The Rev. Brian Wideman turned to YouTube when churches were closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic
Green Bay Press-Gazette
With Easter only a week away, Christians across the spectrum are using a multitude of online platforms to connect with, preach to and counsel their flocks.
The state’s order prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people during April emptied church buildings, but Facebook, YouTube, websites, email and other technology opened up a whole range of options to keep congregations together.
“Facebook has been a godsend right now,” said the Rev. Andy Behrendt, senior pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Waupaca. “It’s allowed us to try some really new things. It’s allowing us to be a church in a different way.”
Easter, on April 12 this year, is the most important day on the Christian calendar, a time when congregation members, including many who attend services only once or twice a year, gather to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.
The gathering will be virtual this year, posing a host of challenges for clergy and congregation members, but challenges they are confronting with creativity and determination.
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“Each parish has wonderful resources their communities are coming up with. There is a lot of connectivity going on here,” said Tammy Basten, chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay.
Congregations are experiencing their first efforts at televangelism with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but they are thankful, nonetheless.
“The alternative of having nothing would be awful,” said Julie Srenaski, a member of West Side Moravian Church in Green Bay. “We are able to still gather and worship.”
Rev. Andy Behrendt of Trinity Lutheran Church, Waupaca, records a children’s sermon on March 25, 2020. Parents provided photos of the children for the virtual church sermon. (Photo: Courtesy of Trinity Lutheran Church, Waupaca)
Had the virus hit five years ago, they would be looking at a very different situation. Online platforms have proliferated, giving churches a wide variety of options for staying connected, and many don’t require a high degree of expertise.
“We are not one of the big churches that have a lot of resources to invest in video production. That’s not necessarily who we want to be,” said Erin Kazik, a member of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Green Bay. “In December, we had a meeting, talking about how can we upgrade our system at some point. Some point came way faster than we thought.”
Clergy say the forced isolation, and the elimination of the bells and whistles that go with a church building, prompted them to go back to the basics through different means.
“We are trying to stay in touch with our parishioners. It stretches us to recognize God’s presence in different ways,” said the Rev. Tom Lindner of St. Anne Parish of Wausau. “It pushes us to new understandings, new levels as disciples.”
St. Paul Catholic Church is pictured on March 21, 2020, in Wrightstown, Wis. (Photo: Sarah Kloepping/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)
Doing video sermons is relatively easy compared to the more pressing need to minister to people in distress, ministering that often begs for a personal touch.
“We’ve had to really change the way we do ministry overnight. Not just with regard to (online services), but I’ve had people going through surgeries — had a young man going through surgery without his wife or family able to be present, or me,” said the Rev. Diane Rew of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Green Bay. “Pastoring in those kinds of times are a challenge. The grief that people experience just in general over a death or cancer diagnosis, it is just exponentially more difficult.”
Bishop David Ricken of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay said churches cannot forget the many people who are under lockdown, such as those in nursing homes, without normal access to friends and family.
“They are under lockdown, so are more distanced from their families. We don’t want to forget anybody or have anybody die alone,” he said. “Our mutual support and prayer together, even remotely, is very very important.”
The Rev. David Hatch of Our Saviour Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Green Bay said he will go to members’ homes and pray with them from the other side of their door. It is often the best that can be done and maintain social distancing.
One element of worship that can not be done electronically is the Sacrament of Holy Communion, which begs for a closer physical connection than is currently wise. The very definition of communion is gathering together.
“We did not expect to give up so much for Lent this year,” Behrendt said. “It’s putting things in perspective in an extreme way too. Helps you to focus on what’s really important.
“On the upside of all this, this awful experience is in some ways helping us to understand the church is not a building, it’s the people. This is helping us to understand that and helping us to recognize how we can still be the church.”
Still, most clergy and congregation members look forward to gathering again.
“It is so important to our Catholic worship and Christian worship that we come together. Jesus was always surrounded by people. To do that in isolation is not what we were meant to do and be,” Lindner said.
Adapting with technology
Pastors have had to adjust to giving sermons to an empty sanctuary, and congregation members are getting used to watching those sermons in their living rooms, kitchens and dens.
Janet and Rob Stevens of Suamico watch Rew’s service while eating breakfast together, while Julie Srenaski, a member of West Side Moravian Church, Green Bay, looks to block out distractions.
“It’s hard at home to stay engrossed in what we are doing. I’m trying to find a good spot to curl up in and be separate from the work that surrounds me,” she said.
The Rev. Brian Wideman presses “record” on his phone before giving his homily in front of an empty St. Paul Catholic Church on March 21, 2020, in Wrightstown, Wis. Wideman began recording masses for St. Clare Parish after church services were suspended to the public because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Sarah Kloepping/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)
Janet Stevens has a hymnal, but misses the communal singing and other interactions with fellow worshipers.
“That’s what we are missing now,” she said. “We miss our family and our contacts with the outside world and the church. I think the meeting in person is something that everyone looks forward to.”
Hatch recommends congregation members approach the services as they would if they were going in person, including getting dressed in their Sunday clothes.
“We had at least one person comment that it’s a very unique experience attending a worship service in their pajamas,” Behrendt said.
Kazik gets her morning coffee, puts in her earbuds and looks out at the backyard.
“I listen to Pastor Rew and think ‘this is nice,'” she said. “The feeling I have after worship is the same as I do when I’m there.”
Behrendt said the history of Christianity is a history of adaptation. This is no different.
The irony is, some churches reach more people now than before.
“Last Sunday we probably had 1,500 homes watching. Our audience is probably bigger right now,” said Mark Gungor, lead pastor at Celebration Church in Green Bay.
Congregants are sharing online services with friends, neighbors and former church members. Children’s sermons and book readings are especially popular.
“I don’t know if that sharing would have happened before,” Rew said. “It’s been really humbling. I hear back from people I’ve never met.”
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‘It feels very odd’
For non-denominational Celebration Church, which has congregations in Green Bay, Appleton and Stevens Point, electronic services are business as usual. The church has done televised broadcasts with a five-camera setup for years.
“Because I travel so much, oftentimes when I’m not able to be here on a Sunday, I will prerecord my sermon. I’m used to doing it,” Gungor said. He provides the sermon for all three congregations.
The Rev. Brian Wideman gives his homily to an empty St. Paul Catholic Church while recording himself with a phone on March 21, 2020, in Wrightstown, Wis. Wideman began recording masses for St. Clare Parish after church services were suspended to the public because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Sarah Kloepping/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)
But others, such as the Rev. Brian Wideman of St. Clare Parish in southern Brown County, can get buy using a single iPhone on a tripod. He said he knows parishioners are watching and he’s connecting with them.
Others have had to adjust, missing the feedback of a live gathering.
“It’s awkward and not what I’m used to. We really value being in community,” said the Rev. Marian Boyle Rohloff of West Side Moravian Church. “You are not face-to-face. At the same, we’ve notice that people that might have been home-bound prior to this are able to access the livestream. That’s been really nice.”
Wideman said it’s helpful for parishioners to see the clergy they know conducting the services. He provides masses, the Rosary and stations of the cross.
“I think people value being able to see their priest in their parishes,” he said. “There are lots of masses they can watch on television, but it’s different when you can connect with your priest at your parish, even when it’s virtually. They can put themselves into this space even when they are not physically here.”
Hatch said it feels odd talking to an empty space and a camera 20 feet away.
“It’s very odd for myself to do that. I try to have fun with it. On email, I’ll encourage them to get dressed up for worship, then ask them when streaming if they did that. There can be some fun here,” he said.
Pastors say this deep dive into technology will change how churches function in the future. The coronavirus will pass, but some of their innovations will not.
“We have on the docket to order and have the technology to stream our regular in-house worship services,” Hatch said. “If all goes right, that would continue seamlessly streaming even after we regather.”
Ricken will perform Palm Sunday and Easter masses at an empty St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay on WFRV-TV beginning at 10:30 a.m. each Sunday.
“It feels very odd. You have to kind of imagine the congregation you know,” Ricken said. “You certainly miss the presence of people, the feedback.”
Ricken said priests throughout the dioceses also will do online and livestreamed masses. Baten, who is the diocese’s COVID-19 response coordinator, said they’ve worked to connect families at home to resources they need.
“We are listening to people. Making outbound phone calls to people isolated in their homes. There are all kinds of things we are doing in all of the different ministries. Our priests are very connected with their communities,” she said.
Congregation leaders will tell you, sincerely, that spiritual needs come first, but they are not unaware of the financial needs of keeping the lights on and the websites active, and Easter is one of the two biggest giving days of the year. Technology is helping there, too.
Churches for several years have promoted automated giving, where donations are withdrawn directly from checking accounts. Most churches still have a large amount of collection-plate giving, but the automatic donations provide more consistency.
“I can’t say the financial realities don’t concern me, but that’s not our primary message to our parishioners,” said St. Anne Parish’s Lindner. “We are encouraging parishioners to continue to give, as they are able.”
Congregation members are aware of the situation.
“We’ve had people who have really stepped up … and paid for the whole year ahead,” Rew said. “We’ve had people who are generous givers let us know they may not be able to because they’ve gotten (layoff) notices. Where that’s all going to come out, I don’t think any of us know.”
Our Saviour’s Hatch believes this experience will fundamentally affect how people view their faith.
“The virus is like the storm (in the Gospels, when Jesus calmed the sea). It wakes us up to call on God to come to our aid and rescue, either physical or to ease our souls,” he said.
Rew expressed a similar view.
“I believe all of us are going to be changed by this experience. My prayer is that those changes are deep and lasting in grace-filled ways. That we appreciate more … are perhaps more aware how fragile life is, even in the best of times.”
In a practical sense, Easter is a date on a calendar. In a spiritual sense, Christians are taught to ideally live every day as if it’s Easter. In a hopeful sense, the first time congregations are allowed to gather again will be Easter.
“This year, we may not experience Easter until May or June. Whatever week of the church year it happens to be when we are able to come together again, that will be Easter,” Behrendt said. “Whenever it happens, regardless of how exactly you plan it, it’s going to be amazing. It’s going to feel like heaven. All of sudden we are all back together again.”
Contact Richard Ryman at (920) 431-8342 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @RichRymanPG, on Instagram at @rrymanPG or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RichardRymanPG/
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