Marc Lhowe thought he had a great plan.
Lhowe is the pastor of First Baptist Church (FBC) in Union Point. He also serves as a chaplain in the United States military. Lhowe spent most of the last year living in Kosovo, where he worked to maintain soldiers’ religious rights and help build bridges with Kosovo’s religious leaders.
When he returned home in March, Lhowe intended to take three extra weeks to handle post-deployment counseling. He had lined up guest ministers to speak at FBC.
The plan worked for the first few days Lhowe was home. Then, COVID-19 unleashed in the U.S.
“Although I was going to take time off, I also knew the church needed leadership and quickly,” Lhowe said. “I called deacons as well as church staff and tried to work on how we could still have church. Because we are on the radio on [DOCK 103.9 FM], we have an hour-long slot. We said that we were going to try to still have church without people in there.”
FBC and legions of churches across the nation were faced with an uncertain future a month ago. Impending government rulings were set to have effects on the normal operations of churches in addition to the already-affected schools and government services.
By mid-March, local and state declarations prevented churches from gathering in their usual capacity. That’s when they had to get creative.
Fusion Church of Madison was among the first Lake Country churches to suspend normal operations. According to pastor Matt Alexander, Fusion, which was already streaming its usual meetings, switched to online-only outreach on March 15. That was two days after the Morgan County Charter School System announced that it would close for a week (later extended to the rest of the school year).
Alexander said the schools’ decision directly influenced the church’s direction. It was a tough call for Alexander and Fusion’s other leaders, but Alexander said the church’s online presentation upgraded as a result.
“When we went completely online, we were able to move our cameras and get them closer,” Alexander said. “And we could dedicate more time to putting out more of a quality worship experience.”
Grace Fellowship in Greensboro, much like Fusion, already offered its regular services online.
The services are available via Grace’s Facebook page and website. There is something extra special about the Facebook feed, according to pastor Jimmy Long.
“The benefit with using Facebook rather than putting everything on our website is that you do get immediate feedback,” Long said. “You get to see that people are logged on. Sometimes, people simply identify themselves and say, 'I'm here.' Sometimes, people will say, 'Amen' or 'Hallelujah.' And then there are times when people will comment on specific points. What we have noted is that we are reaching people online that we did not reach when we were having service in our building.”
That extended outreach is being seen by churches all over and across denominations.
“Every pastor will tell you there are far more hits on Facebook than we've had sitting in the congregation,” Lhowe said. “It's almost triple for anybody. ... It is interesting that we do seem to be reaching out.”
Though many churches were already using various means of digital ministry, the full-time move to online offerings has not been without challenges.
Long said Grace initially struggled with finding the right sound mixing, simply because the mix calls for different setups between in-person audio and audio feeding through video. Lhowe said FBC had similar issues; the church is broadcast through the radio, which required different sound setups than video streaming.
And Fusion’s first exclusively online service was delayed 15 minutes due to an issue plaguing many churches: bandwidth availability.
Due to a high volume of usage around the same time, many churches saw their live feeds get slowed down or cut off when they first ventured into livestreaming a few weeks ago.
That forced them to explore other streaming services, such as BoxCast, which allow users to pre-record video content and schedule it to air live on Facebook. Those outlets allow churches to fully record their services, add graphics and maintain a quality picture while broadcasting online. They also provide information that allows churches to keep record of their exposure.
BoxCast and other such services cost money, but Facebook, YouTube, Periscope and others offer broadcasting free of charge.
“Myself included, pastors that are behind the curve and doing this now, these are things we should have already been doing,” Lhowe said. “This stuff is free. We just didn't have anything to push us to do this. … I hope that God uses this crisis to reach out to more people online, not to mention there's a lot of people online who may not want to darken the doors of the church but may be watching on a regular basis. If nothing else, I'm glad this pushed all of us small-town pastors to start using the technology that was already available to us but now we're in a position where we must use it.”
This past Sunday, April 12, marked one of the biggest holidays for Christians: Easter.
Although their congregations were unable to gather together in traditional ways, Long, Lhowe, Alexander and their worship leaders and tech operators helped keep their churches connected.
Grace streamed a sunrise service followed by its normal meeting. Long took communion with some of his members via Zoom, a video teleconference software.
Fusion used the Sunday before, which was Palm Sunday, to help promote its Easter service in an effort to increase awareness of it.
At FBC, Lhowe and seven others performed excerpts from an Easter cantata during the church’s service.
It was all in an effort to make one of the most unique Easters feel as close to normal as possible.
“We're trying to connect with everybody in a more diligent way,” Alexander said. “That's what we need to do during these times.”
Shifting to a greater online presence on Sundays is not the only way churches are adjusting their approach during the coronavirus outbreak.
Long said Grace has members who help sew washable medical masks for health care workers. The church also has people who help deliver groceries to those who can’t or shouldn’t leave their homes. Additionally, some members offer teaching services to school children.
Fusion helps provide meals to children throughout the week. The church is also providing food this week to the staff members at Morgan Medical Center, according to Alexander.
As the coronavirus wears on, churches will be presented with other challenges to their normal routine. They will need to find methods of performing baptisms and church-wide communion, among other traditions.
As FBC continues navigating uncharted waters, Lhowe said he hopes the fallout of the crisis leads to an increased gratefulness for normal church activity.
“I am praying that it's a time people come to appreciate church better, that people come to appreciate human touch and contact a little bit better,” Lhowe said. “I sure hope that some people are enjoying their families more than they have been in the past. I think slowing down our pace is something that America really needs to get used to.”
Alexander said the chaotic times are bringing to fruition things he and Fusion’s members wanted to see develop within the church as a whole.
“I long for the day for us to be back under one roof worshiping together but it's really a sweet season right now, to be honest,” Alexander said. “I see a lot of things that we've been praying God would do through the church. We would've never chosen this path but this is the path that God has allowed and I think God's getting honored.”
It is unclear when the coronavirus pandemic will subside.
In the meantime, Long said he feels it is the responsibility of the church to display its core values during the pandemic.
“Times like these bring out either the best in people or the worst in people,” he said. “I try to encourage our church to let it bring out the Jesus in us because that's what this world needs right now. We need the hope that only Jesus can provide.”