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Post-COVID Perspective: Pandemic catalyzes churches to cast evangelistic net with online services

Photo illustration by Andy Beachum

NASHVILLE (BP) – Of all the years to plant a new church, most people would likely put 2020 on the bottom of the list. But when God clearly called Frank and Maria Urroz to start a new church to reach the growing Hispanic population of Gallatin, Tennessee, how could they say no?

The couple had heard William Burton, who serves on the church planting team at the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, preach on the Great Commission at First Baptist Church of Hendersonville, Tennessee. Burton had challenged the congregation not to let the pandemic dissuade them from answering God’s call to fulfill the Great Commission.

“We both felt like it was a sign from God,” Frank Urroz said. “We knew there were a lot of Hispanic people in Gallatin who weren’t fluent in English.”

With the pandemic still flaring, Urroz started Hispania Gallatin Iglesia Bautista online, leveraging relationships his family had through Facebook and WhatsApp. In time, the church’s online presence reached around 700 people each week. Most of those participants were outside of Gallatin.

“We had a lot of friends and acquaintances that we only knew through WhatsApp,” said Urroz, who is originally from Nicaragua. “We wanted to give them the opportunity to listen to a sermon through Facebook Live. Even if they weren’t in the country, they could still keep up with the sermons.”

Hispania Gallatin Iglesia Bautista now meets in person at First Baptist Church of Gallatin. They still share the sermons online—and have even added a podcast.

Urroz’s church isn’t the only one continuing the benefit from lessons learned about online ministry during the pandemic.

Churches Forced Online

Research shows COVID-19 changed how most do churches ministry online. According to a 2021 Lifeway Research survey, 45 percent of Americans said they watched church online during the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes 15 percent of respondents who said they didn’t normally attend church prior to 2020. A previous Lifeway Research survey conducted prior to the pandemic showed that 41 percent of U.S. churches didn’t livestream any portion of their worship service or post their service online.

By April 2020, 97 percent of churches had provided some type of online worship service or sermons. An early 2021 Lifeway Research study showed that 85 percent of Protestant churchgoers said their church offered livestreamed worship services. Three out of four churches posted a video of their sermons online for later consumption.

Frank Bennett, pastor of Lake Point Church in Emerson, Georgia, says his church had wanted to improve the quality of its online worship services, but the pandemic sped up the process.

“COVID set it up and made it more valuable,” Bennett said. “This isn’t just something to do in case people want to check us out. This is a service. It isn’t just a ‘Hey, let’s check out Lake Point Church so we can go there on the campus. Let me see what the service is like.’ No, there are people who won’t set foot on our campus. This is their service. We have people who have never set foot on our campus and that is their church service. We weren’t thinking about that before COVID. Now, we’re constantly trying to figure out ways to make it better.”

The church treats its online ministry like a campus. At one point the church considered hiring an online pastor to shepherd that campus, but Bennett says they’ve given that role to one of the associate pastors.

“It did make us more aware,” Bennett said. “When I preach, it’s always both/and not either/or. I’m talking to people who are in attendance and those who are online. I’ll say that periodically. Many of the mega-churches already had their online presence. Now, everyone should have that mindset. It doesn’t matter how small you are.”

Bennett says that the pandemic provided churches an opportunity to improve their online presence and reach more people.

“I think God allowed this to happen so the church would respond and get us out of this mindset that the church is just the people walking onto our campus,” Bennett said. “That’s not the church. The church is so much bigger than that. It’s almost like when Jesus had disciples who were fishermen. They would fish by casting their net. Now the Holy Spirit wants us to literally cast our net over the Internet. He wants us to broadcast and catch more fish. That’s helped us tremendously. It’s more of a mindset.”

An ‘Altogether Different’ Experience

Yale Wall, who pastors Living Faith Church in downtown Indianapolis, already had a background in technology when he started the church eight years ago. Wall had a web design background and experience in videography and graphic design. Because they were trying to reach a young community, they had been active on social media from the beginning. Until COVID-19, the church had never live streamed its worship services.

When the mandatory lockdowns began in the spring of 2020, Living Faith’s small groups moved online, and Wall says continued operating smoothly. They also moved some of their classes to Zoom. But Wall didn’t believe it made sense for the church to do its online worship services in the same way it had done them while in person. 

Living Faith scrapped its current series and began what it called “living room” sessions.

“We took a room in our church and just made it into like a living room and broadcasted it on Facebook Live to where people could respond during the conversation,” Wall said. “It would be me and one other person every week, either digitally or in person.

“Luckily, my wife and I had a college student and one person out of college who were living with us. So, they kind of helped us produce all that because we were all in the same house anyway. We did something really interactive, where we would talk for 45 minutes or so. But people would comment on Facebook, and I had a laptop in front of me. We would actually talk with the audience. It was an altogether different thing.”

Living Faith cut out its live online worship service after the pandemic, particularly after some of the online interactivity slowed. The church still records its services. Because of some of the equipment the church obtained during the pandemic, the quality of those recorded services is better than it would have been.

But Wall says the church learned a lot about interactivity during the pandemic. The church had always made an effort to include interactive elements in the service. The pandemic helped them take this even further.

“I think anyone can shoot a podcast and put it up and have three people watch it,” Wall said. “I don’t think that’s really worth your time for most people. But to do something that actually pulled in the church and mobilized them, while they weren’t able to go anywhere, was really the key for us. I think the thing that we learned is it actually takes the view off of the pastor and the leadership and puts it onto our volunteer leaders.”

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  • Tobin Perry