You don’t need to be a wealthy megachurch to welcome and serve online worshipers, but it helps to have an online usher.
An elderly member of Corry First United Methodist Church in Corry, Pennsylvania, recently stopped by the church, driven by a friend who’d taken her to a doctor appointment.
Pastor John Zimmerman recalls, “I showed her the new floor in our church gym. As she was getting back into the car, she said, ‘You know, I couldn’t attend church last Sunday…’ And I thought to myself, ‘You haven’t been able to for a long time.’ And then she finished the sentence with ‘...because my computer broke.’”
Their brief exchange stayed with him. “I’d perceived her as a shut-in. I realized that this 82-year-old woman was capable to navigate the Internet and bring up our live online worship service. And she used the word attend, not listen. I hear the word listen when people talk about sermon podcasts posted on our church website,” Zimmerman says.
Comparing Corry FUMC’s size, community, budget, and staff to your own congregation may reveal that your church has untapped potential to reach people by streaming your worship services online. Your plan for helping people interact is more important than your technology budget.
Just as Zimmerman had assumed that technology reaches only younger people, Christians often assume that only wealthy churches in metro areas would use technology in worship.
“The perception that you have to be big to use technology seems unique to churches, because technology use is very common in schools, libraries, and the rest of life. When a church exceeds that ‘behind the times’ expectation, everyone is surprised,” Zimmerman says.
Corry FUMC has a combined total attendance of 230 at its two morning worship services. The town of Corry is in northwest Pennsylvania’s Erie County and has 6,300 residents. The next largest communities are a 45-minute drive in any direction. Erie County poverty rates are higher than Pennsylvania and national averages, and 23% of children in Corry live in poverty.
Corry FUMC streams both its worship service live each week. Matt Kennedy, the church’s volunteer multimedia expert, says that about 30 to 50 computers sign on each Sunday. Online ushers find that often two or three people or a whole family attend via one signed-on computer. Many people attend because they’re in poor health, home with a sick child, or have to work on Sunday. Others are away from home because of work, business, or college. Or they don’t want to drive during Corry’s typical 200-inches-of-snow winters.
No one from the congregation has ever met a certain trucker in person, but he’s a regular online attendee. “He’s an over-the-road trucker from Jamestown, New York. He’d often stop at a truck stop on Sunday and ask whether there was a church within walking distance, because most church lots don’t have room for a big rig. One time he got bit by a dog while walking to a church, and he told his wife he always felt like an outsider. She suggested he search for an online worship service, because, like most truckers now, he has mobile internet access in his truck,” Zimmerman says.
Kennedy adds, “I know of someone who didn’t want to start out in regular church, so they tried us out online. Now this person attends our onsite worship and has become a leader.”
The church website describes onsite and online attendees as joined with “the Holy Spirit in our mutual ministry of serving Christ.”
“John and I have gone back and forth about whether to stream our worship services live or to do a delayed broadcast that we can edit. It always comes down to the fact that interaction matters more. The online usher is our bridge. When we stream live, the participants can chat online with the online usher and each other.
“We also have people sitting in the pews who use their smartphones to connect with our online worshipers. They’re not just chatting about the weather. They’re chatting about sermon points and prayer concerns, or giving the status of our stream’s audio or visual quality,” Kennedy says.
Zimmerman sets his DroidX smartphone on the pulpit. During a part of the service he’s not leading, such as the offering, he texts a welcome to online worshipers. If he sends the mike around so that onsite worshipers can share prayer requests, the online usher gathers online prayer requests as well. “The online people hear their prayer requests shared onsite and included in my prayer. This helps onsite worshipers recognize that we are one congregation,” he says.
Sometimes an online worshiper will ask for a webcam shot of a loved one in the sanctuary. The congregation has relationships with missionaries all over the world. “Though they become immersed in their new culture, they say that Kenya, Bolivia, or Burkina Faso are never fully home, so it’s a tremendous blessing to them to be able to worship online with us in English in traditions they’re familiar with,” Zimmerman says.
The Sunday before Corry FUMC’s quarterly communion celebrations, online worshipers get a reminder to have bread and grape juice available so they can participate. One student away at college later said, “I didn’t have any juice or bread but I had Coke and crackers. Is that okay?” Zimmerman comments, “I thought it was awesome that a young adult would go to that effort to partake with us.”
Streaming worship live creates many volunteer opportunities. An electrical engineer by day, Kennedy says that volunteering to do all the multimedia work by himself would “be burdensome.”
Instead he wrote a little instruction manual so that various volunteers can take responsibility for specific tasks. Some tasks can be done at home, such as converting bulletins to pdfs or sermons to podcasts and posting them online, or using EasyWorship to create song slides.
At each Sunday service, an online usher sits in the sanctuary, using a computer to communicate with those onsite and online. Kennedy has two or three people in the multimedia room with him to operate cameras, run EasyWorship, and so on.
Corry FUMC’s online worship has created an evangelism opportunity for “Dan, the trucker,” who often gets on his CB at a truck stop to invite other truckers to come join him for worship. “He’ll cook hot dogs on a grill for them. We have never seen him in person but he interacts with our online ushers. He says he feels more like a part of our worship than he ever felt when he was physically present in all those unfamiliar churches,” Zimmerman says.
Feel free to print and distribute these stories for your staff, media, or outreach ministry meetings. These questions will help your church explore how to develop or improve your online presence: