The Pandemic Nearly Shuttered My Church. Technology Saved It

Long before the pandemic struck, Science Hill Friends Meeting in southwestern Randolph County, North Carolina, was slowly bleeding to death, like many small churches in rural America. Once a thriving Quaker community of nearly 100 Friends, over the years many of our youngest members grew up and moved away, and core members of an increasingly elderly population died. Attendance dwindled to just 60 on a good day. Our country setting, the rolling hills of the ancient Uwharrie Mountains and what we loved most about our community, wasn’t drawing new people quickly enough to fill our pews.We weren’t alone; in fact, according to Thom Rainer, a former pastor and national expert on revitalization, at least 20 churches just like ours close every single day.

The arrival of the coronavirus could have been our literal death knell, especially as our governor issued an executive order in March 2020 halting mass gatherings. If a pandemic wasn’t bad enough, in October our pastor resigned. We had to act fast or risk shutting our doors forever. But God does indeed work in mysterious ways, and divine intervention flew in on the wings of technology. Along with faith communities everywhere, we’re rejoicing in the science of communication. What we’ve learned might help you and your leaders too.

Embrace New Ways to Gather

Science Hill had to accept that our beloved meeting house, built by the original Friends in 1894, wasn’t the only place where members could gather. Although our governor lifted the moratorium in May 2020 to allow limited indoor assemblies, many members resisted meeting inside the sanctuary, even with masks and social distancing, for fear of getting sick. As we scheduled a series of dynamic speakers to fill the absence of a dedicated pastor, we knew that we needed to branch out and offer more ways to come together beyond meeting in person.
A progressive group of elders invested in Science Hill’s first-ever computer—a generational leap for a country church that first met under a brush arbor. Elder Kelly Kunz, a professional engineer, used his tech acumen to connect a refurbished desktop computer to a new camcorder with an HDMI output. With the help of shareware, we streamed our service live on Facebook and on a 72-inch screen on our porch, broadcasting the sound through a loudspeaker and an FM transmitter. Now people could watch from inside the meeting house, socially distanced, or from lawn chairs outside. They could tune in from their car radios in the parking lot or from home. For someone like me, a 20-year warrior of multiple sclerosis, having the option to occasionally worship from home was especially appealing. The same goes for anyone still in quarantine, recovering from another illness, or otherwise homebound.
And I wasn’t alone. Zooming the Kaddish, the ancient Jewish mourning prayer, which ordinarily requires a quorum of 10 adults in person, was a special accommodation for the Beth David Synagogue in Greensboro, North Carolina. “Going online meant that people as far away as Milwaukee and Florida could participate,” said Rabbi Joshua Ben-Gideon. “Even after we can gather in person again, we plan to find a way to make sure that members beyond Greensboro can continue to take part in our services.”For Aditya Sharma of Durham, North Carolina, a facilitator of the Bhagavad Gita study sessions on the Hindu scripture, the internet presented a unique opportunity to connect and share the teachings of the Gita as interpreted by well-known and celebrated spiritual teacher Swami Mukundananda, who travels the world. Sharma’s weekly online sessions, coordinated as a part of JKYog Academy, attract a global audience with as many 58 to 120 attendees each, with just about 60 percent from the US, 30 percent from India, and 10 percent from other parts of the world.

Engage Your Audience

Photograph: Ashley Memory