‘Learning as we go’
By Eileen Flynn
When the COVID-19 outbreak forced Central Texas churches to close their doors and shift to online-only services, the Rev. Tracey Beadle prepared her sermon as she does every week. On that Sunday, she stared out at the empty pews of Westlake United Methodist Church, then looked directly into the camera and began preaching.
“It didn’t feel as weird as I thought it would, because as a pastor who knows this congregation well at this point, I can visualize the people I’m talking to,” Beadle said. “I’m holding them in my heart as I’m speaking. I can imagine their reactions and the looks on their faces.”
The following Sunday, Beadle had to share her sermon from home in a service that featured both live and prerecorded segments. The church staff, she said, is reimagining worship almost daily now.
For many believers, it is unthinkable that, at a time of great anxiety, their sanctuaries and spiritual brethren would be physically inaccessible. Yet despite the upheaval and uncertainty, some say the pandemic crisis has fostered deeper connections, and technology has opened new avenues to reach a broader audience. Even those making their first foray into livestreaming services say it’s working better than they expected.
Over the past few weeks, many houses of worship had to master new technologies on the fly. At upRising, a church in South Austin, the worship leader spent time figuring out how to do a high-quality Facebook Live feed. Trinity Church of Austin ministerial staff put together a YouTube channel on short notice for their first broadcast from the Hyde Park church.
Congregation Agudas Achim in Northwest Austin offered a livestream through Vimeo, also a first for the community.
“I think it's going really well, and we're learning as we go,” said Rabbi Steven Folberg of Congregation Beth Israel, which is using YouTube for worship and Zoom for classes and other events. “It's been an interesting time — stressful, but also creatively challenging.”
Rabbi Jonathan Siger, who leads a synagogue in the Houston suburb of Spring, isn’t afraid to embrace creative challenges but noted the pressure can take a toll on clergy.
“Suddenly, I feel like a television preacher trying to break into a market that is oversaturated with content since we are all pushing content,” he said. “And because I have a broadcast and performance background, I have high expectations of what I put out there, and I'm definitely feeling the stress of wanting to produce things that look and sound good and that won't be cringeworthy if they get shared on social media.”
Still, he said, the technology is useful and is something his congregation should have put in place sooner.
Many congregations were well-prepared for this moment. Life Austin, which has four campuses, has a dedicated pastor for the church’s existing online community.
“We're one of the very fortunate churches that we had already been doing this,” said Jill Warren, who works at Life Austin as Pastor Randy Phillips’ assistant. “We've just had to shift to doing it for everybody, not just the online congregation.”
At the first online-only service, some 7,000 people tuned in, Phillips said.
Warren believes the pandemic will lead more people to Life Austin.
“It's a very big opportunity for the church ... to love on people and to be there for people who are seeking guidance or faith or refuge,” she said.
Westlake United Methodist also saw an increase in worship attendance. On the first Sunday of using an onlineonly service, 470 people tuned in either through Facebook Live or the church’s website. Beadle pointed out that number reflects the unique devices, many of which were likely used by multiple people. Average attendance at the church is 250.
Even at the decidedly lowtech Presbyterian Church of Lake Travis, the Rev. Jack Barden noted that the audio sermons he records on SoundCloud and posts on the church website have increased from an average of 15 listeners to 65. He has expanded the recordings to include suggested Bible readings and prayers for members to do at home, and he is leading prayers on Facebook Live, which allows viewers to comment.
Interactivity is key, faith leaders say.
“The important thing to remember is we are not providing content; we are enabling connection,” said the Rev. Cathy Boyd, an Episcopal priest in Virginia and former chaplain at Trinity Episcopal School in Westlake.
Beadle said the ministerial staff tries to model interaction during online services by prompting conversations with questions and dropping links into the live feed. During the passing of the peace, when the congregation normally exchanges handshakes and hugs, members were urged to share messages in chat boxes or via text.
The church is also holding Bible study and fellowship meetings on the remote conferencing site Zoom, and ministers have created agespecific private Facebook pages for parents to keep kids involved. Participation in these groups has increased since the church doors closed, Beadle said.
“I’m very excited about the creativity that’s being tapped into and the openness and the generosity of spirit with which members of our congregation and the community are receiving all these new ways of connecting,” she said.
While she is eager to return to in-person gatherings, Beadle said, “It may be that we don’t let go of a lot of what we’re implementing now.”
Not all high tech
But ministry isn’t all hightech these days. Congregations are also relying on an older technological tool to minister to members.
“We are using the good, old-fashioned telephone to check in on the less tech-savvy people,” said the Rev. Aurelia Davis Pratt, pastor of Peace of Christ Church in Round Rock. “And we are delivering meals to doorsteps and getting each other groceries constantly.”
Communities with members who need support with digital devices are emailing step-bystep instructions or calling to explain over the phone how to livestream services.
In Lake Travis, Barden sends out newsletters by email urging people to call one another to check in. He has also reminded members that they can walk the church’s labyrinth as a way to pray and reduce anxiety.
The stress caused by the pandemic is also a concern for the Venerable Jue Ji, director of Xiang Yun Temple on Loop 360 (Capital of Texas Highway).
“Honestly speaking, anxiety is obvious among this community,” she said.
The online dharma services, which include meditation, prayer and lectures, help “reduce pressure caused by uncertainty about the future,” Ji said, but they can’t replace real human interaction.
For Beadle, the beauty of human connection can still emerge despite the distancing.
After undergoing surgery to remove cancerous cells from her breast, Beadle started radiation therapy in March. A member of her church recommended a special cream to alleviate the effects of radiation on the skin. But by the time the woman procured the cream, authorities in Texas were sounding the alarm about the coronavirus. Beadle was under strict orders from her doctor to quarantine at home.
One day, Beadle opened her door and discovered “this little tin of healing ointment.”
The woman from the church stood about 6 feet away, holding a can of disinfectant spray.
“This Lysol-drenched tin of healing ointment has become for me a sacrament,” Beadle said. “This is how we’re experiencing the presence of Christ right now.”