Cook said her church might do that as things get safer, but for now if only one person in a family is infected, being together in a vehicle increases the chances of spreading it.

Online services seem to have actually increased attendance.

“We’re actually getting people from throughout the world,” said Cook. “We find that we’re getting higher views than we’ve had at worship.”

Viewers get invited to watch or they stumble across the service on their own, said Scott. Churches have also reported watchers who’ve visited before or people who want to see their hometown church again. Revolution, for instance, has seen people watching from Michigan, Montana, South Carolina and Arkansas.

“It’s a lot less intimidating to watch from home, from the comfort of your couch,” he said. “It’s time to rethink what an online church presence is.”

First United Methodist Church’s Cook said that the Wednesday Bible study is done by phone because some of the members are 90 years old and not using a lot of technology.

Vernon of Vineyard said they’ve been coaching on technology use, and they’ve had online Bible study groups.

“A lot of your older congregation, they’re the faithful few,” he said.

Cook noted that some are fluent with technology because they video chat with their grandchildren.

First United Methodist’s church pianist has also been online every day, taking requests that she plays on her home piano and streams online, and the church’s daycare workers read stories online.

“We’re just trying to find creative ways to do things,” Cook said.

For First Baptist in Burnettsville, Scott has 11 a.m. Bible stories from the “Lap and Learn” book. There are also two sisters that play inspirational music during the week while the church streams the performance.

What goes online often has legal requirements. Scott said he can read the “Lap and Learn” version of Bible stories online because he received permission from the publisher, as well as permission to give away copies of the Bibles.

Cook said that First United Methodist in Logansport was already licensed to have some modern music on the internet.

“That’s one of the biggest issues for churches online,” she said.

It is, however, legal to use music in the public domain. Older versions of the Bible are also public domain.

Vernon said his church decide to cut Vineyard’s service time by a third because research shows people’s electronic attention is shorter.

“More people are engaging if it’s shorter,” he said.

There’s also presentation to consider.

“Making sure your church looks good online is not easy,” Hood said. He suggests church teams ask “what are our expectations,” being basic or looking polished.

But because of the increase in online churches and working from home, the demand for equipment has created a backlog on orders, some for months.

“We’re not the only company fighting for equipment,” said Dave Osenbaugh, integration specialist for CSD.

Scott said Revolution also has electronics on back order, but that shouldn’t be an obstacle for other churches.

“A lot of people would be surprised what you can do with a cellphone and a laptop,” he said.

Revolution’s tech staff is willing to help any other churches, he added.

Sometimes, mobile apps used for streaming just aren’t up to the task.

“So many churches are using Facebook Live, so the joke is that Jesus broke the internet on Sunday,” Cook said.

Facebook and Zoom have both increased capabilities because of the use, she said. She added that churches need to beware of “Zoom bombing” — people hijacking Zoom online meetings.

There are multiple ways to provide a video experience, including Facebook Live, YouTube, Instagram and churches private websites, Singer said.

Churches are looking at incorporating more technology into their regular routine, creating a “new normal.”

“I don’t know if it’s necessarily a change in technology as a change in philosophy,” Hood said.

But, as Cook said, they have to make the cameras unobtrusive to the service. He said people like having the access, and the elderly and at-risk people will return to public later than others.

“We will maintain some level of webcasting,” she said. “We haven’t determined how exactly we’ll do that, and that’s one place we’ll have to invest.”

Singer said that one church CSD deals with had a television station approach them about including the service on the channel because of its web presence.

Churches aren’t the only one using the new technology, either, Singer noted. Families used it for Easter and other gatherings, and musicians who relied on local gigs are as well. Some performers made a good part of their living going to nursing homes and performing, and now they use streaming and similar technologies to continue performing for audiences online.

“Now, the technology’s reaching beyond the churches,” Singer said.

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