UM Churches Adapt to Various Worship Styles in Wake of COVID-19

By Audrey Stanton-Smith

When Patty Johnston and Larry Frail winter in Las Vegas, participating in their home church service back in Beckley is usually out of the question. At least it was until the pandemic.

“Being able to connect with our home church made a huge difference this year,” said Johnston. She and husband Larry not only worshiped on Facebook Live, they participated in Sunday School and weekly small group Bible studies on Zoom, where they could see, hear and talk with friends from United Methodist Temple. 

Throughout the conference, United Methodist churches have spent the last four months adapting, learning and showing protective love in whatever ways best suit their congregations and resources. Many are worshiping online, continuing even as sanctuaries slowly reopen under strict safety guidelines. Others have taken to parking lots, lawn chairs and short-wave radio. And most have plans to incorporate their new technology in some way even after large gatherings are deemed safe once again.

Beyond worship, newly developed care teams are staying in touch by phone. Small groups are Zooming, following study blogs, and YouTubing. Pastors are regularly incorporating Call-Em-All and church-wide texting systems. Even music leaders are putting technology to work — bringing choirs together on screen and in time.

Although Patty Johnston and Larry Frail’s home church, United Methodist Temple, had been streaming worship on Facebook for several months pre-COVID, small groups had been meeting only in person until safety concerns prompted a need for technological adaptation. 

“We would even get up early, 7 a.m. in Vegas, to worship really live, then do Sunday School on Zoom,” she said. “That’s kind of ironic, since we’re known for being the last people to get to Temple most Sunday mornings.”

Now that the couple is back in Beckley, they continue participating in online worship and Zoom small groups, and they hope it will remain an option even after large gatherings are deemed safe.

“I think about my mom, who was unable to go to church the last few years of her life,” Johnston said. “That would have been so great for her. She really missed connecting with people and being able to participate in church. … It just shows you that no matter how bad something is, there’s something good to come of it.”

Their pastor, Rev. Steve Hamrick, says online worship and small groups are definitely something that will stick around.

“It’s something we were just missing before,” said Hamrick, whose congregation returned to in-person worship under safety and distancing guidelines June 7. “The Zoom is something we were missing. Used to be when our nominations team would meet to talk about who to put on what committees, they’d have to leave out a good person because maybe that person went to Florida for the winter. But now we know they can still participate. We want people to stay connected.”

Meanwhile, even with doors open and 66 masked people worshiping inside United Methodist Temple’s large sanctuary on a June Sunday, Facebook Live numbers continue holding steady and even growing some Sundays — averaging around 75 online live and nearly 500 at various points throughout the week in June. But it doesn’t mean things are ideal.

“The very first week after things shut down, the church was online only,” Hamrick said. “We were going to record on a Saturday and broadcast on Sunday, but something didn’t feel right about that. So we went to where we were doing service in the building on Sunday, live then, which helped me. It’s quite a challenge trying to preach into a camera, not seeing people who are responding, the looks on their faces, the nonverbal cues.”

Now that the sanctuary has reopened, facial cues may be visible but other challenges remain, especially with safety concerns about in-person group singing.

“It’s a less complete worship service now that we’re back in sanctuary,” he said. “It’s a hybrid service — some live, some recorded, and that allows some music in the service. When we were 100 percent online, we were playing songs and had words up, inviting people to sing where they were. But we can’t do that now. It was something we had to weigh when we decided on whether to reopen or not. Are we really worshiping? Are they just coming in to watch me, or are they coming to worship?”

According to a phone survey — yet another of United Methodist Temple’s COVID-era technology additions — those respondents who participated in in-person worship said they did feel like they were truly worshiping, Hamrick added.

At Barrackville United Methodist, Rev. Stephanie Bennett can read the faces of her congregation through their car windows.

“We call it transmitter church,” she joked.

In the beginning, on March 22, she preached to congregations of Barrackville and Monumental from the back of her husband’s red pick-up truck using a low-power FM radio transmitter. After a month, someone built her a stationary platform for the Barrackville parking lot. She calls it “the patio.”

“It’s much sturdier than the truck.”

Barrackville is a smaller church, where the sanctuary restricts safe spacing and narrow hallways make distancing impossible, Bennett explained. Most members are older or medically compromised, and therefore part of a more virus vulnerable population. So reopening the sanctuary is not yet an option, and for now, they won’t even be getting out of their cars.

“We have a parking lot attendant who helps park cars, and I’m outside preaching rain or shine, except for maybe if there would be an electrical storm,” Bennett said. “ … I don’t know what the future holds and when we can think about transitioning inside, but it won’t be the weather that pushes us in there, it’s ‘at what point will we be safe?’”

Whenever that may be, Bennett will keep using the transmitter even inside, “so people can be safe at home if they want to be.”

“Barrackville has around 65 who attend in person (in the parking lot) and another 20 to 25 who live close enough that they can listen from their homes,” Bennett said. “Every week I find out someone else is listening that I didn’t know was listening.”

In fact, she said, attendance averages are up, and some of those who have been physically unable to come to church are now able to come.

“For some folks who have loved ones with memory issues, they’re finding it’s easier to bring them in the car and to stay in the car with them, rather than trying to get into the church building,” Bennett said. “And we’ve even welcomed three dogs and two cats.”

One Sunday, an 11-year-old boy riding a bicycle stopped to listen.

“I didn’t even know he was there until he told me afterwards how nice it was we were doing this service,” Bennett said. “People like the relaxed attitude. They can dress more comfortably. I see them with their breakfast sandwiches, donuts and coffee. People are extremely comfortable in their cars, and they can physically see each other through their windows.”

When worship concludes, care continues with phone groups calling each other.

“In the beginning it was just to check on people, see if they needed anything from the store, but it’s become a way for people to get to know each other,” Bennett said. “People are getting connected, and it’s absolutely amazing.”

New connections are also happening at Stout United Methodist in Parkersburg. Rev. Cynthia Eakle has sectioned off a part of the parking lot for appropriately spaced lawn chairs near speakers, and another section for cars tuned in on their radios for a 9 a.m. service.

“We just started the lawn chairs in May,” she said. “And we just started a 10:45 service inside, but not too many people are using that service.”

Most, she said, seem to prefer the parking lot service, which is also streamed on Facebook Live.

“We have kind of a glassed-in area in the front, so if the weather is bad, we can move equipment inside,” she explained. “It’s been going really well.”

Not only have members — around 70 in the parking lot, 15 indoor, and between 200 and 400 viewers on Facebook Live (at their convenience and live) — participated, but visitors as well.

“We’ve had people in the neighborhood whose churches have been closed,” Eakle said. “So one lady across the street has been inviting her church friends to her yard to join in. We have several members of other churches participating.”

Children’s Sunday School holds a 10 a.m. Zoom session, and Sunday School classes are using blog and video links from the church website to keep members engaged throughout the week. Those things weren’t options pre-COVID. 

In Huntington, at Johnson Memorial UMC, Church Media and Communications Coordinator Tobyn Wells gathers bits and pieces of worship throughout the week, then edits them together for worship service on Facebook Live and YouTube.

Visitors to the church website have been able to listen to sermon audio for years, but now the church’s completely online service offers much more. Members past and present and from multiple locations are participating by filming themselves on their smartphones reading scripture or offering prayer. Wells combines and edits those segments with other elements of worship before uploading a single production onto Facebook and YouTube as a premier event.

“In essence, it causes everyone to worship together at the same time,” she explained. Of course, not everyone has to worship at the 10:30 premier, and many wait until later, but on average some 30 families watch together during the premier and are able to chat and interact.

“They’ll write, ‘it’s good to see so-and-so, who moved away,’ ” she said. Or, they may comment about the music. 

“We have a couple different things we do through that,” Wells said. “We have scholarship students from Marshall University … who come into the sanctuary or into the chapel and space themselves out at least 6 feet apart so they’re singing straight out, split down two sides, then we can splice two camera views together and include that in the final video upload. Or, we use an app called Acapella.”

The Acapella app allows singers to listen to music through a headset at home, then record their own video and singing. The app helps put it all together for use in the final upload.

“Prior to COVID … we did already have projection in our service, a heavy media presence with screens and announcement scrolling,” Wells said, “but this kind of forced us into a new thing, adjusting to an online format. … And Sunday School classes are gathering after worship on Zoom. It’s a nice way for them to reflect and expand upon the service.”

It’s certainly something the church will continue, she said.

“I think people have enjoyed the services,” she said. “ … We already have a higher number of eyes watching the screen than we did in-person worship. … It’s become a very creative experience in ways we never imagined.”

Audrey Stanton-Smith is the Southern District communications coordinator.