Plenty of resources can help United Methodist churches offer online worship that is accessible by desktop computer, tablet or cellphone. However, offering only online worship services when many people cannot attend in person may not be the best option for every congregation.
While many homes in the United States lack internet connections, even more homes as well as some churches, especially those in rural areas, do not have sufficient broadband to livestream services. Issues such as income, age, geography and knowledge of technology can hinder churches from streaming and congregants from connecting.
It is vital that the church continues to connect with all of its members. To resolve problems, churches may want to turn to an older form of communications technology: the telephone.
How one church worships by phone
The Rev. Sharon Sagat-Stover, pastor of Community United Methodist Church in North Anson, Maine, figured out how to keep her small, rural church of mostly senior citizens worshipping together by using a conference-call service.
“We prayed and sang. People are grateful to be together in whatever way we can,” she said. “It works. It’s ministry and it’s joyful and it’s community.”
Many Community UMC members do use email, but not all do. So, each Monday, the church sends congregants emails and surface mailers with information on how to join the conference call as well as other details, such as the order of worship for the coming Sunday.
“We use the first 10 minutes of the call to give people plenty of time to join in and chat among themselves — just like they would before a regular service,” the pastor said. “Everyone loves having the opportunity to check in with each other and pray together during these uncertain times.”
Conference-call services can be a big help to churches. Among the most recommended ones are FreeConference.com and FreeConferenceCall.com.
Other call-in options
Like what you're reading and the tools we provide?
In most churches, congregants have varying access to and familiarity with technology. To ensure everyone is able to participate in remote worship, use an online meeting service that is accessible via computer and phone.
Most of the top online meeting services have an option to allow people to call in without using a computer. They use a telephone number and special code to access the call.
Make sure that all your congregants receive the correct call-in information ahead of time via email, group texts, social media and/or mailers. Also, like Community UMC, send out the order of worship. This will allow participants who do not have viewing capabilities to more easily follow what is happening and who is leading. They also will be able to participate in the liturgy and congregational singing.
It is always a good practice to assume that some participants in your online service will experience glitches or other streaming problems. By expecting that some will listen only to the audio while others will watch and listen, you can plan and prepare to execute worship in ways that will make the experience more meaningful for everyone.
Here are just a few tips:
- Do a test of all your audio equipment ahead of the service.
- Periodically remind people where you are in the service. Announce the names of songs and hymns before singing them, even if they are printed in the order of worship.
- Start the meeting or call 10-15 minutes ahead of time to allow everyone plenty of time to join.
- Mute upon entry or remind everyone to keep their devices muted throughout the service so that they don’t become a distraction.
- After you have done a couple services this way, ask your by-phone participants for suggestions on ways to make it a better experience for them.
Among the top-rated video conference platforms that also offer call-in only options are Zoom, GoToMeeting, Bluejeans, Webex and Skype.
Zoom, in order to prevent hacking and trolling during meetings, has free and first-tier paid services that require passwords and include waiting rooms by default.
Another platform, Sermon by Phone, allows pastors to upload audio files of their sermons in advance and have members call in using a special number to listen anytime.
Now more than ever, churches must ensure that all members remain connected in prayer and fellowship even as they practice social distancing. While we are blessed to have the technology to worship together online, we need to make sure that we do not leave behind those who are unable to livestream.
Even after a century, it is still true that phones remain one of the easiest ways for people to connect with one another.
Philip J. Brooks is the manager of Leader Communications at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee.