Plenty of resources can help United Methodist churches offer online worship that is accessible by computer, tablet or cellphone. However, offering only online worship services when people cannot come together due to the COVID-19 pandemic or for other reasons may not be the best option for every congregation.
Even in 2020, many houses in the United States lack internet connections. Some churches and homes, especially in rural areas, do not have sufficient broadband to live stream services. Income, age, geography and knowledge of technology can all hinder churches from streaming and congregants from receiving the stream.
Often churches will have both congregants who are comfortable with and can use online platforms and those who are unable to join worship online. It is vital that the church continues to connect with all its members during this time. In those cases, churches may want to use (or add using) an older communications technology: the telephone.
How one church worships by phone
Nearly every American home has either a landline or cell phone service providing churches and congregants another way to connect with each other remotely. Most people alive today grew up using phones and are comfortable connecting via phone.
The Rev. Sharon Sagat-Stover is pastor of Community United Methodist Church in North Anson, Maine. She figured out how to keep her small rural church of mostly senior citizens worshipping together 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. Each Monday the church sends emails and surface mailers to the congregants with information on how to join the conference call and 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.”
Recommended free conference call services for churches: freeconference.com or freeconferencecall.com.
Other call-in only options
In most churches, congregants have varying access to and familiarity with technology. To ensure everyone is able to participate in remote worship, use one of the online meeting services that can be accessed either by computer or by phone.
Most of the top online meeting services have an option to allow people simply to call-in without using a computer. They use a telephone number and special code to access the call. Make certain all your congregants receive the correct call-in information ahead of time via email, group texts, social media and/or mailers. Also send out the order of worship. This allows those participants who do not have a screen can follow what is happening and who is leading. They may also be able to participate in the liturgy and congregational singing.
It is always good practice to assume that some participants in your online service will experience glitches or other streaming problems. By expecting that some will only listen to the audio while others will both 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
- Remind people periodically where you are in the service. Announce the names of songs and hymns before singing, 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 in
- Mute on entry or remind everyone to keep themselves muted throughout the service so that there’s nothing to distract people
- 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
Here are some of the top-rated video conference platforms that also offer call-in only options:
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 all the 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 we are not leaving behind those who are unable to live stream for whatever reason. Even after a century phones remain one of the easiest ways for people to connect with one another remotely.
*In order to prevent hacking and trolling during meetings, Zoom has announced that meetings using its free and first tier paid services will have passwords and waiting rooms by default from now on. Click here for more information.