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Church services remain online as the U.S. begins easing lockdown restrictions

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, spiritual leaders were left wondering how to reach their parishioners without in-person services.

The digitisation of Sunday worship

With churches closed due to social distancing, members of the Christian ministry, including men’s Bible study leader, Jim Kleberg, were faced with the task of moving their services online.

At first, Kleberg was hesitant; but, he says “people were starved for fellowship, and I was too.” 

For Christians across the U.S., church services, Sunday school and Bible studies are moving online, with live-streaming, pre-recorded services, and gatherings held on online conferencing apps like Zoom. 

On 22 May, President Donald Trump gave a national order to US governors to allow places of worship to reopen. 

However, one week later, the Supreme Court ruled against a California church trying to increase the number of parishioners allowed. With the ruling in mind, several churches have continued to use online platforms to reach their parishioners.

Kleberg’s Bible study group, for example, composed of mostly retired men in their 60s to 80s, will continue to connect through Zoom. 

Although attendance has slightly decreased, Kleberg believes this is the result of additional stresses from the pandemic rather than an adjustment to the technology. 

Kleberg says that the community spirit and friendship within the group is what has kept the Bible study going.

“There are a lot of women, and men too, that just need that fellowship, need that interaction. It’s great to be reading Christian books, but it’s really great to be fellowshipping too.”

Jim Kleberg

Reverend Drew Hanson, pastor at First Presbyterian Church Quincy in Massachusetts, opted to release pre-recorded services on Sunday, rather than live-stream. The online calendar of this church suggests this will continue through 30 June 

After the service, First Presbyterian Church Quincy hosts a coffee hour on Zoom for parishioners to connect.

“A lot of the older folks have been able to use Zoom and get on it, but there did seem to be some hesitancy, and [the older parishioners] are not as fluent as younger folks in the church.” 

Reverend Drew Hanson

More than just a time for worship

Rev. Hanson also illustrates that older people may need an activity or an opportunity for social engagement during the pandemic.

Parents, on the other hand, may need a break from homeschooling during the day; many households use church and Sunday school as an educational stimulus for their children during the week.

Focus on the Family is an online streaming platform for Christians. The ministry includes podcasts, radio theatre, articles, and more. Carrie Earll, Focus on the Family representative, says, “Streaming is something we enjoyed before; now it’s a key component for thriving in this season.” 

During the pandemic, many young families have looked to Focus on the Family for homeschooling. Earll notes that more than 80,000 households have signed up for a free 30-day trial of their “Adventures in Odyssey” club. 

This club is a radio theatre program for young families that “brings biblical principles to life, through a balance of fun, faith and imagination.”

Paul Batura, VP of Communications for Focus on the Family, says, “We previously had approx 30,000 members prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Once the quarantine was implemented, we decided to provide the club free to folks for one month and had a tremendous response.”

In regards to user patterns, Batura says, “Use has been very steady and spread all throughout the day. I think this is a reflection of families homeschooling and traditional routines being upended.”

Focus on the Family also launched a new platform called “Focus at Home” for all age groups during lockdown. Early relays that 40,000 users subscribe to “Focus@Home” and 7,000 folks use the platform daily. 

A permanent cultural shift?

Finding new ways to adjust to this cultural shift towards live-streaming or recorded church services, online Bible studies, and streaming ministry over the past few months has led many to acclimate to and even enjoy this change.

Rev. Hanson has heard some of his parishioners say, “I kind of like doing church on my couch with my coffee, and getting to start whenever I want to.” Hanson says, “that kind of flexibility is definitely new and I think a lot of people like it.” 

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