As the world reacted to a nearly six-hour shutdown of Facebook and Instagram last Monday, Southern Baptist churches who use the platforms are considering how they would respond to a potential future shutdown on a Sunday.
In a worldwide shutdown lasting from mid-morning to the early evening Oct. 4, the platforms Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp were not functioning properly around the world. Beyond being an annoyance for users, the shutdown ended up causing serious financial effects for both Facebook and the businesses that rely on the platform. Another Facebook shutdown just a few days later (Friday, Oct. 8) highlighted the drawbacks of relying on third parties for communication.
The shutdowns caused discussion among Southern Baptist churches, as many of them still consistently use Facebook and other platforms for live-streaming purposes after having to do so during COVID-19 lockdowns.
Smaller churches with few technology resources face particular challenges.
Curtis Crawford, pastor at Deerfield Baptist Church in Deerfield, Va., said although his church’s sermon livestream is rather simplistic, he is thankful for the existence of the technology which allows its ministry to reach a handful of church members who are physically unable to attend services.
“I’m grateful that the technology exists, and I’m grateful that we have the means to participate even though it’s at a very rudimentary level,” Crawford said. “Any tool that is out there can be used properly and for God’s purposes.”
Deerfield’s livestream consists of simply setting up an iPhone or iPad close to the pulpit and going live on Crawford’s personal Facebook page, which he says he only utilizes for church purposes.
If another Facebook shutdown were to occur, Crawford said the church would not have another way to broadcast the sermon as the church does not have a website or even a church Facebook page. A simple phone call with the faithful members who watch online would be necessary, he said.
Even when social media platforms function perfectly, he explained the church’s location in rural Virginia (there are just under 250 households located within seven miles of the church) sometimes makes for unreliable internet service.
Although there is some debate within the church about the merits of livestreaming services, Crawford said he is open to receiving advice or tips from churches more proficient in technology to help with the quality at Deerfield.
Michael Poole is the creative arts director at Severns Valley Baptist Church in Elizabethtown, Ky., and said his church has the opportunity to broadcast its live services on both local TV and local radio, even before the pandemic.
The church also livestreams Sunday services on Facebook, YouTube and its website.
His expertise has allowed him to help smaller churches navigate a post-COVID world.
“There’s been countless scenarios where I’ve taken phone calls from churches all over Kentucky and outside of Kentucky that are saying ‘we just need help can you point us in the right direction or can you look at our set-up and say what will make this better for us,’” Poole said.
“Every church is different and their expectations and workflows are all different. … You can’t take things as a blanket situation when every scenario is different. We’re in this together, and there’s not a scenario I can think of where it’s us against them.”
Poole said broadcasting sermons online opens up even more opportunities to share the Gospel message as well as the cooperative work of Southern Baptists.
“There are people online searching for answers,” Poole said. “I think whatever platform you can get the Gospel out on is important, and downplaying the fact that they are not in the building I think is dangerous. What we need to be communicating is for people to get back into church whenever they feel safe … and for those who are just not wanting to make it to church, I think it’s the job of the staff and the pastors to communicate the importance of being gathered and what that means for the local body.
“Social media is not going anywhere, whether Facebook was going to come back or not there was going to be plenty of platforms that were going to pop up and take its place, and it doesn’t make sense to take away the biggest outreach tool that we have as a church besides the building. It’s also an opportunity to promote things like the IMB and showing where all the funds that you’re giving are going to.”
Todd Yoder, senior pastor at Village Church, Churchville, Va., agreed that Facebook is a tool that can be used for Gospel ministry like any other tool.
“I think it would be tragic for a pastor to say ‘we’re going to shut down and not do any type of livestream whatsoever,” Yoder said.
“You never know how a message or even the Gospel can be shared and someone could respond to it, but if you have that close-mindedness of ‘they need to come through the door or that’s it,’ then I think you’re missing out on some opportunities to minister to people. I think there’s a lot more pluses in the column than minuses.”
Yoder said during the strict lockdown early in the pandemic, he filmed a large amount of sermons with the help of the media arm of the SBC of Virginia, named Innovative Faith Resources.
Now that some COVID restrictions have lifted, Yoder said the church has resorted to a simpler and less professional Facebook livestream strategy. He said although a hypothetical Facebook shutdown on Sunday would probably prohibit a livestream, the church would simply have to find another way to release the sermon.
“We can always find another way to record it and make it available for at least our church family if they want to watch it,” Yoder said. “People can adapt and survive. You’re not going to die. We can survive without technology, but it is a wonderful tool.”
Yoder emphasized there is nothing wrong with trying to produce the best quality livestream possible, but “technology does not replace relationships.”
“I think sometimes while using technology we miss out on some of the more personal things,” Yoder said. “I’m grateful some of our folks can watch the livestream, but I can tell you that a phone call to that church member will mean a lot more.”