As COVID-19 continues to spread across our state, many churches have turned to alternative means for their gatherings. Churches should analyze their local congregation and make decisions on whether to continue in person meetings or if they should move to alternative platforms. If a church is located in an area the virus is spreading or you serve a particularly high risk demographic, an option to consider is moving church online.
Read the article below or watch the video to learn some of the best ways to create an online church.
While Church online is unconventional and a major challenge for many, let us walk you through three different components to create an online experience that will allow the church to move forward in these times. We'll explore the gathering, the community, and giving. (click one to jump ahead)
One key component to consider is how gatherings will continue for the church. If the decision is made to move online, additional technical requirements & format changes will need be considered.
Before deciding which route to take to get your service online, it’s a good idea to assess your current online presence and make decisions based on your current capability. If your church is already live-streaming your service, this will be a great time to continue that and expand your reach. Alternatively, if your church has a limited online presence or doesn’t already livestream, recording your service and posting it online later will be a simpler, more effective transition.
Enhancing or Establishing a livestream
If your church already has or is establishing a livestream platform, make sure the platform is very robust and able to handle the increased traffic flow. Most platforms are not used to seeing the amount of traffic they’ll receive in the next few weeks. Additionally, make sure there are back up plans in place should the livestream go down so that your church can stay connected.
If you have the capability to livestream, but are still looking for platforms to host & distribute your stream, there are a few options to consider. Livestream.com & Wirecast are two options commonly used by churches that allow you to stream through a camera or video system connected to a computer. However, they do come with a considerable cost and equipment requirement. Another computer-based option is OBS Studio. It’s free but can also be more challenging to setup. Other options include using a streaming device such as the Epiphan Webcaster that can stream straight from a camera with an HDMI connection. [Epiphan Webcaster mobile setup] All of these options will allow you to stream straight to sources like Facebook Live & Youtube Live. Lastly, there are a few cameras, like the Mevo, that can be connected to an app and livestream without any additional equipment needed.
If you still prefer a livestream, but lack a sophisticated camera setup or the budget for an expansive system, streaming straight from a mobile device is another great option. It’s become quite simple to take a modern smartphone, connect to the Facebook app and start a Facebook live within a few minutes. You can also pair a smartphone with an app like Streamlabs and stream to multiple sources such as Facebook and YouTube for a small monthly fee.
Before you dive into livestream, also consider your church’s internet speeds and wifi connection. [Click here to check your speed] You'll want to have at least 4-5 mbps or more upload speeds for livestreaming. Without fast internet speeds or a stable connection, you’ll need to use a data package from a cell phone or hot spot. If none of these are available, you’ll end up with a very poor quality livestream that will be unappealing to an online audience.
Lastly, if you are changing up or adding the livestream component, it’s a good idea to update your church on how they can access your gathering online. This can be done best on a short video or written guide with pictures.
If your church is not equipped with a video system, has limited access to high-speed internet connections, and still wants to move online, pre-recording your service is an excellent option. If you have access to a smartphone, you’re in business!
To record your service, simply set up a smartphone or camera near the location all the action will be taking place. If multiple people will be on camera and people will be adjusting positions, consider having someone adjust the camera. Make sure to attach the camera or phone to a tripod or steady surface so that the shot is not shaky.
Before beginning your video, make sure you have a plan in place. You can treat the service as if it were live & this will help cut down on any editing needed after the fact. This makes it important to know who will be speaking and when they’ll be speaking. However, if you need to stop the shot, make a few cuts, or add clips together, there are plenty of apps out there to do just that.
If you’re on an iPhone, download the iMovie app & you’ll be able to make extensive edits to the video. If you’re on Android or iPhone, you can also use the app Splice. If you go with either of these options, there will be a wide variety of helpful YouTube videos to help you navigate any problems you experience. [Check out these great tutorials: iMovie for iPhone, iMovie for Mac, Splice]
Formatting the Online Experience
There are two major areas to address in the format of the live experience: How will it flow and where will it be posted?
How will it flow? Online audiences (your church included) are not used to watching hour-plus long content on social media and websites. If your services tend to be long, it’s a great idea to trim them down to keep retention online. If worship will be a part of your service, go with one or two songs. (Also, if you plan to have worship included, make sure your CCLI license is up to date and streaming is added to it.) For the sermon, consider shortening it and make sure it’s engaging. Your audience will be sitting in a distracting environment, so it’s important to hook them quickly and keep them connected. Lastly, make sure to let them know how they can respond to the message. Your traditional invitation time may morph into, “send us a text message or email if you want to learn more about Jesus or made the decision to follow Him.”
Options for posting a live stream or pre-recorded message. The most important part of this decision is that you are posting it where people already are. The most likely place for this is your website and Facebook page. If your church doesn’t have either of these, consider setting up a Facebook page for the church connected to your profile and inviting church members to like it. If you pre-record your message, schedule it for a Facebook “watch party” and this will allow members to view it at the same time, as if it were live, and also engage in discussions in the comments. As a pastor or church leader, make sure you’re also connected to the comment section and engaging with your church.
Community is a key element of the church and is very difficult to recreate outside of traditional settings. Establishing community in this new setting will be very dependent on the makeup of a church with several factors to consider.
Small Groups/Sunday Schools
If your church serves an older demographic or includes people with weakened immune systems, it may serve others best by taking Sunday School or Small Group gatherings online. While live-streaming a service is now a common occurrence, how can churches gather small groups digitally? If your church is looking to keep Sunday School or Small Group gatherings in place, look for video conferencing solutions. A few of our favorites are Zoom, Skype or even FaceTime, if everyone in the group is an Apple user. Each of these services offers different features for their free users.
Zoom is a video conferencing platform used across corporate America. It’s very stable & easy to use. Should your church choose this option, the group leader should create an account and set up the meeting. Once the meeting is in place, you can email the meeting information to others so they will know when and how to join. Their free profile allows up to 40 minutes of free conferencing and they have paid options if you need a little longer.
Skype is another great option and is readily accessible across a myriad of devices. Their free plan allows up to 50 participants. In order to setup a Skype call, participants will need to have a Skype account and you’ll need to add them to your contacts. From there, you select who you would like to call and you can start your group.
If everyone in your group has an Apple device of some sort, FaceTime is a great option.Apple recently added the ability for group calls, so you can include your whole group. This will be an easy option as long as it works for everyone in your group.
If your church serves a demographic that’s not largely susceptible to COVID-19, or you have specific groups that are not, those groups may have no problem continuing to meet. It may be best to move those gatherings into homes to avoid contact with the general public. Additionally, those groups should aim to practice good hand hygiene practices and social distancing.
Additionally, pastoring and caring for the needs of your congregations could look much different in a digital platform. How can you check on and care for a sick member? How can you minister to those who are hurting and need counseling?
Much like digital gatherings, many video conferencing platforms and group chat communications will allow you to stay connected to your church members. For example, a pastor could aim to make 5-6 calls per day just to check in on the various members of the church. Another option would be creating a Facebook live post each day to share a short devotional and allow church members to share prayer requests and other needs. Facebook Groups are another platform that can pull your church together and allow them to fellowship and remain connected.
Also, it’s important to encourage other church leaders to take part in this. Sunday school or small group leaders should try to regularly connect by phone with their members & other ministries should also remain connected. Make sure to give instructions on how often they should make contacts and the times of day they should connect.
Children & Student Ministry
For those who work or volunteer with children and students, this is the time to set your imagination free and develop ideas to connect with them on platforms they are already used to using. This may involve surveying the group to see how the parents and students are connected.
For kids, connect with their parents and let them know how they can continue to work with their children. It might be helpful to suggest books, send lessons, and create other activities. With kids being out of school for an extended period of time, parents will need ideas and help to keep their children busy. This is a great way to continue spiritual development and discipleship for kids.
For students, there are many online resources that will allow you to provide studies, activities, games and more. From there, you can follow up with students on social media to engage at a deeper level. The good news is students are used to this and it won’t be a big shock or change for them!
Among the most difficult challenges for churches will be adjusting how tithes and giving happens. Many churches have added online giving as an option, but most find a large percentage of giving still happens through the traditional passing of the plate. In order to keep giving at a manageable level, it will take effort in multiple areas.
First, platforms have to be available for members to give through. This could be as simple as giving them an address to mail their tithe to by check. However, if that’s the only option you present, a large portion of your audience will likely not participate. If your church doesn’t yet have an online giving platform, now is the time to pick one.
The first step to picking an online platform could be consulting your church management software and seeing if they have a compatible solution. Sometimes, specific platforms and systems may integrate better which will create less trouble on the back end. If there isn’t a suggested option, we’ll list a few good options.
PushPay is an option that has been around for quite some time and offers simple giving and top-notch security. They offer a wide range of services, but it does have a monthly and transaction charge. It will also allow for reoccurring giving which can help giving remain consistent in times such as these.
Tithe.ly is another option that many churches choose and has also been around for quite some time. It offers an easy setup and is easy for admins to manage. It also charges for each transaction, but does not have a monthly fee.
Lastly, Generosity by LifeWay is a newer product in the online giving market. It has a variety of offerings and products while it also allows for a free or premium account. In addition, it will also charge a percentage for each transaction.
Presentation of the Offering
Whichever platform you choose or already use, it’s also very important how this is presented to the online church. There will be concerns of security and technical challenges for those who are regular givers in the offering plate. Additionally, those who might give less frequently may be less inclined to give in an online environment. As a Pastor or Church leader, it’s important to answer these concerns and help the church understand how this process works.
For security and technical concerns, it’s important that you first understand how the software works. Once it’s time for the offering, make sure to address in simple terms some of the security elements the software takes in order to protect the users' information. Additionally, it may be beneficial to walk users through the process, especially the first time they use it. You may also want to create a video to share on your social media or website of yourself walking through an online gift. Many phones offer a screen recording option that makes this easy to do.
Lastly, you’ll need to cast vision for why giving is still important and how those funds will be used. If you’re trying to connect with a new and younger audience, consider offering insight to ministries that are currently helping minister to those affected by COVID-19 and how their giving can help that ministry. With day-to-day operations of a church changing, it will be of the utmost importance for churches to make sure ministry is still happening and that it is being communicated to the church so they’ll continue to give. Also, consider working the giving element into the online community outlets and don’t just include it in the gathering time.
We are here to help
As the virus spreads, things are constantly changing. Methods that work today might change or need to be adjusted for tomorrow. As this happens, remember, we serve a big God who is always with us. Times like these are some of the most fruitful times for ministry. It just might require us to consider new, seemingly challenging methods for carrying that ministry out.
If we can help throughout any point of the process, please reach out. You can find more resources at absc.org/covid-19. Additionally, we’ll continue to post new resources and helpful tips on our social media. Make sure you stay connected.