Online services become “a church within a church”




LAKELAND — On any given Sunday, senior pastor David McEntire delivers his sermon to several hundred congregation members at First United Methodist Church of Lakeland, all the while knowing a substantial online audience is also absorbing his words.

“I can’t see those folks,’’ McEntire said. “But, they are there.’’

It might be 93-year-old Lakeland resident Zelma Daigle, who is blind. Daigle, a congregation member since 1950, faithfully listens to the contemporary worship service at 9:30 a.m. Sometimes, she will fill her morning with all four services.

“I think it’s magic,’’ Daigle said. “It feels like I’m at church.’’

It could be someone who is sick or vacationing. It might be a snowbird.

There’s a regular viewer from Holland. Others check in from France, Germany, Italy, India, and the Philippines.

Fist UMC, Lakeland, Senior Pastor David McEntire.  Photo: Joey Johnston

First UMC of Lakeland, which has been live-streaming its worship services since 2012, gets a weekly online audience of about 150.

“That’s a big church,’’ McEntire said.

Or “that’s a church within a church,’’ said Janet Earls, director of church vitality and leadership development for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist.

Earls said 167 churches (26.5 percent of the conference’s membership) offer some form of online services, although some churches are too small for online expansion to be practical. Whether it’s an elaborate investment of professional equipment or Facebook Live, it’s about making a connection.

The most obvious consumers are the elderly, sick, and shut-in congregation members, but pastors around the state have discovered surprising results.

Some churches utilize Twitter, the ubiquitous 280-character message system, for in-service communication. Others have online chats, where people can react in real-time, sometimes hitting the “like’’ or “love’’ button.

Melissa Cooper, pastor at St. Luke’s UMC in Orlando, reports regular participation from people with second homes out-of-state and theme-park workers who are pulling the Sunday shift.

Edgewater UMC in Port Charlotte said its service is supported by an online group that gathers in Ohio.

“When we began collecting data on online viewing, there were lots of human-interest stories, and some of them were predictable,’’ Earls said. “You had people who weren’t able to get to church. They felt they were able to maintain a connection. They could see their friends in the congregation and hear the music. And all of that is great.

“But there were other things you couldn’t predict. For some churches, people all over the world were watching. Some didn’t have an obvious previous connection. It was like, ‘Oh, I just kind of found you, and it’s making a difference in my life.’ So, there are surprises like that.’’

At First UMC of Lakeland, there also are spin-off benefits.

Utilizing a $35,000 gift to invest in equipment, then adding to that outlay with an endowment from a former librarian who wanted to fund media services, First UMC of Lakeland has three-camera capability (operated by trained volunteers) for its contemporary and traditional worship services.

It has featured live streaming of its Christmas programming, along with weddings and funerals.

Lea Ellen DeWitt, an administrative assistant at First UMC of Lakeland, is grateful for the technology. When DeWitt’s father died, her brother, who lives in Okinawa, was unable to travel to the service. So the funeral was live-streamed, and he saw it in real-time.

“It meant a lot, and it was as close as he could come to being physically present,’’ DeWitt said. “We have found so many useful purposes for this. During some of the heavily attended holiday services, when parking is problematic, and some get scared away by just the volume of people, this is a nice option for them to still participate.’’

With the rise of online viewing, McEntire said there are some logistical factors to consider, such as online prayer requests and online giving. It also drifts into the way he executes the service. There’s already an inset shot of someone doing sign language to include the church’s deaf community.

“The choir might be on camera, close-up, and they have to be conscious of that,’’ McEntire said. “Sometimes, we use a lot of ‘inside language.’ We’ll talk about our neighborhood ministries. Well, the person in Germany doesn’t know what that is. Or we’ll talk about Bob, who plays guitar in our band, but we might need to explain more about Bob instead of assuming everyone knows him.

“We’re also conscious of mentioning and recognizing our online viewers during the service. We want to recognize they are there.’’

VIdeo - Senior Pastor David McEntire talks about livestreaming services

McEntire said it’s exciting to imagine future possibilities with online viewing. But he’s quick to caution that even the convenience of online viewing can’t substitute for the in-person church community.

And so much for future shock. He doesn’t predict a future where he’s preaching to an empty church while all the members watch online.

“People need to see each other face to face,’’ McEntire said. “When you look at teenagers — the I-generation — you see that drinking and driving is down, and teenage pregnancy is down. But the reasons they’re down are not good.

“They are more isolated. They’re more likely to text than meet friends at a mall. They’re less likely to go to a school dance or a party. Meanwhile, the rates of depression and suicide attempts among teenagers and young adults are on the rise. The remedy for that is to be in community. Church is a place that creates that. It’s a value we all hunger for.’’

McEntire said some of his church members have confessed to viewing online when they didn’t feel like getting dressed or preferred to play golf (while watching the archived service a bit later).

“Do you get upset with that or just say, ‘Thank you, glad you watched?’ ‘’ McEntire said. “I tend to be appreciative of it.

“Let’s be honest, though. It’s still a vicarious experience. You’re not there. You’re living through the medium. You can’t talk to a friend in the next row. You can clap and sing, but you can’t add to that community. I think we’re always going to have people coming to church, singing from the hymnal, interacting with each other. Online is just a modern option and a great option for people who can’t participate any other way.’’

McEntire said he often describes Christianity as a round room.

“In the center is a relationship with God, where you find Jesus, and that’s where you want to be,’’ McEntire said. “There are many doors — traditional worship, contemporary worship, Bible study, camps, youth groups. It doesn’t matter what door you come in as long as you get into the room and actualize the relationship.

“Live streaming is a door. It’s not the answer. But it’s a door.’’

McEntire said more money could be spent to jazz up his church’s live streaming service, but that’s not the point. As long as the video and sound are professionally produced and the message is delivered and received, it provides a church connection for those who need it.

That’s the point.

“For people who aren’t able to be there, it’s a wonderful way to stay connected,’’ Earls said. “They feel like they’re still part of a church family. People always ask, ‘What service do you go to?’ If you’re a regular at one service and you watch online, you can see the familiar faces and still feel in community.

“I think we’re all trying to analyze it and use it in the best way. But even though it’s not for everyone, there’s no question that it has become important, and the concept is here to stay.’’

--Joey Johnston is a freelance writer based in Tampa.


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