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The Great Commission goes online

A great Mother's Day at Scott Memorial UMC

The Great Commission, Matthew 28:16-20, was spoken by Jesus hundreds of years before the internet came on the scene. But online media are proving to be effective tools for evangelism.

Senior Content Editor

Eight weeks ago, most local churches in The Michigan Conference were not engaged in online worship. Then, almost overnight, pastors and leaders entered the foreign land of Zoom and YouTube and Facebook Live, learned, and were ready (almost) to welcome a virtual congregation on Sunday morning.

In March, the burning question was, “How can we do worship that is not in-person?” In May, the question of the hour is, “How can we not, eventually, continue to worship both online and in-person?” This question is being asked all over The United Methodist Connection, as we learn in this feature from United Methodist News.

The Rev. Gary Step, Michigan Conference Associate Director of Congregational Vibrancy, will introduce an important resource next week in conversations about Re-Launch: A Conversation on Embracing the Ministry Possibilities of 2020. Based on the Path 1 approach of Discipleship Ministries, Re-Launch leader Paul Nixon proclaims, “We will be hybrid forever.” The Rev. Benton Heisler, Michigan’s Director of Connectional Ministries, lends encouragement to this new life lesson in his blog, “Cut at the knot.”

This week we visit more Michigan congregations that have embraced the value of online worship during this season of Stay Home; Stay Safe. The Rev. Cornelius Davis, Jr., Senior Pastor of Detroit: Scott Memorial United Methodist Church, has caught the spirit of this moment. “This pandemic has moved the church to a place where adaptive change is critical in order to be vital and relevant while carrying out The Great Commission and Manifesto of Jesus Christ,” Davis asserts. “It is imperative to learn how to use the technology that’s available to reach people and do the business of the church.”

Detroit: Scott Memorial UMC – Rev. Cornelius Davis, Jr.

Pastor Davis reports that online services at Scott Memorial UMC have evolved over the past seven weeks. The service is pre-recorded in the sanctuary with the preacher and one other person and is uploaded to YouTube. Worship airs on Sunday at 10:30 am, their usual worship time. Davis explains, “The rationale for taping at the church is to provide a sacred appearance with the crosses, Bible, liturgical colors and pulpit. The average age of the congregation is 60, and they have a great appreciation for our religious symbols.” Viewers have reported to Davis, “the service provides a sense of blessed assurance as we live into a new normal. They check in to get their spiritual gas tanks filled in order to make it through the week.”

Scott Memorial worship bulletin
The Rev. Cornelius Davis, Jr. is excited about his virtual pulpit at Detroit Scott Memorial UMC that picks up traditional elements familiar to the congregation. This is the header for the email that reaches 150 worshipers on Sunday morning with a link to the service and much more. ~ Mailchimp/Scott Memorial UMC

Scott Memorial uses three platforms to share the service. The YouTube video is embedded in an email to 150 addresses that also includes prayer requests, announcements, and other helpful information. “We also offer a weekly robo-call for those who do not have email or access to smartphones, tablets, or computers. The robo-call includes words of encouragement, updates, and prayer,” the pastor adds. Scott Memorial is preparing to move to live streaming to better serve home-bound members and others.

“Putting the ‘best practices’ in action, doing online ministry will enable us to be effective in what we have to offer and to live into the new normal that’s dawning,” Davis says. “Now we have an opportunity to reach more people than ever before.”

Hillsdale First UMC – Rev. Rob McPherson

Like many worship teams, Hillsdale First UMC started by gathering in the church and recording it live. When the stay-at-home order came, they shifted to pre-recorded format. Rev. Rob McPherson remarks, “The first decision we made was to produce a single high-quality blending of our services, rather than try to create a traditional and contemporary service like we had prior.”

It is an all-in effort by the staff. “We are fortunate that we have musicians, a graphic artist, and a capable administrator all who work hard,” McPherson reports. “I try to include as many of our staff in the readings, prayers, etc. so that people are still seeing many of us.”

Bulletins are mailed out about a week and a half ahead of time to those who do not have email and are also available on their website. The staff prepares two versions of the service — video for the web and audio-only for a phone-in service. “The phone-in service has allowed shut-ins to participate in worship who have not been able to in a long time,” McPherson says.

A great reminder about masks
Rev. Rob McPherson, Hillsdale First UMC, begins the service with a reminder: “As Christians, our call is always to love others. So we wear something uncomfortable to keep others healthy.” He removes the mask for the remainder of the service. ~ Facebook/Hillsdale First UMC

“I think an important part of the service is a sense of fellowship and familiar,” the pastor stresses. “We also try to use still shots of the sanctuary for transitions, and I have used a green screen to put myself in front of a couple of our stained-glass windows for that sense of familiar space.” 

A “huge learning curve for the technical aspects of it all” has produced good results. “The first few weeks were very long hours, and I spent almost 3 days just recording and editing,” McPherson notes. “The music staff also spent countless hours trying to learn technology that would allow them to record in separate locations and mix it for best results. Quality microphones for computers, professional software, and green screens were purchased to improve the sound and video. “The right equipment makes a big difference,” McPherson counsels.

Looking at all data from views – “We can see how long people watch for, so not counting those that just happen upon it” – McPherson believes three to four times as many are participating above in-church worship. “Members tell us that family members (some in other states) are watching because it gives them a re-connection to home.”

Out of the strong sense of outreach and connection that has developed over the past eight weeks, Hillsdale First UMC plans to continue outreach online. They are considering live streaming with conference call options for those who participate remotely by phone. “The biggest advice I would offer others is to get the worship out on multiple platforms,” McPherson observes. “Not everyone likes Facebook or YouTube, but they are great tools worth using. Phone-in options are an important consideration even though the numbers are small.” His other important tip … “Get all of the staff involved. If you don’t have staff, get your laity involved. Don’t try to do this alone. No one person has the time or the technical ability to do it all.”

St. Joe First UMC – Pastor Dan Colthorp

Before the pandemic, St. Joe First United Methodist Church was simply recording the audio of their worship service and uploading it to their website. “Now,” says Senior Pastor Dan Colthorp, “we record our services and one of the young guys in our church edits and splices it together before it is uploaded to YouTube and linked to our Facebook page and website.” The pastor sends out a weekly email reminder “to everyone on Saturday night with some church info, a devotional thought, and a link they can click on to watch the Sunday Worship Service.”

Virtual Worship at St. Joe First
Pastor Dan Colthorp explains that the Praise Band records music at 11:00 AM on Saturdays, then he and a special music person come at noon to record his message, prayers, scripture, and announcements. ~ Facebook/St. Joe First UMC

Feedback has been extremely positive. Colthorp notes, “Every week I get emails or texts thanking us for the service or telling us what a joy it was to worship with us online.” The pastor has noticed over time, “the novelty of this style of worship wearing off” but view totals are “still more than the 150 people we had in attendance when we were worshipping face to face.”

Looking ahead, “Once the state shutdown orders are lifted, we will go back to worshiping in the church building,” Colthorp says. “We hope to live stream our services and then upload them to our church’s YouTube channel and put a link to them on our church website and church Facebook page.” He adds, “I will probably continue to send the link out in my weekly email to the church members.”

Dearborn First — Pastor David Nellist

Dearborn First UMC is another church ahead of the curve with online worship. Pastor David Nellist explains, “At Dearborn First, we actually geared ourselves up to live stream worship early fall 2019.  Our Congregational Care Team tried to make sure all our shut-ins were connected to our worship and it seemed to work!” So they were ready when the pandemic hit and services are now available on YouTube, Facebook Live, and their website.

After in-sanctuary recording was no longer possible, the worship team recommended purchase of a professional broadcasting studio called Stream Yard. “It’s very similar to a news broadcast,” Nellist says. “There is a core group of ten of us. Usually, five are behind the scenes and five will appear on camera.” The studio is operated by the Rev. Carl Gladstone, who serves as Dearborn’s Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries. Click here for Gladstone’s detailed account of the evolution of Dearborn First’s online efforts.

Carl Gladstone leads worship
Deacon Carl Gladstone operates the broadcast studio called Stream Yard that produces online worship for Dearborn First United Methodist Church. ~ Facebook/Dearborn First UMC

What makes online worship effective? Gladstone says, “Experimenting, researching, and bench-marking, knowing our audience, constant communication, and education to make sure nobody falls through the cracks, and finally, keeping this mantra in mind: connection over perfection.”

Nellist puts emphasis on the creation of a Core Team to help with decision-making and operations. “The creation of a core team for worship and communication has been invaluable to us. I learned early on to bring them together every week as the messaging and branding are so important.”

“Sunday worship has been creative and meaningful, thanks to our entire devoted team.” Nellist received that comment among other expressions of gratitude. The pastor credits creativity as the way to maintain engagement. “For example, on April 26th we had ‘Camp Sunday’ just to lift people’s spirits. Christie Brewster sang the ‘Hippopotamus song’ with her children. It was uproariously funny! The sermon for that day was filmed on ‘location’ by a Lake Erie beach in Sterling State Park. My wife, Glenys, recorded it on her phone. You don’t need hi-tech equipment!” Those kinds of atmospherics “take people out of their homes during our worship,” Nellist states.

BP (Before Pandemic) Dearborn First was averaging about 120 in worship. “Now, we are at a definite and identifiable 190-plus,” Nellist reports. They are intentionally designing worship that is invitational to Dearborn: Good Shepherd UMC; a merger of these sister congregations is ahead.

There’s no question about online worship continuing from Dearborn First. Gladstone says, “Definitely, as this was a ministry started out of congregational vision, rather than necessity.” Nellist underscores the importance of these key factors from their months of development of the virtual ministry.   

  1. Ask — Encourage feedback during the message on Sunday or during devotionals so that people can interact with you.
  2. Share – If people have received any joy and hope in worship or devotionals, suggest they share the message online.
  3. Connect – I make a point of personally connecting with everyone that engages with the church or myself online; this helps to build the online community.
  4. Have a big picture approach — Continuously invite people to sermon chat groups, daily online devotionals, and online social groups.
  5. Giving: We have created an avenue of Text giving to go with Vanco online giving and mail-in.

Pastor Nellist is happy to share that, “It’s possible to make a difference in stewardship. We are turning a corner with consistent good messaging and promotion of online giving.”

Jackson Brookside, Trinity, and Calvary UMCs – Pastor Ron Brooks

“We’ve had numerous people tell us that the online service has become their weekly life-line and connection point with one another,” says Pastor Ron Brooks. “The live stream allows real-time prayer requests to be shared and shout-outs to one another as worshipers see people they know come online.”

Brooks is the spiritual leader of Calvary UMC, Trinity UMC and Brookside UMC in Jackson. These three churches “do a variety of ministries together while maintaining their own individual identity and ministries,” he explains. Trinity UMC was live streaming services for over a year before the COVID-19 shut-down. “It was an iPad sitting in the back of the sanctuary recording the service, carried as a live stream on their Facebook page and embedded on their website.”

When making the switch to full-on virtual worship with only the pastor in view, “we quickly realized that previous approach was not very pleasing to the eye.” The camera was moved forward and a large screen TV was added to the picture for slides and videos. “We’ve upgraded our camera and began recording church members doing the invocation, scripture reading, and music,” Brooks says. “It has become much less formal than regular service with the pastor seated and speaking conversationally with the online audience.” 

He notes, “The biggest response came when we started adding other church members contributing to the service from their homes. People are emotionally lifted up to see other church friends online.” Brooks explains that “I actually used FDR’s fireside chats as my model for this time of crisis. Our goal is to reduce fear and create a sense of community.” To that end, planners intentionally keep the service small and intimate in atmosphere, using candles and soft lighting. “We took the elements we thought most important, the Word and prayer, and made them the core.” 

A great Mother's Day service at Jackson Trinity
Some pastors wear robes. On Mother’s Day, Pastor Ron Brooks wore an apron and shared a message from 1 Peter 5:5: “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another…” ~ Facebook/Jackson Brookside UMC

Brooks estimates that “we are reaching four to five times the people we were touching before the COVID-19 shut-down,” going from “a few dozen views at first to over 1,000 on Easter Sunday.” He plans to continue online worship. The only question is, “What shape it will take?” These Jackson congregations will remain online, because “It is clear by the metrics that virtual worship has expanded our outreach in ways we never imagined.” Brooks adds, “We’ve learned some lessons about how online worship looks and works and now need to find some ways to take the lessons learned into the future.”

~ Editor’s note: Jesus didn’t mention analytics in his mandate to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. However, those faced with year-end reports may wish to review this formula for estimating online attendance provided by Church of the Resurrection and these observations by consultant Carey Nieuwhof.

Last Updated on January 31, 2024

The Michigan Conference