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Rural churches are proving they can adapt and overcome obstacles

Rural churches are proving they can adapt and overcome obstacles

Church Vitality COVID-19

In his first attempt of a Facebook video for his congregation, the Rev. Joe Moxley got the iPhone mounted on the newly purchased tripod and settled on the couch with his wife to talk about social distancing.

What he hadn’t planned on was their over exuberant Golden Retriever puppy jumping in and giving them dog kisses during their serious presentation.

“Oh, well. We just went with it,” said Moxley, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church of Vero Beach. “Every day, it’s a learning curve.”

He’s not just talking about the pandemic and the ever-changing news surrounding its impact. He’s also referring to the sudden urgency of the necessity of technology.

He’s had a few missteps, like putting on a handbell concert to add a little music to the recorded service. The problem is, “we only had two people playing the parts, instead of the usual 10, and it just didn’t sound right. Plus, all you could see were our heads bobbing up and down.”

And then there was the time he decided to expand the view of his sermon by filming with the camera turned sideways. Except the picture never adjusted, so he was sideways for the whole presentation.

For smaller congregations in the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church -- especially those that didn’t already have online giving and live streaming -- the mandate to be creative during this temporary shutdown has been challenging.

Moxley’s church, for example, has an average attendance of about 80, and that’s on a good week during the season. Many of those members are senior citizens. Asking them to become proficient in social media at this stage may be too optimistic.

“Some of them, and I say this lovingly, are just too old to climb that mountain,” Moxley said.

He’s hoping they will be open to his idea for Easter Sunday. At the conclusion of the online service, he’s setting up a drive-by communion in the parking lot, where he’ll dispense grape juice and two pieces of bread, with “nothing touched by human hands, of course. It’s a bring-your-own cup communion.”

According to Janet Earls, Director of Church Vitality for the Conference, two-thirds of Florida’s 630 churches have just 125 members or less. That means smaller budgets and less staff, which may already be stretched to the limit under normal circumstances.

Throw in a pandemic, and the challenge is real.

“Some are hanging by a thread anyway,” she said. “This only makes them more fragile.”

But Earls is choosing to take a positive view of an otherwise gloomy situation. Just like when a hurricane hits, “congregations step up, pull it together and make things happen. They become the people they need to be.”

It also will force some of the smaller congregations like Asbury to adapt to 21st century ways, such as putting their services on Facebook or their websites, either live or recorded, and giving people the option to tithe online.

“They might do it with gritted teeth, but they’re learning just how important it is,” she said. “Sometimes it takes a major event like this to change a mindset.”

First United Methodist Church of Clewiston, located in an agricultural area of the state, has an average weekly attendance of 80 to 100 people. The Rev. Jeff Smith has four part-time staffers and an unpaid praise and worship leader to oversee church operations.

The church, now in its 75th year with a sanctuary built in 1945, has made incremental changes in recent years to bring it up to date. Four years ago, it launched online giving; three years ago, the congregation raised about $40,000 to invest in higher quality audio and video technology for live services.

When Florida Bishop Ken Carter recommended no public worship until further review, Smith knew they had to scramble.

Rev. Jeff Smith presents Church on the Couch

A handful of the staff and volunteers team assembled to watch several YouTube videos on how to stream. He also bought a website domain called to extend Clewiston UMC’s reach beyond his own small congregation.

“It was $8.99. Best deal in church ministry,” Smith said.

Both efforts paid off. To avoid problems that come with a live production, the team recorded a service in advance and streamed it at the usual 10 a.m. worship hour, getting about 100 views.

And the domain name appears to be playing its part in generating traffic. Internet surfers from around the country have viewed the service and even sent in donations to the church.

“I miss the human interaction,” Smith said. “Looking into a camera in an empty sanctuary is not the same thing. But in the end, the message is the same.”

He’s also found one silver lining. The sanctuary’s air conditioning went on the blitz a few weeks ago and will cost $12,000 to replace. Until then, the service takes place in the Life Enrichment Center -- which really doesn’t matter to the viewers at home.

On Easter, Smith plans to go live. He instructs viewers on the homepage to “Refresh your screen periodically. Sit back and enjoy.”

“We’re doing what we have to do for now. It’s evolving, trust me,” Smith said. “This was like having our legs cut out from under us. But as I tell the people, God always finds a way. And he’s right here with us.”

At Community United Methodist Church in Belle Glade, the Rev.  Steve Nolin didn’t even have a Facebook page until his district superintendent mandated it. Previously, he had recorded services to put on CDs for homebound congregants.

With an average attendance of 45 to 50 people, and most of them elderly, Nolin doesn’t have many tech-savvy members to turn to for help. And he knows that some of his congregants don’t even have Facebook accounts to watch a streaming service.

Someone recommended putting church meetings on ZOOM, but when Nolin heard about hackers getting in some sites and posting pornographic images, he nixed that.

So, for now, he’s sticking with staying connected the old-fashioned way: Emails, texts, phone calls and snail mail.

“This whole experience of having to shut down makes us more open to the conversation now,” he said.

The Rev. Karen Burris had an adjustment to make when she left Morrison United Methodist Church in Leesburg, with an attendance of about 950, to take over at Newberry United Methodist Church in Newberry. Attendance at Newberry is about 80, along with a Fresh Expressions dinner church on Sunday evenings that draws about 60 people.

She didn’t even have the option to livestream because the church didn't have the equipment or enough broadband through its internet service to handle it. Since then, new lines have been installed to upgrade the capacity and three church families made a generous donation to buy new equipment.

“It cost $100 a month for the internet upgrade. And in a small church, that’s a lot of money,” she said.

On that first Sunday with an uploaded recorded service on the church’s Facebook page, Newberry UMC got 283 views. Burris considers that a big success and a sign of good things to come as the church improves its technological abilities.

She also thinks the online presence will increase interest in church “attendance,” even if it’s at home and not in a sanctuary.

“Sometimes a spouse doesn’t want to come into the church, but now can be exposed to our service in a non-threatening way,” she said.

The most difficult outcome of the stay-at-home orders was putting a temporary halt to the dinner church. Participants usually walk or ride their bikes to the gatherings, which include a meal served by church volunteers in a city-owned downtown building and a five-minute Bible story with a game to spark a conversation.

The social distancing rule and food-handling restrictions made it impossible to continue. So, Burris and volunteers keep in touch with those who provided an email, sending them a daily devotional and checking in to see if they have any needs.

“We can’t meet as a community now, and that’s hard, but we want them to know we’re still here for them,” she said.

“These are unusual times, and we’re doing the best to rise to the challenge.”

There’s a sense of community among pastors in the COVID-19 era, as they swap ideas and share concerns about what this temporary shutdown means to the future of the church, especially smaller ones that have more roadblocks.

The Rev. Brian Russell of Pine Level United Methodist Church in Arcadia feels luckier than most. His rural church, with an average attendance of about 150, has been streaming interactive services with live and recorded content on its website and Facebook for four years.

“We’ve always used technology to get our message across. We’re just using it more these days, from our interactive Bible study to a weekly watch party for our children’s ministry,” he said. “We’re all being forced to break away from tradition and be a lot more creative.”

Although the at-home order could be perceived as an opportunity to slow down, Russell said he and his small part-time staff are “all hands on deck” and busier than ever. It didn’t help that this is the most active time of the year for Christian churches.

“I think everybody is in the same boat. We’re scrambling on how to repackage the way we connect with people,” he said. “We have to keep the message out there that our doors may be closed, but we are still very much open for business.”

Though the future is unknown at this point, Russell is choosing to look at this as an opportunity. This could be the revival that believers have been praying for a long time, he said.

“In the midst of the anxiousness, I’m also encouraged,” Russell said. “I’m filled with hope that God is breaking the church so the church can be born anew. I think he is doing something really important now. We just have to be open to listen to him.”

--Michelle Bearden is a freelance writer from Tampa.


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