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.

16 in 2016: Best Books in the Year

Best Books of the Year lists make sense for trade awards, but people don’t read that way. Here are the best books–roughly the top 10%–I read in 2016. You can look at my full 2016 reading list on Goodreads. Friend me while you’re over there.

Flight by Sherman Alexie
I would feel better about the world if everyone would read this book. It’s painful and uplifting, with prose of a quality that shows there is no upper ceiling to YA writing.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
A black father writes an elegant, long-lasting memoir as a letter to his son in the present-day United States. If you can swing it, buy the audiobook to hear it straight from the author’s mouth to his child.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie
If you’re interested in Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, or Walker Percy, read this four-character biography. If you’re interested in just how well history and biography can be written, read this book.

The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones
Jones is the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. This is a brilliant book on history, politics, sociology, and American Christianity in our present moment. It might be the best book published in 2016 that I read in 2016.

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Lethem has been in the back of my mind as someone to read for a long time. This story is sci-fi-warped reality, populated by well-drawn characters, written with great prose and humor. I’ll be reading more Lethem in 2017.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
This is the book I have most widely recommended this year. I can’t speak to other “unclutter your life” books, but this one is directed at people who have too many good ideas to pursue them all, or who have too many claimants on their time to please them all. That’s just about everybody.

Journals of Thomas Merton
Although I’m a long-term Merton junkie, the collected journals are not mere arcana for Merton scholars. Most of his published writings were first birthed in these pages. In 2016, I read Volumes 1, 2, and 3. We’ll see how many of the other four volumes I can manage in 2017. If you’ve read no Merton, first try The Seven Storey Mountain (his classic autobiography) or No Man Is An Island. If you’ve already liked some Merton, there’s no reason to wait to dig into the journals.

The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack
Is this a lasting great? Maybe not. But it’s still great. Buy it for the new graduate in your life. Buy it for a wedding present. It’s useful, excellent, and short.

A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
A brother and sister are sent to some small town in central Illinois to stay with their off-the-wall grandma. I would have adored this as a kid. I still do.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
Several years ago, Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret invited me to create a new category of books in my brain: “Huggable.” There are some books so wonderful that they make you pause while literally hugging them for a slow inhale and exhale or three. And after a few moments you’re able to keep reading. With this book, Selznick created another one, following the same format of Cabret, with its alternating pages of texts and sketches. Here’s a picture of the main character traversing a scale model of New York City.

selznick-rose-on-the-pano

The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar
An Algerian rabbi’s cat eats a parrot and then is able to tell his master that he wants to be a Jew, drawn strikingly and originally, with great intelligence and humor. See?

Rabbi's Cat

Batman: Court of Owls by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo
Batman is a very hit-and-miss dynasty, the New 52 is even worse, and yet this story was born out of both, and it’s tremendous. Familiar characters, deep history/mythology, Batman as detective (the best kind of Batman?), and great suspense-building and storytelling, alongside great art.

Collected Poems, 1928-1985 by Stephen Spender
Spender was of the same generation of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. I was introduced to him via Thomas Merton’s journals. If you like Auden, you’ll likely be a fan of Spender too. But buy this newer edition, instead of the one I have.

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
If you only know the marvelous Disney version, then you owe it to yourself and any kids in your life to read these. They’re magic.

Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday
Whedon fans won’t be surprised that he’s good at writing literally anything, including this astonishing series from 2004 (that year between Firefly and Serenity).

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang, art by Thien Pham
I read Yang’s great Boxers & Saints and American-Born Chinese this year as well, but I list this because it’s the one I connected with the most emotionally.