By now most of us have two or three digital-only Sundays under our belt. That probably means that many of us have a story or two of a dropped camera or a live stream that didn’t go “live” because the internet was slow or our computer couldn’t keep up. But for us as pastors, three Sundays of streaming worship on Facebook or YouTube means we also have at least fourteen days experience trying to lead a congregation as it navigates the devastating and multifaceted impact of a global pandemic with digital-only (or at least primarily digital) pastoral care, discipleship, and community formation.
As we navigate this sudden shift in praxis many of us, especially many of us in smaller churches that have relied less on technology in the past, have found ourselves looking for whatever tools, resources, and training we can find to help our churches adapt to the digital demands of stay-at-home orders and physical distancing. We may have managed to get a video on Facebook live or YouTube, but we don’t feel like experts at utilizing those platforms, and we also feel like simply streaming a Sunday sermon isn’t enough.
To their credit, denominations, church networks, tech experts, and a range of writers and commentators have sprung into action trying to create resources to help churches jump into the world of live streaming, online giving, and virtual meetings with astonishing speed. Their efforts have resulted in a number of excellent resources. The problem—at least if your experience is like mine—is that they have all hit our social media feeds at the same time in a frenetic “how to” blur.
The remainder of this essay will focus on slimming this information down into a few digestible highlights. This will not be an exhaustive list; rather, it is designed to be manageable and tailored to the needs of small churches in rural and under-resourced communities.
Streaming Worship in a Small Church
As noted above, by now most of us have transitioned to helping make Sunday morning worship accessible to folks in their homes. For many churches, this has meant a transition to some form of streaming—either live to platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Zoom, or a Christian alternative like Life Church’s free Church Online Platform, or through pre-recorded and then posted to these platforms and church websites.
There are a wide variety of opinions about what platform and what approach (live streaming or pre-recording) is the most helpful. Some of these decisions will depend on the accessibility of things--like dependable, high-speed internet--that are outside the control of rural churches. (We have already heard stories of pastors driving to towns to upload sermons to YouTube on Saturday night so they will be ready to go by Sunday morning.) In the midst of all these options, an article like this detailed tech overview by the Gospel Coalition’s Phil Thompson may be a helpful launching pad as you explore basic questions of set up or as you continue to tweak your church’s approach to online worship.
But how to you get the most out of your streamed sermons?
Even small churches without high end equipment and a professional production team can do a lot to make their content more accessible and user friendly by doing things like going through the steps to get a personalized URL for their church’s YouTube page (as small-church expert Karl Vaters demonstrates in this video), or by being more intentional about how one presents oneself to the camera (as this video demonstrates).
Strengthening the Church Community During Physical Distancing
As pastors we know that simply creating a decent streaming option for Sunday worship will not be enough to see our churches through the next weeks and months. As commentators like Andy Crouch and his team at Praxis have noted in this important article, most of us are hunkering down for a blizzard, when the reality of the duration and scope of the change may be more like a long winter or even a mini-ice age if this drags on for as long as some are predicting. Right now it may still feel like the crisis is the breakout up Sunday morning gatherings, but as Ed Stetzer notes in this article, the real crisis—in terms of the loss of life and the long term financial fallout—is still ahead of us.
Small churches and rural churches are not immune from these trends. In fact, for the many small churches that were functioning on the edge of solvency as this crisis began, these challenges are especially pronounced.
That’s why it is vital that churches find ways to go beyond merely streaming sermons and a few songs or prayers, and intentionally cultivate relational and sustainable systems and community rhythms that can connect congregants with each other over the long haul. Zoom is a great tool for facilitating these connections via online prayer groups, Bible studies, and even coffee chats. (Just make sure you take steps to prevent “zoom bombing.”)
Many pastors are also turning toward doing weekly or even daily devotionals via email or Facebook live. Others are praying the hours using resources like the Book of Common Prayer or Phyllis Tickles’s The Divine Hours. These set-time prayers are centered largely on the Psalms and provide a helpful point of reference for a community. An added benefit of set prayers is that the prayers for the day can be read by lay members of the congregation. Not only does this make regular prayer sustainable and fresh for an extended period, it also symbolizes the Protestant understanding of the priesthood of all believers by giving the church community a chance to take leadership and directly encourage each other. (It also helps us avoid having our pastoral mug on every video!)
Don't be afraid to get creative as you seek to connect your community. At the church I pastor we have started adding #LearnTogether videos to our YouTube page. These videos feature church members teaching some skill (e.g., Bible study, guitar, cooking) to others in the church. I have also seen churches think about how to creatively and safely empower folks to love their neighbors by handing out cards (like the one Alexander Benedict developed below) that give out their information in case their neighbors need help.
Weathering the Financial Storm—Online Giving and the CARES Act
Churches can expect to see a drastic and extended drop in giving over the next few months, and likely well beyond that. Online giving will not magically reverse your church's financial fortunes, but it is an important tool for this season. Some denominations are helping their churches do this for free or for a minimum fee. If this isn't an option for your church, you can check out this list by Outreach and this article on online giving for small churches. If online giving is completely out of the question in your context, be sure to let folks know where to send checks and consider including a pre-addressed giving envelop with any mailed newsletters or printed sermons.
Another important financial consideration that many churches, even small churches, may qualify for low interest loans and/or grants via the recently passed CARES Act. Check out this fact sheet prepared by the US Chamber of Commerce and this article by Josh Laxton of Rural Matters Institute for more details on how the CARES Act could help your church.
Larger Resource Hubs
If you have read this far and still have unanswered questions, you may want to check out what your denomination is offering or the long list of resources provided by the Association of Related Churches (ARC). For a larger list of COVID-19 related resources specifically geared toward rural ministry, you may also want to check out these helpful resources provided by the Rural Matters Institute.
God Is with You…and so Are the People You Need
However you and the congregation you serve choose to adapt in these times, it will be important to keep leaning into Christ’s presence and the opportunities and people he has already placed in your life. Not everything that our churches need in this season is new. Whether it’s the one or two tech-savvy young people in your church or the elderly prayer warriors armed with the church directory and a landline, God has already put the people in place that your church and your community need, the people that you as a pastor need.
Look for the folks God is highlighting. This is a season when new leaders and new talents are poised to emerge. But in all the new, may you—may we all—find peace in the One who never changes.
Charlie Cotherman is administrative director of the Project on Rural Ministry at Grove City College. He is also a pastor at Oil City Vineyard, a church he and his wife Aimee had the privilege of planting in 2016. He has written about rural ministry and church planting for Christianity Today, Evangelicals, Multiply Vineyard, and Sapientia. He is a co-editor of Sent to Flourish: A Guide to Planting and Multiplying Churches and the author of To Think Christianly: A History of L’Abri, Regent College, and the Christian Study Center Movement. He lives with his wife, four children, and a cat in historic Oil City, Pennsylvania.