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Conference churches adapt with successful online outreach services

Conference churches adapt with successful online outreach services

Missions and Outreach


The Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church entered uncharted waters last week. For the first time, worship services throughout the state were conducted online only as Floridians grapple with social distancing forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

There were a variety of approaches.

Drive-in church? Sure, why not?

First UMC Jupiter-Tequesta, for instance, held "Drive-In Church." About 50 cars lined up in the church parking lot and tuned to a local FM radio dial. Pastor Susan Gray led the service while standing on the back of a pickup truck. At the conclusion, instead of shouts of "hallelujah" and "praise" she was greeted with the sound of honking car horns.

We reached out to pastors statewide and asked them to share their feelings and observations about how the experience in several areas. There were some expected technical glitches as some churches live-streamed for the first time.

Overwhelmingly, though, congregations seemed to embrace the concept, and pastors noticed that the reach of their message extended far beyond a typical Sunday service.

Many mentioned that they refined their service to fit the online format by eliminating some elements they would normally use. Most respondents said they will study the results of their first week and make appropriate adjustments.
Here is a sampling of the responses we received from our outreach to the pastors.

General reactions from the congregation:

The most touching was two cancer patients who have not been able to attend church for some time were able to watch and comment on line. It helped us be connected. Others commented that they got to see our service even though they attend other churches. We are all in for continuing streaming and doing it even better as we move forward. It wasn’t as hard as we expected and we realized that it does not have to be perfect to make a big impact. -- Sheron Willson, Pastor, Grace UMC, Lawtey.

The most important thing, and the thing that everyone mentioned in emails and comments on Facebook, was how much they appreciated being able to worship with their church.  Thanks to the tech guys, the musicians, and other staff, who worked hard to make this happen. – Craig Nelson, Senior Pastor, First UMC, St. Petersburg.

The feedback was mostly positive (other than some audio issues). My favorite comments were “We even got to bring our dog!” and “Yay! Staying in pajamas means that we finally made it to worship on time! ” Personally, I was blown away. It felt Spirit-filled. Facebook Live will list names for all the people who are watching, and with each name, I was able to imagine those specific people walking into the Sanctuary with us. -- Emily Knight, Pastor, Riverside Park UMC, Jacksonville.

We encouraged questions in the sermon and gave our congregation time to respond.  We had 118 comments on our video.  Many in our congregation were sharing how they saw God throughout this past week.  We also encouraged our people to light a candle to represent the light of Christ as we entered into worship together.  Livestreaming gave us a way to genuinely connect and worship in a meaningful way. -- Mike Luzinski, Pastor, Asbury UMC, Maitland.

We had a few difficulties with our music, we used the sound bar in our home to play some music.  We will do things a bit differently next time.  We are going to send out a couple of hymn selections early in the week, and give our people enough time to get lyrics to sing along. -- Stephen L. Rasmussen, Pastor, First UMC Palmetto.

What style changes did you have to make in the delivery of your message to a camera instead of a congregation?

I had to memorize my sermon much more.  I also had to slow down my delivery and learn to stand in one place as I delivered the sermon. -- Rev. Dr. Mark Charles, Memorial UMC, Fernandina Beach.

I wanted to keep the service as familiar as possible, so I included the usual times of music, prayer, and message. I sang acapella because I don't play an instrument and didn't want to break copyright by using prerecorded music. I printed the words to the songs and prayers and held them up so folks could sing along from home. At times it felt like an I Love Lucy episode. It's really hard to do the entire service by yourself.  -- Lisa Degrenia, Pastor, Trinity Sarasota

Because we have had the camera for a while, we didn't make any changes.  Most of the time we go through worship with those watching online being thought of as sitting in the congregation with us. -- Daphne Johnson, Sr. Pastor, First UMC, Clearwater.

Very few style changes. We still prayed over the offertory but then asked people to give online through our website or bring check by office our use snail mail. – David Charlton, Pastor, FUMC, Port St. John.

The biggest issue was the sheer volume of people on the internet across the country. It shut down our streaming capacity at our last service. Also, people’s internet speed at their homes slowed down because of high neighborhood usage. Overall, our people and community including people around the country and world were extremely and overwhelmingly grateful and positive. – Jorge Acevedo, Lead Pastor, Grace Church, Fort Myers.

Many, many people have expressed appreciation for us live streaming the service.  People watch all three services; it connects them to some normalcy.  They didn’t come to all three services when we gathered, but now they just leave Facebook on all morning. – Pastor Sam Wright, First UMC, Sarasota.

Was your service live or pre-recorded?

We are in the process of recording services that can play in case of greater restrictions upon personnel. We already are working on a plan to reduce church personnel for this coming Sunday. -- Mark Caldwell, Pastor, North Naples Church
On March 22 we did our first ever pre-recorded worship service, using an iphone. They liked the flexibility of viewing on their own schedule. Many people said it gave them a lot of peace and a sense of connection. So thankful we can gather safely! We also set up an upgraded Zoom account and are using Zoom meetings for our small groups, Pastor's Bible study, and church meetings online. – Rev. Janet Chilcote, Orange City UMC.

What worked? What didn’t work?

I invited people to engage in different ways during the sermon 7. I told them to bring a candle and water next week so they can create a worship space and we will light our Christ Candles together and remember our baptism. The next week I will invite them to bring bread and juice and we will have communion together. -- Rev Cory Britt, St Peters UMC, Wellington.

Everything worked well.  We modified our format to include one less praise song at our contemporary service and one less hymn at the traditional service.  We left out the Call to Worship at the traditional service and the Passing of the Peace our of both services.  We modified some parts where the people participate.  However, we even welcomed and prayed for ten new members who were joining our church.  One couple emailed they said their vows while I mentioned them. -- Mark Caldwell, Pastor, North Naples Church.

We did well with the video and audio.  We are also offering worship on our Ridge Manor Community United Methodist Church YouTube Channel. We uploaded the service after. The technology is new for us. We will be trying YouTube Live this Sunday.  – Pastor Patti Aupperlee, Ridge Manor Community United Methodist Church.

Do you have any tips from lessons learned that you can pass to other churches?

Do not think this is not an important thing to do.  You do touch people that you would never know.  We had people watching from several different states. -- Daphne Johnson, Sr. Pastor, First United Methodist Church, Clearwater.

If you can prerecord, do so. Beginning this week, we will prerecord our traditional and contemporary worship on Saturday mornings. Focus on the quality of the sound mix that is being sent to the internet. There is no grace or margin for vocal or instrumental error online. It is very unforgiving. – Jorge Acevedo, Lead Pastor, Grace Church, Fort Myers.

Don’t say um.  Get a second person to read comments/prayer requests, so you don’t get distracted by what’s coming on the screen.  Overprepare. Hope that helps. – Craig Nelson, Senior Pastor, First UMC, St. Petersburg.

Since you can’t get up and greet everyone around you in the church (during passing of the peace), text or message someone who isn’t there with you. -- Pastor Emily Knight, Riverside Park UMC, Jacksonville.

-- Joe Henderson is the freelance News Content Editor for the Florida Conference.

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