When congregants don’t “do digital,” churches have to get creative. Here’s how three United churches have been staying connected to their members, sans Zoom, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
St. Mark’s United, Belleville, Ont.
Built in 1852, St. Mark’s United is both an urban and rural congregation. While the church itself is on the urban side of town and boasts a decent internet connection that has enabled it to livestream during the pandemic, many members of the congregation live on farmland surrounding Belleville, Ont., and not all of them have the same capability.
Rev. Ryan McNally sought to serve several families who couldn’t tune into the church’s livestream by using their meeting conferencing system and offering a phone-in option. Each Sunday, five to seven otherwise-disconnected families would call in and listen to the church service and be joined by McNally for a brief conversation following the service. McNally worked in campus radio as an undergraduate student and made adjustments to the service as necessary to accommodate those using the phone-in option. “We learned that jazz music doesn’t work so well,” he says, laughing, “and to be mindful of ‘dead air.’”
St. Mark’s also serves these families through mailed monthly newsletters, printed bulletins delivered each week, and weather permitting, coffee hour by the river. Early in September, McNally was contacted about the possibility of doing a baptism with extended family present. Unable to accommodate everyone safely in the building, he took the family down to the river. “It was a powerful connection to the history of the village — our kids swim and fish in the river behind the church, and now they can be baptized there!”
Gordon United, Langford, B.C.
Located in one of the fastest-growing suburban areas in the country, Gordon United has faced the same challenge as many congregations over the past 18 months — a decline in attendance. “We were missing about 30 families,” says Rev. Heidi Koschzeck, for reasons ranging from connectivity to vaccination status (the church mandates vaccination) and health concerns. Whatever the reason, people weren’t connecting either in person or online. Koschzeck and the music director, Timothy Olfert, came up with an idea.
Worship in the parking lot was a way for those who felt particularly vulnerable due to COVID-19 to come and be a part of the community. Olfert, an audio engineer and musician, got his hands on an FM transmitter, and after looking into the CRTC’s broadcasting exemption for houses of worship, set it up to share the service audio in the immediate radius of the church building. “People could come and sit in their cars or, if they were comfortable, bring chairs and gather that way outside.” Koschzeck said this enabled some of the missing people to finally feel included.
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Koschzeck has been offering audio recordings of the service by request since the shift from online to outdoor services, and has made good use of Pacific Mountain Region’s “Faith at Home” resources. She hand-delivered these materials to families and visited them in their driveways. When we spoke, Koschzeck was preparing to deliver soul cakes (a U.K. tradition) to these families for All Souls Day, with instructions attached to each cake as to how families could offer their own prayers of gratitude for those who have gone before.
St. Paul’s United, Bancroft, Ont.
In the community surrounding St. Paul’s United in Bancroft, Ont., collective grief is in the air as the people struggle with disconnection and economic hardship. The area has seen 14 drug-related deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, grocery cards have become the church’s main form of outreach, and an unprecedented isolation and sadness about things “never being the same again” in the church has left people in mourning.
Whereas most communities of faith are trying to figure out how to connect people for worship, Rev. Lynn Watson is primarily concerned with how to be of service to the wider community, internet aside. “The United Church has been very visible in the community in my 10 years here,” Watson says. While worship has continued, first via a local radio station and later on Zoom, St. Paul’s also thought outside the box. “We’re kind of luddites here,” Watson says, “and isolation is a huge problem, especially for our seniors.” Remaining visible in a time of lockdown, while being primarily internet free, was a challenge the church took seriously, and when the rest of the country began recognizing health care workers at 6 p.m. by banging pots and pans, the church saw their chance.
“Every night we rang our church bell,” Watson says. “We posted it live on Facebook, but more importantly, you could hear it for miles and miles.” The ringing became such a staple in the community that when the bell broke from overuse, the Anglican church in town took over, ringing their bell nightly until the United church’s was back in commission.
The bell didn’t bring people back to church, but it brought the church to people. Watson recounts a conversation in the parking lot of the local post office in which a woman said “every night, I would listen for the ringing of the bell … it reminded me that the church hadn’t abandoned me, that God hadn’t abandoned me.”
Andria Irwin is an ordained minister in The United Church of Canada and the author of Following: Embodied Discipleship in a Digital Age (Baker Academic) with Jason Byassee. She works as the digital ministry consultant for United Online, a ministry initiative of the Pacific Mountain Region.
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