How to Move a Small Church Online

I want to get really practical and share what I’ve learned serving Bartonville United Methodist Church (Average Weekly Worship Attendance Before Pandemic: 30) and Kingston Mines United Methodist Church (AWWABP: 18) in central Illinois. I think this conversation is still worthwhile, months into this pandemic, because one of the strange gifts of this time is that ministry is revealed as iterative. We all can keep improving, even after our new normal is up and running.

Automated Phone Calls/Texting
Things are changing from day-to-day, and people need and want to stay connected across our present distance, so if you have never invested in something like this, now is the time. For my purposes, I only use it rarely for whole church calls, so buying a package of a certain number of calls/texts at a time makes the most sense, rather than a recurring monthly plan. For that, the best price is Robotalker.

A friend who pastors two other small churches near me has a different use for an automated system. She has been able to develop up her text congregation over time to include a ton of otherwise disconnected people from the community that are happy to receive regular, brief devotional texts. She’s had to upgrade her subscription at least once to keep up with demand! If that’s what you want, check out One Call Now.

Facebook Live
Just do this. It’s free. It’s easy. You’ve got a smartphone or a tablet already, and its built-in camera(s) and microphone are already far better than that VHS that recorded your great grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary. Lots of people (including many in their 70, 80s, and up) are already on Facebook, and even people who have basically moved on to other social media services will come to church there. You also will get people watching who have never attended your church. This is effortless evangelism

If you can, go live rather than pre-recorded. Just like the concert, the football game, and the comedian are best live, worship is best live, warts and all. If you like the opportunity to polish by doing multiple takes and complicated editing, that’s mostly likely a time-sucking ego issue, not an excellence issue. Yes, work hard, and even rehearse, but you were never perfectly polished before, and people love and need their human pastor (the kind who forgets the words to the Lord’s Prayer and then laughs rather than shuts down in embarrassment).

Many people start their streams early, but we do not want to broadcast our casual conversations or prayer requests, and editing afterward has consistently messed up audio-visual syncing on Facebook’s end, so we just start on time.

Another great thing about Facebook Live is that it makes it simple to have someone sub in. Pastor, take a Sunday off. I have a retired pastor in his mid-70s in my congregation who reactivated his Facebook account so I could add him to our Facebook page. We did a brief tech rehearsal, and then he went live from his home. It was great: I got a week off, and our people got to see the other person they consider their pastor.

A note: if you pastor two (or more) churches with two (or more) Facebook pages, learn how to crosspost. Unfortunately a mobile device cannot go Live on multiple Pages at once in Facebook’s apps. However, it’s worth the time for me to create an original post of the same video for each church. It’s an easy way to share the love across both churches. (I make this note, because while my churches love to fellowship, worship, and do ministry together, multi-church pastors know that this is not always the case, and they must look for ways to make all the churches feel seen, appreciated, and included.) I always go Live from Bartonville’s page, then I crosspost to Kingston Mines’ page, then I share the Kingston Mines post on my page.

Finally, if you’re worried about Internet connectivity issues, those are far better now than they were back in March. But if you are able, reschedule your service(s) to get of the peak times of hours and half hours. Bartonville and Kingston Mines used to worship at 9:00 and 10:45. Now both worship at 9:15 on Sundays and I do a live devotional at 9:15 on Wednesdays too. We do not have two services, because they would just be identical and thus redundant.

Video/Phone Conferencing
Internet access is not great in every geography or even across a single congregation. It is vital that you make options for everyone to be connected, and that means a phone number that people can call in from any phone and be connected to worship. This is also the way the small church’s leadership meetings can continue safely through this time. (Even though virtually everywhere in the US could hold a small enough in-person meeting as of this writing, you serve with people who still need to be able to choose to distance without choosing to stop being part of the life of the church.)

Zoom is simply the best option, because you can have computer/device-savvy people connect with video and participate; you can have casual Internet users watch because Zoom can feed Live to Facebook; and you can have people call in to participate. Be aware and inform your people that calling in from a landline will be a standard long-distance call. Zoom will allow you to add-on a toll-free number (which will charge your church for those long-distance calls) or buy a local phone number, if available. It just starts to get beyond the limited budgets of the churches this blog post is aimed at. I should also mention that those horror stories of Zoom security issues (imagine someone breaking into your church and screaming profanities or streaming pornography) have been extremely well addressed, and most were due to users failing to enact recommended precautions.

FreeConferenceCall continues to only be a good option in very limited cases. I am frugal (perhaps to a fault) with asking my churches to spend their limited funds, but some things really are “you get what you pay for.” If people call in once and do not connected, many will not try again the the following week. Add up the energy costs of your mostly closed building and the budgeted mileage reimbursements you haven’t been able to use to visit people, and you have already more than covered your Zoom subscription. Plus if you’re United Methodist, Zoom even has a discount for you.

Getting Stable WiFi in the Church Building
First, depending on where you live, good Internet is not guaranteed. Second, if you do have Internet, the speed necessary for streaming video may be pricier than what you currently have (although a mere 5MB upload speed should be plenty, according to Facebook). Third, even if you have reliable and speedy Internet access, it is likely available near the church office where the modem sits and nowhere else in your maze-like building, while your church needs to be available to stream from the sanctuary (if not at this moment, then soon, when some people come back and others remain distanced).

For Internet speed, first talk to your local Internet provider. (You might know a church down the street who seems to do it better than you, and you can ask them about their service.) It is also possible that there is not a great wired Internet option in your area, but that your cellphone service provides faster speeds via phone or mobile hotspot, so explore those options too.

For WiFi that makes it to your sanctuary, the absolute cheapest way is to do a WiFi range extender, and you can Google some reviews on those. The better way is to set up a mesh network. After a good bit of research, I settled on the TP-Link Deco M5, which is priced well and reviewed well. (Note: In some spaces, you might be able to get away with the two-node set of the same product, but unless you add cables to what is included in the box, one of the nodes is going to have to be a few inches from the modem you currently have, leaving only one to do the extending.) Then I got a set of these no-installation-needed brackets for each of them.

Best of all, you personally are capable of setting it up. You open the box, which instructs you to download the TP-Link app to your smartphone. The app then walks you through how to install, update the firmware, turn on network protections, and run speed tests in various areas. At work there is nothing I hate more than wrestling with technology that should be designed better. From unsealing the box to the end of the process, it took 40 minutes.

Upping Your Visuals
If you’re not using Canva for graphic design, you should be. I use the free version.

My Sundays and Wednesdays
I have weekly recurring alarms set on my phone, because it is pretty easy to show up late for online church. At 9am, I start my teleconferencing meeting on my laptop and talk to whomever calls in. At 9:14, I wrap up and mute all the other callers. At 9:15, I go Live on Facebook on my phone (this tripod mount on this tripod), while continuing the meeting on my computer. I could still do with some better lighting, but maybe that’s my next iteration.

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