Churches focus on ways to do virtual worship, serve those in need

March 15, 2020
By Alan Wild

When Mark Walz found out that churches would be shut down for at least two weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was ready to help.

Walz, Director of Communications and Technology at St. Luke UMC in Lexington, reached out to churches in the Lexington area offering to provide equipment for livestreaming of Sunday services – starting with his own church. 

St. Luke does livestreams regularly, but given the circumstances, “I decided we really needed to up our game,” Walz said by phone Sunday. 

So the technical guru bought “open broadcasting software,” or OBS, for St. Luke and connected it to Restream, which allows simultaneous streaming to YouTube and Facebook and also allows participants to interact during the livestream.  He said a total of about 220 watched the livestream of St. Luke’s 9:30 and 11 a.m. services.

Georgetown First UMC also took Walz up on his offer, so Saturday he delivered a camera and extension cord and helped the church set up a Facebook Live stream. At least 120 people had tuned in when Walz checked Sunday.

Walz also provided Rev. John Gallaher at Embrace UMC a microphone for his livestream from his office.  “I really wanted to make sure that everyone could get online,” Walz said.

Despite the circumstances, the desire to worship – together – remains strong in the Kentucky Annual Conference. Bishop Leonard Fairley sent out a statement and video Friday calling on churches across the Conference to suspend Sunday services and activities for at least the next two weeks. Many churches immediately started looking for ways to still be together without being in close proximity, turning to all that technology has to offer.

Here’s a sampling of what some of them across the Conference did:

Like many other pastors, Rev. Willard Knipp, of Pikeville UMC, livestreamed from the pulpit. And Pikeville actually posted its bulletin on the church Facebook page so congregants could follow along from home. 

Memorial UMC in Elizabethtown livestreamed Rev. Taylor Evans’ sermon as part of the church’s Lenten series, Lead with Love: “I wonder if you’ve ever found yourself in a season where you feel like you’ve lost sight of Jesus?” Evans said. “At that point, we have to stop everything and move ourselves to a higher ground in order to get our eyes back on Jesus.” 

In a Facebook interview Sunday evening, Evans said it was pretty easy because Memorial has video projection equipment, so he and the other associate pastor, Rev. Landon Harting, and Christina Harting, the Director of Communications, “all got together in the morning and made it happen in an empty sanctuary!”

Evans, whose primary responsibility is pastor at Wesley Hilltop House, the church’s second campus, said they have temporarily suspended Wesley Hilltop’s popular Dinner Church on Sunday evenings because of the risk of illness. They’re still delivering boxed meals and also are allowing people to come pick them up, and they plan to do the same thing next Sunday.

“Even though we had to close, we were focused on the needs of our people,” Evans said. 

Focusing on needs was also on the minds of Rev. Corey Nelson and his team at Grace Kids: A Church for Children. They spent the morning outside the southern Louisville church serving Krispy Kreme doughnuts, muffins and fresh fruit to all comers, while a team inside prepared snack/meal packs for the children, who will be out of school for at least the next few weeks. 

At Petrie Memorial UMC in Elkton, Rev. Matt Seel did a livestream with the church’s organ pipes shown in the background. Seel’s sermon addressed John 4 (the story of the woman at the well) and also Psalm 95: “O come, let us sing unto the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!”

At Madisonville First UMC, Revs. Loletuth and John Kalz led services via livestream. At one point, Loletuth Kalz urged congregants to reach out by text or some other virtual method to greet people they normally would be worshipping with in person. The church also offered a phone number for people in need of prayer to text: (314) 451-1773.

That evening, Rev. Yasmel Reyes conducted Iglesia Esperanza Viva, the church’s Hispanic service, via Facebook Live and YouTube. The theme: “Wake Up.”

At least one church, St Matthews UMC in Louisville, opted to do a podcast rather than a livestream. Associate Pastor Derek Robinette shot the podcast from the church’s Browns Lane sanctuary. Like Seel at Petrie, he preached about the woman at the well in John 4. (The church is conducting a Lenten study of the book of John.)

Back in Lexington, Walz said he will be on standby for next weekend, as well. “Anyone who needs help, I can help them,” he said, adding that he’s not limiting his services to the Lexington area. For churches outside the Lexington area, he’s happy to chat by phone. Anyone interested in his expertise before next Sunday can email him at: mwalz@stlukeumc.org

As churches are asked to suspend corporate worship for at least another week, the pastors and congregations will continue to find ways to stay in community.