Community Without Communing: Resources for Virtual Church | Sojourners

Community Without Communing: Resources for Virtual Church

Photo by William Daigneault on Unsplash

At an unprecedented pace, state and local officials are advising communities to suspend public gatherings in light of the COVID-19 spread, a crisis the World Health Organization is now calling a pandemic. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and California Gov. Gavin Newsom have banned gatherings of over 250 people, and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear on Wednesday asked churches to cancel Sunday services. The Episcopal Church of Washington has announced that its churches in Washington, D.C., and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs — including the National Cathedral — will close for two weeks.

As pastors and church leaders determine how best to shepherd their congregations during this health crisis, Sojourners reached out to those who have experience for their best words of advice. Below, we’ve compiled their thoughts.

Dr. Jamie D. Aten is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College.
  • As churches consider moving to digital services, it’s important that pastors don’t forget those in their church who may be unable to afford technology or lack access to it, and those who are not as tech-savvy. Also, some in your church might struggle if your church doesn’t gather because they lack a strong social network outside the church. In such cases, it could be helpful to bring back the “prayer chain” call approach and have people check in regularly by phone. Though there aren’t any perfect solutions, and although these discussions can be difficult, it’s better to have them now versus later.
  • If you anticipate that alternative meeting and worship approaches might be needed, be sure to talk with your staff how they might work remotely. Similarly, you should talk with your staff about how your church will navigate potential employee absences.
  • Should your local, state, or a federal agency warn against public gatherings or advise congregations (or your church specifically) not meet, take the advice seriously. Follow the guidelines and instructions provided.
  • For more practical advice on preparing for and responding to COVID-19, download our new, free manual, Preparing Your Church for Coronavirus (COVID-19): A Step-by-Step, Research-Informed and Faith-Based Planning Manual and get more resources at
Cindy Wang Brandt is author of Parenting Forward: How to Raise Children with Justice, Mercy, and Kindness. She also hosts the Parenting Forward podcast, and is organizer of the upcoming Parenting Forward conference, which is held completely online.

When I invited Barbara Brown Taylor to join the Parenting Forward conference, she replied she needed to think about it. She had never accepted an invitation to do an online conference because she believed so strongly in being “in the flesh” with people, but she’s also considering the environmental costs of traveling to conferences.

The coronavirus is obviously a crisis, but it’s also an opportunity to consider the theologies of together-ness. On the one hand, embodied presence is so important to building community, but the considerations of the impact we have on the earth is also a way of loving our neighbor.

I am really proud of putting on online conferences and selling a digital product because it has less environmental impact, and now it’s accidentally become the model people have to pivot to because of COVID-19. My experience of running online conferences is that it’s awkward, there’s a sense of distance, but it’s also a wonderful knowing that there’s a connection made possible only by technology. Here are my best tips for running an online conference, which I hope can extend to online worship services or other gatherings:

  • People tend to get anxious about technology. Put people at ease by explaining instructions clearly.
  • Speakers can also get anxious about technology, because they speak don’t have access to the energy and feedback of the people they’re communicating with. I try to put them at ease by explaining to them ahead of time that it may feel awkward, but to focus on me (they can see me on screen) for some immediate feedback and responses. Consider having one staff person on the conference that a speaker or pastor can look to for feedback.
  • Good lighting is really key. Sit next to a bright window set up lighting in the sanctuary. Remember, it is not vain to try to look good — it is loving to minimize distractions for the viewers so they can focus on the message being shared.
  • Make sure your background is nice and cozy. Many of my speakers had bookshelves, which is nice. I’ll attach a picture of a background I personally staged, I have a plant, a red couch, and my bookshelf.
  • In order to foster community, I encourage my people to gather with a few friends to watch the sessions together. In light of the coronavirus, I’d keep these gatherings to smaller numbers and institute protocols like hand-washing and taking temperatures of everyone who attends.
  • At my last conference I went LIVE so that people who were viewing at the time can ask questions in real time and the speakers can respond. This deepens the connection and is why Facebook and Instagram lives are so popular.

Lastly, I’m following the lead of Rev. Jacqui Lewis (who is speaking at my conference!) speaking on NPR about the coronavirus saying, “It is loving to refrain from touching.” Caring for the most vulnerable people is the right and loving to do, and we know the way to do that is to wash our hands and practice social distancing. Don’t be afraid of going online; the tech infrastructure is out there and easy to figure out. Do not fear it. Together, we can flatten the curve to not overwhelm the health care system while we wait for the vaccine. If it takes a virus to remind us we belong to one another, well, here we are.

David L. Hansen is pastor at Spirit of Joy! Lutheran Church in The Woodlands, Texas, and Director of Communication and Innovation at LEAD: Living Every Day as Disciples. David teaches congregations and leaders to make use of online tools for ministry.
  • Know what you can legally broadcast and what you can’t. For example, if you want to stream any music, you will need a streaming license. This is not the same as a performance license – for most music licensing services, there is a small upgrade fee to allow for streaming.
  • It is always better to do less and do it well than to try and be comprehensive in your online worship.
  • The sermon is the easiest part to stream for those who can’t be there — it is your intellectual property and it is not as long as the whole service.
  • Quick and dirty streaming: With just one person holding a smartphone, you can stream straight to Facebook Live. You already have all the equipment you need.
  • Instead of streaming the service, a helpful option can be to stream a Bible study from the pastor’s desk. This can often be more conversational and personal than a sermon, especially if there is no congregation and the service has been completely cancelled.
  • Instead of streaming the music, consider creating a playlist on Apple music, Spotify, or YouTube. This has the advantage of not requiring any sort of licensing fees. In addition, if the congregation and musicians can’t gather, it can be pretty hard to stream worship music.
Jessica Wright is pastor at Evergreen Mennonite Church in Kirkland, Wash. Wright’s church recently made the decision to worship virtually due to the outbreak, which has hit Washington particularly hard.
  • We are using Zoom to meet virtually each Sunday — last Sunday was our first meeting this way. For about a half hour I use the Lenten theme and take participants through our scripture readings for the day, lead them in prayer, encourage some type of practice or reflection that they can try at home, and then close with a time to share our joys and concerns with one another. I was able to record the meeting and then email it out to folks who couldn't join.
  • It has been challenging to get some congregants to embrace a slightly different way of doings things and looking at it as more than "just a way to get by," as well as making sure everyone is understanding how to install the software or call in by phone. I also am aware that some of our activities won't translate as well virtually as they do when we're in the same room. And of course, for Mennonites, the inability to sing hymns together is very sad. I'm working on how to incorporate music into our time online.
  • Another big challenge is that because of high usage, Zoom has disabled the phone call in option for free users. So to have that option, which we really need for those folks who don't have a computer or webcam in their older models, we had to upgrade to the Zoom Pro option, which charges a monthly fee of about $15 per month.

The challenges are worth it to me. The phrase "social distancing," which keeps getting thrown around by public officials is something that I recognize is necessary for physical health, but as a pastor sets off all sorts of alarm bells for me as I think about my congregation's emotional and spiritual health. So including me checking in on them pretty regularly, and encouraging them to check in on one another, I feel like we need a space to come together to pray and chat. I don't even preach a sermon — that just doesn't feel important right now. Reading scripture, praying, and listening to one another seems more useful as we move through this challenging time.

Santi Rodriguez is a seminarian at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin.

Editor’s note: As part of Santi’s practical theology class, the group explored liturgy options during a time of social distancing. Santi speaks to the best ways to do online services.

  • For liturgical leaders — both lay and ordained — it is necessary to think of the most vulnerable and isolated, and to make liturgical and pastoral decisions with them in mind. We need to ask questions about those we privilege with our decisions to hold or not hold online services.
  • Two of the most important requirements for a faithful online service are flexibility and good technology. Intentionality and creativity are also paramount. Rehearsing and practicing the service ahead of time — especially the technology — allowed us to make decisions about how people could participate: readings, the sermon, prayers of the faithful, etc.
  • While following rubrics and liturgical theology, helping people to feel seen and included is quintessential. Thus, we felt the need to acknowledge others through camera — eye contact.
  • Good ecclesiology is necessary to make the experience prayerful. The liturgy forms the community — and how we choose to celebrate the liturgy forms who are gathered whether physically or digitally. In order to give technology a chance, slow and intentional celebration is helpful. Queuing people about when and how to participate is crucial. It creates opportunities for congregants to partake in these digital offerings.

Our personal desire for fellowship and spiritual communion, can bring us together in Christ even when the gadgets and technologies that connect us experience glitches and technical issues.

Rev. Layton E. Williams is a PCUSA pastor and communications specialist based in Charleston, S.C.
  • Look for ways to engage dialogue virtually, not just delivery of worship. This can look like actively encouraging discussion in response to prompts, or like doing the same in the form of a Facebook group.
  • Recognize that not everyone in your congregation is likely to use Facebook (especially if your church skews older or extremely young), so think about other ways to engage or reach folks digitally. Can you embed a live stream video to your website? Is there a way to host discussions or post comments there? Can you send information out via email (but for the love, don't try to manage a discussion that way)?
  • You're going to have to call people. Even if they're on social media, people need more than merely text interaction. If you're someone who hates talking on the phone, now is a time for courage.
  • Zoom and Skype are great methods of digital face-to-face engagement but are not intuitive to the uninitiated. Think through how to effectively train yourself, your staff, and your congregation.
Russell Meek (PhD Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a speaker, writer, and professor who specializes in the Old Testament and its intersection with the Christian life. Meek teaches Old Testament and Hermeneutics online.
  • YouTube is your friend. Short, clear videos communicate emotion and create connection so much better than long emails.
  • Be over-organized. Excel spreadsheets are your friend. Use simple charts to keep up with the people you have communicated with and need to communicate with.
  • See email not as an annoyance but as a way to love your neighbor. Take the extra two seconds to communicate love by acknowledging a person's humanity. You're missing body language and tone, so you have to intentionally compensate.
  • Communicate often that you're praying for, loving, thinking of, etc. Just come out and say it.
  • You'll get way more done by concerted focus. So, turn off your Twitter, Facebook, email, and plow through your work. Use — an app and website blocker — to set boundaries on these attention stealers.
  • Stand. Walk around. Stretch. If you're not used to sitting, your lower back and hip flexors can become very painful.
Rev. Benjamin Perry is Minister of Outreach and Media Strategy at Middle Collegiate Church in New York. Perry says a big part of his job is thinking about how to build digital community, because virtual church is church — every bit as loved and cared for by God — and we are called to show that.
  • Instead of streaming the music, consider creating a playlist on Apple music, Spotify, or Youtube. This has the advantage of not requiring any sort of licensing fees. In addition – if the congregation and musicians can’t gather, it can be pretty hard to stream worship music.
  • It’s OK if things aren’t perfect. Better to offer something virtual and muddle through things together — laughing, praying, and walking through any technical difficulty — than not offering anything at all.
  • Use the level of technology currently available to you. If you don’t have a hi-def camera, expensive microphones, etc., don’t feel like you absolutely need to buy them in order to provide your community something valuable.
  • Use Facebook Live on your cellphone if nothing else is available. People will still be grateful for the opportunity to be together.
  • Don’t treat digital worship as something wholly different than normal worship. Approach it with the same care and intentionality that you would dedicate to worshipping in person. Here’s a good place to get started for livestreaming.