Some United Methodist churches are revving up in-person worship services after being sidelined for months by the coronavirus. But virtual worship seems to be here for good.
“Last week we had about a hundred (in-person worshippers) between the two services,” said the Rev. Bryan Brooks, senior pastor of Franklin First United Methodist Church.
Before COVID-19, that number was more like 1,100, plus another 100-150 at a second site in downtown Franklin, a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee.
“We had less than a year of functioning when (the coronavirus) struck,” said the Rev. Emigdio Rosales, pastor. “Also, the (contributions) have been cut back, so everything is not where we were.”
“My conviction is that the majority of the congregation is going to stay online, and that online worship needs to be our priority,” Lippoldt said. “I don’t know how we would do both really, really well.”
About 35 people attended the first in-person services back in St. Paul’s sanctuary on Aug. 16, Lippoldt said. The church seats about 600.
“I believe our high-quality livestream is helping people feel connected to the church and worship even while at home, so the pressure is low here for in-person attendance,” Lippoldt said. “At the same time, I’m glad we are providing it for people who really want to be here.”
The Rev. Andrew Conard, pastor of Susanna Wesley United Methodist Church in Topeka, Kansas, said some church members have said they will not be physically back in the church building “for the foreseeable future.”
“We certainly have heard from a number in our congregation because of their particular health situation who’ve said, ‘We’re online folks.’”
Online worship has its merits, said Jim Berg, staff parish chair at St. Paul’s Papillion.
“You were able to have a cup of coffee and sit in your living room,” Berg said. “Watching on a big-screen TV was OK, but it wasn’t the same experience as you get in church at a service.”
One thing the internet can never replicate, even with Zoom and other services that allow for video conferencing, are the handshakes, hugs and informal chatting before and after services that are a big part of every church.
“We don’t have refreshments,” Rosales said. “We took away the table in the lobby, so people don’t hang out in the lobby before and after the service. We don’t have coffee. … That human connection is kind of lost.”
The normal channels to get feedback from the congregation have been compromised at Susanna Wesley because of the lack of fellowship time, said Carrie Riordan, communications director.
“How we’re used to taking the pulse of the congregation and getting feedback from people just has really been diminished,” she said.
The church is beefing up its small groups ministry, which Riordan thinks will open up the lines of communication again.
“One of our pastors does an introduction for songs,” Brooks said. “He’ll say, ‘Feel free to be more expressive with your body, to move around and lift your hands,’ even to the point of giving folks some guidance for that.”
The Rev. Mark Welshimer, senior pastor at Polk Street United Methodist Church in Amarillo, Texas, said his congregants are asked not to hug or shake hands.
“We don’t pass the (collection) plate,” he said. “And we’ve had communion served in a different way. We now have individualized communion. We have the little to-go cups.”
Polk Street has had a television ministry for decades. It has thrived during the pandemic.
“We’re in the whole panhandle of Texas, but also in … Oklahoma and portions of New Mexico,” Welshimer said. “We have folks that have been watching for years. It’s hard to get the farmers and ranchers together, just because they’re spread out so much here.”
Like many churches that livestream, Polk Street has a far reach on the internet.
“We’ve seen people on our livestreaming from Florida, Pennsylvania, El Paso (Texas) to California,” he said. “Some were interested in using our YouTube songs. Now in Delaware, Baltimore and California, people are using our videos that we posted on YouTube of our choir.”
Whatever the future brings, Lippoldt said she trusts that God will “lead us into whatever we need to change in order to be responsive to whatever permanent shifts this makes for us.
“I don’t think we’re going to know what has been nurtured enough and where we’ve atrophied … until we get on the other side of the pandemic.”