As the coronavirus pandemic became widespread in March 2020, churches including those in the Great Plains Conference knew they had to keep connections with their congregations.
Some re-created their church service in front of a video camera and empty pews, while others tailored their message specifically for an online audience.
With in-person church attendance now inching toward normalcy, some of those in the latter camp are keeping their online-only services alive with no indication of stopping.
The Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede, lead pastor of Omaha St. Paul Benson UMC, said her church, where she’s now served two years, was already considering adding another service before the pandemic — there were already three English language and two African language offerings — but the limited size of its parking lot hindered any thoughts of expanding.
“Trying to figure out where to wedge another worship service in was really hard to think through,” she recalled.
When restrictions began for crowd sizes, Ahlschwede began brainstorming and came up with what she thought was an adequate short-term idea. With the Rev. Jerry Brabec, minister of worship, at the keyboard and Ahlschwede seated behind a music stand at the other end of the baby grand and an iPhone recording the service, “Pianoside Worship” was born.
“In the immediate moment, it was ‘Oh, we’ve got to do something,’” she said. “But I did have an inkling it might last.”
Now a part of the St. Paul Benson worship schedule for more than a year, the online-only ministry has the second-largest attendance of its services.
“I thought, ‘Wait a minute, maybe this is our fourth English worship service. Maybe this is the new thing,’” Ahlschwede said. “It truly started attracting what you would hope a traditional worship service would do, which is a new group of people.”
St. Paul Benson continues to livestream its 10 a.m. Sunday worship, inviting back a small group Ahlschwede calls the “studio audience” during Lent and keeping social distancing practices. That worried the “Pianoside” congregation, she said, and assured them the online-only service would remain.
An ordained elder since 1997, Ahlschwede said she had to change her long-held preaching style for “Pianoside.”
The entire services are seldom longer than 25 minutes, compared to 60 minutes for an in-person service. Her sermons that were 15-18 minutes are now half as long.
“Even the rhetorical form is different,” she said. “I think that’s fascinating, how we change our rhetorical form for our audience.”
Ahlschwede also gave up the comforts of both preaching from behind a lectern and having her congregation several yards away.
“I’m so close to people — they’re just looking at my face,” she said.
But there are benefits, including being able to give a close-up view of the props she might bring with her about once a month, including her collection of snowglobes, which became the subject of a viral video sensation last year.
Since the services are recorded on Tuesday afternoons for Sunday release, editing eliminates the transitions of people walking to lecterns, flipping to the right page, and clearing their throats. Guest musicians are a part of generally every service.
Ahlschwede said she felt the magnitude of the “Pianoside” services in February after its original videographer died unexpectedly and expressions of condolences started to arrive.
Being online, Ahlschwede realized the outreach of the services beyond Benson, a historic neighborhood in north Omaha.
She first looked at the statistics button on YouTube and “I don’t know who these people are,” she said of the response, from as far away as New York State. “But I can see sometimes that people will watch four episodes of ‘Pianoside’ in a row at 1 in the morning. I’m so glad we can give them two hours of worship instead of two hours of late-night commercials. That in itself ends up being a ministry for people.”
Evidence of staying power, she said, is that a fulltime staff member will be added whose responsibilities will include being videographer, after more than a year with volunteer assistance.
Ahlschwede’s face is seen most often in the “Pianoside” videos, but her main advice to other pastors is to “throw your ego aside.”
“As the face of this, I’ve really had to find my courage and trust that this isn’t just me. It’s been really fascinating because each week I imagine who we might be able to reach, and it’s not me. It’s the congregation — it’s the faith — it’s God using us,” she said.
“Every week, it’s just me doing my best. … For all of us, doing our best with what we have at the moment truly is enough, and it really is the imperative,” Ahlschwede added. “What would be wrong would be to not try.”
Wichita Calvary UMC resumed its in-person worship services in early May, but the Rev. Mike Marion, senior pastor, said its online-only services will continue for the foreseeable future.
“That’s just going to be a part of our ministry now,” he said. “I know there’ll be people who won’t be comfortable with coming back to church, even though restrictions are being lifted in a lot of ways. I know there’s some that won’t feel comfortable for quite a while and there are some — who knows? — who may never come back to in-person.”
The success of Calvary’s online services, recorded Wednesdays for showing at 10 a.m. Sundays, has caused the church to rethink its entire online presence and move it to the next level, Marion said.
“We had one that we thought met the needs of the church,” he said. “But now, because of this last year, we see how important having so many other doorways into the church is. We want to build on what we’ve learned this year and keep going from there.”
Calvary had some sort of online presence five to six days a week, Marion said.
That includes a unique weekly segment with Mike and Cindy Marion.
“My wife and I decided to do something a little different, so we created a little cooking show called ‘Word & Table’ that is devotion and then a Food Network rip-off sort of thing, where we thematically connect the devotion to a recipe,” he said.
Marion said that from its beginning he didn’t want the online-only service to duplicate the in-person offering.
“Rather than just kind of recording so people are watching worship happen in a sanctuary, we’re just trying to connect and be very intentional in thinking about our congregation being on the other side of the camera,” he said.
Although many people watch it at its intended 10 a.m. Sunday spot — Marion says several families have referred to it as “pajama church” — others are watching it throughout the week.
“You’re not trying to create the same thing you’re doing on Sunday morning,” he said. “Think about the people who are at home or at their office at lunch or wherever they might be, and just speak to them through the camera.”
Marion said he did find an immediate benefit to online services.
“From the preacher standpoint, the nice thing is the sermon’s all done on Wednesday and the weekends aren’t quite as stressful as they were for the previous 40 years,” he said with a laugh.
Jason Moore is the founder of Midnight Oil Productions, which consults churches and conferences across the country — including frequently for the Great Plains — about creative worship and outreach.
Moore said the beginning of the pandemic last year threw “a vast majority of churches” online for the first time.
“A lot of people have recognized that our reach is greater than it’s ever been before,” he said from his Ohio office. “I’ve seen so many churches who are seeing more attend their online worship than have walked through their physical doors in a long time.”
He said there will be a segment of the church in the future that will do online-only services.
“I don’t think it’s all headed that way,” he said, “but I think we have incredible opportunities in this new season that we’re in.”
The pandemic, Moore said, helped churches realize how effective an online presence can be.
“It used to be we put all our effort and energy into one hour on Sunday, and when that hour was over the impact of that hour couldn’t last beyond the moment,” he said. “Now that we’re doing online worship, time and distance don’t matter as much as they used to.”
The worldwide reach and flexibility of time work in a church’s favor, he said.
“Now worship gets to live on,” Moore said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in the same city or same state or country even. Some folks have recognized the impact of online worship and are really leaning into the fact that online may be an even more effective way to reach some folks.”
Moore has given his seminar “Both/And: Maximizing Hybrid Worship Experiences for Online and In-Person Audiences” to 48 annual conferences across the country, including a session with the Planter & Incubator group in the Great Plains.
“What I’ve been hearing all across the connection and even outside of the connection are churches trying different things from what they’re doing in person,” he said. “There are a growing number of people who are considering it. I don’t know if it’s a fringe thing or it’ll become the new thing.”
Moore compares the changes to the way we watch television, where streaming services have replaced the TV network mindset of the same show, every time, every week.
“We can watch on our terms,” he said. “Prior to the pandemic we set the terms for worship. We knew when it was going to happen and where it was going to happen. People go online and determine when it works for them and where it works for them.”
Despite the impressive figures of strangers in far-flung parts of the country and the world watching online services, Moore said churches should not lose touch with their local congregations.
“I think one of the keys that the church really has to tackle for the long-term sustainability of worship online is how do we build community and engage people in meaningful ways when worship is over,” Moore said.
“The next focus of this season that we’re in is how we build and maintain relationships with folks,” he added. “Online worship shouldn’t be a revolving door where people come in and come out without us ever getting to know them.”
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