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Creating Virtual Worship Spaces
By Christopher C. Thompson
Winter Storm Jonas earlier this year was one of largest winter storms in the nation’s history; dumping record-setting snow and ice in parts of the northeast, and inches worth of ice, rain and sleet as far south as southern Georgia.

Nevertheless, snow, ice, flooding and freezing temperatures didn’t stop several pastors from conducting worship services during the storm. Churches took to the airwaves to worship and seek God in prayer. Although many were snowed in and unable to even leave their homes, several pastors utilized everything from conference calls, video conferencing, and some really new technologies to create meaningful worship encounters with parishioners. Please note – most of the pastors streaming this past weekend don’t have mega-churches, but they’re utilizing the web and social media to do major ministry. 

While several members probably just took the worship service cancellations as an opportunity to tune into the online broadcast of their favorite large church in another part of the country that wasn’t cancelled, the internet was abuzz with pastors welcoming their members to connect with their local church in an unconventional way. Here’s just a few such stories:

Several pastors used conference calls to connect with members for (at the very least) a season of prayer, but Pastor Stan Hood of the Ethnan Temple Church in Pittsburgh, PA anticipated the number of callers and the amount of background noise that they all would bring and was careful to do something about it. Utilizing, Hood allowed the elders to conduct the service while acting as a sort of sound technician to ensure order and optimal listening experience for the worshippers. The online management tool allowed the host to mute background noise and disruptive callers. The elders conducted a complete worship service, with interactive Sabbath School and all. 

Pastor Pierre Quinn (Bowling Green, KY) used one of Facebook’s newest tools (currently only available on Apple devices) called Facebook Live. This new function seems to be Facebook’s response to the growing popularity of Periscope. Quinn got the idea on Friday morning and decided to livestream an interactive devotional thought on Friday night, then delivered another on Sabbath morning and another presentation at 4:30 on Sabbath afternoon…a full Sabbath day of programming all shot from his own home. Members were able to respond and ask questions using the chat tool in the Facebook app. It should be noted that between his three churches the average maximum attendance is 30 members. But with very little prep or promo time, he averaged 40 viewers on each live broadcast.

These weekend events point us to a larger subject – the  growth of the virtual church experience. There was a time when small churches would just “uplink” to a large church or a livestreamed event put on by the world church. Worse yet, some would play previously taped videos of prominent ministers/ministries. Those days are long gone. Because of the accessibility of the internet and online tools, now, quality ministries can be developed and delivered online at minimal to no cost. This means that more churches big, small and medium-sized have access to some of the same tools that were once only utilized by large ministries with big budgets.

Dr. Ralph Watkins is an evangelism and church growth expert who teaches courses on new media, virtual church and digital storytelling at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA. When we asked him what he thinks about the future of the virtual church, he responded saying:

The virtual will live along beside the face-to-face. What we have to figure out is how to connect with people in a world in which they are now connecting via networked individualism. The institutional church is going to have to figure out how to connect with a people who are connected in the virtual world, but not connected with the institutional church and its historic ways in which it has made connections.

How do we get people connected? How do we tie people in? How do we build lasting bonds with people in an increasingly-mobile, constantly-changing, and deeply-cynical society? These are questions that still must be answered, but at least for now, we know there are many pastors who are reaching out in vibrant new ways. These were just a few. There were countless others who use similar approaches to connect with their churches. Kudos to all of those, using their gifts and resources to impact the Kingdom and grow the church with such creative means.

Christopher C. Thompson is pastor of the Hillcrest Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania