After the COVID-19 pandemic closed Forest Chapel United Methodist Church’s doors, the world found a new window on its ministry.
Through worship services and prayers posted on Facebook, people began visiting the Cincinnati church from multiple time zones away. In the past year, Forest Chapel has seen new members join from Bhutan, Nepal and Indonesia — all Asian countries with few Christians.
By far the biggest growth came on May 30 this year, when church leaders welcomed 750 new members — mainly worshippers in Ludhiana, India.
“Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church and uphold it by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness?” the Rev. J. Kabamba Kiboko, the church’s lead pastor, asked the new church members by Zoom.
They each responded by saying: “I will.”
Forest Chapel United Methodist Church’s experience is more far-reaching than most but hardly unique. After scrambling to go virtual in the early days of the pandemic, many United Methodist churches now report drawing more attendance online than they typically do in person.
The strain of the pandemic is real, but so is the innovation. Where once preachers traveled the sawdust trail, many United Methodist pastors now log onto Facebook, Zoom, YouTube, Instagram or WhatsApp to reach new people. The result is that even as churches have worked to stop the spread of a deadly virus, they also have found new ways to spread the living Gospel. And that’s unlikely to stop, even as in-person worship in the U.S. resumes.
United Methodist Communications observes Social Media Day on June 30 with free learning opportunities and resources to help churchgoers use these new digital tools of evangelism.
“We are a modern-day church of Pentecost,” said Kiboko, lead pastor of Forest Chapel since 2013. A native of Congo who has led United Methodist churches in Texas and now Ohio, she is no stranger to thinking globally.
But before the pandemic took hold, Kiboko’s largely white congregation already was becoming international by reaching out closer to home — to Cincinnati’s sizable Bhutanese refugee committee. Most of the city’s refugees are Lhotshampa, ethnic Nepalese who lived in Bhutan for generations but were forced to leave their homes starting in the 1990s because of Bhutan’s ethnic cleansing.
The church’s outreach began, fittingly enough, with its celebration of Pentecost in 2017. When Kiboko sought someone who could help read Acts 2:4 in Nepali, a mutual friend connected her with Lasang Ghising Tamang, president of a Christian movement for young Bhutanese.
That relationship grew and on Pentecost 2020, Tamang and 76 other Bhutanese Christians in Cincinnati joined Forest Chapel by profession of faith. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, almost all new members joined online. Tamang, the group’s leader, took her membership vows inside the church building.
“We work as one family in the church,” she said. “That’s what inspired me to become a Methodist. We can be connective, and we can work together.”
Thanks to Tamang’s language interpretation, the congregation also was able to reach Nepali-speaking people in Bhutan, Nepal and northern India, as it posted worship services online. It is not unheard of for 1,000 people to be viewing services online.
Not all their online visitors came from Nepali-speaking populations. Christine Pangaribuan knew about Forest Chapel United Methodist Church because her sister worked at a nearby day care.
But it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic led the church to initiate services on Facebook that the elementary-school teacher could visit from her home 11 time zones away in Bogor, Indonesia.
On Pentecost this year, she was able to worship with the Christian community in person, and she decided to be baptized.
“Before my departure to the USA, I had a mission to have healing, to get closer to God and get a new life in Christ,” she said by WhatsApp.
Other United Methodist congregations also have seen growth beyond their traditional geographical limitations.
La Trinidad United Methodist Church in San Antonio — one the denomination’s oldest Hispanic/Latino congregations — saw growth in the wake of the 1918 flu pandemic. The church is seeing a similar development this time around with its services on YouTube in Spanish and English, said the Rev. John Feagins, the church’s co-pastor.
“Even before the pandemic, we shared our activities through social networks; only that with the pandemic we improved the technical quality of the transmissions and expanded their reach,” he said.
Before the pandemic, La Trinidad’s average worship attendance was 145 people. Friends and neighbors of members began to congregate virtually with the church. That extended the church’s reach to Texans in the distant cities of Laredo, Corpus Christi and Dallas and then beyond to worshippers in Pakistan and Mexico. The church has now surpassed 350 people participating in its services, Feagins said.
“This year, the church grew. It grew economically; it grew in the number of people participating in the activities,” he said. “We have seen this miracle of God among us.”
United Methodist congregations of all kinds should use the opportunity to transform spikes in online worship into long-lasting online ministry, said Kay Kotan. She is a United Methodist church coach and author of “Being the Church in the Post-Pandemic World.”
Online ministry helps reach faithful attenders who may not be comfortable with in-person gatherings yet.
“More importantly, the online world is where more of the unchurched population that we are trying to reach is hanging out more than anywhere else,” she said. “We can't abandon this ripe mission field.”
She suggests church leaders expand their online presence beyond offering worship (a 30- to 60-minute, once-a-week recorded experience) to fuller expressions, including relational opportunities such as small groups, prayer and even connections in service work.
She sees this coming fall as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for congregations to relaunch into the community — not just reopen.
“It is somewhat of a trifecta: Fall is the natural relaunch time for the church, it is when our vaccination rate will be even higher while the weather will still be nice, and we will be closer to coming out of the pandemic when people are more open to new rhythms and new relationships,” she said.
The people of Forest Chapel United Methodist Church already have big plans ahead of September, when both the congregation and its Forest Park community celebrate their 65th anniversary. Kiboko also will turn 65 in September.
To celebrate this happy coincidence of 65s, Kiboko is leading a 65-day fast — not from food but from negativity, including the less-than-positive parts of the Internet. The fast from negativity will last July 10-Sept. 12, and she already has city and local officials aboard.
The church also continues to look for ways to connect in service and prayer with its new members in Asia, many of whom are still under lockdown because of surging COVID-19 cases.
Kiboko is already thinking about the 65 years to come.
“We have been talking about: How do we live in Christ?” she said. “Now we are moving from transformation of the community to transformation of the world.”
Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News, and Vasquez is director of United Methodist News for the Hispanic / Latino audience. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.
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