As churches decided to suspend worship services during the outbreak of COVID-19, many opted to move their worship services online. For larger churches who do this on a weekly basis, this was an easy task. For some churches, this was unexplored territory, as pastors learned new technology.
But what about those rural churches where there is no access to internet, or with a population who might not be on social media? How do they gather as a community when they cannot actually gather in community?
To be clear: the answer is not to ignore the guidelines offered by experts and gather anyway. Church leadership should remember that suspending worship is setting a moral example to reduce harm in their communities. Instead, these churches should look for creative opportunities to cultivate community in these uncertain times.
First, churches should remember why they come to worship. Theologically, worship is a time to give thanks to God, to remember the redeeming work of God in this world, and to respond to God’s word through prayer, word, and deed. Sociologically, the church is a place where people see their friends and family, and find out about what’s happening around the community.
When rural churches plan for their virtual gatherings during these times, they should remember these two goals, making sure that they are accomplishing both.
So how does that look in practice? It can play out in a number of ways, and churches can be creative, utilizing pre-recorded videos, or reviving the weekly newsletter.
For pastors and worship teams that are technologically skilled, plan to pre-record their service. Remember that an average attention span will not fully engage with a 20 minute video, much less a 45–60 minute sermon or worship service on video.
Instead, consider a 7–10 minute video that you record in advance, with prayer, scripture, and short devotion. While these don’t need to be intricate, you might consider incorporating different worship elements. For one example, check out this video from Cullowhee United Methodist Church in Western North Carolina.
If you cannot record sermons, write a short devotion that you can mail and/or email to your congregation. Again, be sure to keep it succinct, an include a prayer and scripture. Keep the devotion to around 500 words. Include application questions that people can reflect or journal about on their own, or that they can discuss with their families.
You can easily turn these into weekly Bible studies by selecting scripture five scripture readings and offering a few questions, or a guide to practicing Lectio Divina.
Finally, consider setting up a conference call through a free service like www.freeconferencecall.com. Send the access code well in-advance through your weekly newsletter, communicate it through a phone tree, or send a mass text message. Instead of gathering in-person, gather as you would. Remember, again, to keep homilies and sermons to 10 minutes. Allow time for people to share their prayer-requests and to share updates about the community and their lives.
Don’t be afraid to try new and creative approaches. Remember that over-communicating is better than under-communicating. And, it’s better to be genuine and authentic even when its not perfect. Our congregations know and love our churches, even when the worship isn’t flawless. It’s part of the beauty of the small church.
Just because congregations are not meeting in person does not mean that congregations cannot continue to be the body of Christ. Lean into the attributes that people love about small-churches — the close-knit connection and the familial quality of the community — rather than try to compete with churches with better technology. By gathering in these ways, congregations can continue to offer hope in an uncertain world.