Churches across the country are grappling with an immediate need to provide online ministry at a time when meeting face-to-face is considered risky at best and life-threatening at worst.
The latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance says that for the next eight weeks, gatherings of people should limit themselves to no more than 50 at a time.
For some churches, this means adapting and adjusting. For others, it's a complete re-orientation.
Lifeway Research last fall found that four in 10 churches don't live stream their services or sermons or post the sermon after the service is over. Many of these churches are smaller, with congregations of 500 or less.
Still, a little over half do post the sermon online and one-third live stream either the entire service or the sermon.
A growing number of church-goers have already become used to the technology. Lifeway found that more than half of the 1,000 Protestant church-goers in its survey had watched a live video stream of a church service in the last year.
Online ministry experts say it can become a valuable tool for drawing people into the life of the church.
"Online is your next front door," says Jay Kranda the online campus pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, noting a study that shows that 75 percent of churches in one report found people attended their online church service before attending in person.
Online ministry tools go beyond just posting sermons or live streaming a weekend service. They include online teams that respond to prayer requests and Internet-generated dialogue. Online campus pastors are new positions – both paid and voluntary – that engage with online attendees.
A new website for churches thinking through ministry in light of the Coronavirus pandemic went up over the weekend. The Billy Graham Center and Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College along with the Peace Plan at Saddleback Church are sponsoring the site, which includes resources on online ministry as well as public health policy updates.
"The Coronavirus pandemic is not a time for panic or fear. it's a time for wisdom and rightful response and we want to help churches and faith communities to respond well – to show and share the love of Jesus in the midst of what is a fearful time for many people," said Dr. Ed Stetzer, the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission and Evangelism at Wheaton College.
Church consultant Stephen Brewster suggests starting a daily online prayer meeting right now, with worship and a short message and then invite people to online weekend services.
Jana Magruder, director of LifeWay Kids, suggests using the pandemic to begin a daily family worship service to take advantage of extra time for Bible reading, prayer, and singing.
In a recent Christianity Today piece she encouraged parents, "use this extra time wisely and talk about God's word – the ultimate soother of our souls."
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