By Janis Fontaine
On Jan. 2, 1921, radio station KDKA became the first to broadcast a Christian church service, from Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. Today, thousands of churches make their services available to people who can’t attend in person, but few church leaders expected virtual church to become such a vital part of serving their congregations.
So some churches were more prepared than others.
At First United Methodist Church of Boca Raton, Danny Davis has been helping improve the quality of the live-streamed services since the coronavirus pandemic forced a shutdown last March. The church was already broadcasting its services on Facebook and YouTube, but that wasn’t anything on which it spent a lot of time.
“Our congregation was aware of our online presence, but we didn’t market it,” said Davis, a lay leader for the church, which now has resumed a Sunday in-person service outdoors, with reservations required. “Mostly it was watched by people who were home sick and couldn’t get to church, about 10 views per week.”
But when COVID-19 hit, “we realized early on things weren’t going to change,” Davis said.
Job one was to improve the quality of programming. He said it felt “like someone outside looking in” and the church wanted viewers to feel like they were right there, a part of the service.
“We planned it out and filmed the parts and music separately,” Davis said. “We found a person in the congregation who produced videos and he volunteered to help. We used the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, as a model.”
The largest Methodist church in the U.S. has 20,000 members and a professional TV production crew.
“My wife and I watch and I love that you can watch it on the big screen at home or on your phone from anywhere and it looks and feels like you’re a part of it. It feels good,” Davis said.
Penny Johnson has been attending some virtual and some in-person church at First Presbyterian in Delray Beach. Because she lives alone, interacting with others at church is important.
COVID-19 also curtailed two other church ministries in which Johnson was heavily involved — the choir and Holly House, a crafting group. That left a huge void in Johnson’s life.
“There are four or five of us who have no family here, and those relationships have become stronger,” Johnson said. People’s reticence to travel has kept families apart, adding to the isolation, Johnson said. Her pod alleviates some of her loneliness until her family can resume visiting.
She laughed as she said that “for the first time ever,” Pastor Doug Hood “emphasized that it was perfectly fine if you wanted to stay home.”
For Stephanie Hernandez, “as soon as I could get back to in-person church, I was there. Just walking through the doors into the house of God gave me a sense of relief, of inner peace.”
The Hernandez family attends St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church in Delray Beach and their two daughters, 9 and 6, attend school there.
Hernandez said her younger daughter found it hard to focus on virtual church.
“There were a lot of distractions,” Hernandez said with a laugh. “The dishwasher buzzer would go off; my daughter would wander away.”
Hernandez tried taking her computer on the patio to watch Mass alone, but said people at the door would interrupt too often. The biggest void, though, wasn’t spiritual, it was emotional.
“I’m a very social person and mentally it wasn’t good for me,” she said. “I want to stay home when I want to, not when I am told I have to.”
Hernandez calls herself “faith-driven. I was born and raised in the church and Catholic school, and the church feels like family.”
At First United Methodist, Davis has found a new calling in working on the Facebook and YouTube live-streams.
“The joy of it for us as we perfected this was getting notices from as far away as the Philippines from people watching,” Davis said.
The church has even attracted a handful of virtual-only members, that is, folks who don’t plan to set foot in church. “But most of our membership longs for in-person church,” Davis said.
Davis said virtual church has expanded to Bible studies, book clubs, women’s group meetings and other ministries.
“These are just as important to the church as worship,” Davis said. “These are the folks actually doing the work of the church. And through Zoom or GoToMeeting, they can actually see each other.”
And in-person church isn’t what it was. Seating is restricted, so “you can smile and wave,” Johnson said, “but don’t really interact.” There are no Bibles or hymnals, just the printed bulletin. “A lot of people still don’t want to come back because they’re afraid. Being with people is important to me. I want to live my life.”
Davis agrees. “I like it, but it’s not as good as being together.”
Janis Fontaine writes about people of faith, their congregations, causes and community events. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.