Posted on

Electronic Easter: Churches turn to technology this year

For many, Easter is a time of joy and celebration. Its annual celebration each spring marks one of the oldest religious events for Christians around the world. And while the COVID-19 pandemic is keeping people away from mass gatherings like church services, local pastors are finding ways to continue to reach their faith communities in order to celebrate one of their most important liturgical events.

Like local school districts, these pastors have been using technology and other socially distant methods to connect with their parishioners. Of the 23 different churches scattered throughout the area, at least 10 have begun to hold their own services using online tools such as Facebook, YouTube and Zoom, while others have encouraged their faithful to turn to radio or televised services in order to stay connected.

Even though these pastors, such as Rev. Rebekah Tarras of St. John’s Lutheran Church of Spencer, have had this technology available for a while, there was never a real need to use it. But with parishioners stuck at home, Rev. Tarras said she and other pastors have had to quickly adapt to using the technology more and learn the ropes.

“We have used this for a couple times, just not on a regular basis,” she said on her parish’s use of Facebook Live. “We were planning on doing something more with Facebook Live, this just pushed us into doing it sooner.”

Along with St. John’s Lutheran Church, there are several other area churches using Facebook to connect to their parishioners. Those parishes using their Facebook pages during this time to share videos of their services include Missionary Baptist Church in Greenwood, Our Father’s House in Chili, Church of Christ in Spencer, ONE in Christ in Greenwood, Trinity Lutheran Church in Loyal and St. Anthony Catholic Church in Loyal.

For those parishes using Facebook Live, Rev. Dan Zimmerman of Trinity Lutheran Church in Loyal said pastors have the relatively uncomplicated task of using their own device to record their service, which is automatically uploaded to Facebook. If someone is on the page at that time, they can watch the sermon as it unfolds. Afterwards, he said the recording remains on the Facebook page, allowing anyone who was not able to see it when it was uploaded the chance to watch it later.

“The church has had a Facebook page for a while,” he said. “We use the live feature at 10:30 on Sunday mornings, it stays on the Facebook page afterwards. It’s not different per se (than in-person worship), the readings are different for each Sunday. As I do with every sermon, I give a message pertinent to what’s going on. I talk at length to the community, and we are keeping in prayer those that have been affected by the coronavirus.”

Zoom is another tool that is being used by a couple parishes: ONE in Christ three-point parish in Greenwood and St. John’s Lutheran in Spencer. According to Rev. Elizabeth Bier of ONE in Christ, Zoom is a video-conferencing program that allows people to use their phones to call into a group gathering in real time. Since everyone can interact with each other, Rev. Bier said the faithful can send each other messages of peace and even sing music together.

“I want more community experience during this time,” she said on the reason for using Zoom. “I start worship and other people join in, you can unmute your conversation and share peace … For me too, as the leader, it helps me to be able to interact with people. It also allows me to bring in musicians, hand organs. Last week one of our college students played piano and led singing from her dorm room.”

Besides using online tools to record services, there are also other ways local churches are staying connected. Phone calls, mass e-mails and even regular mail deliveries have all been used to reach out to those who may not have access to the internet. Most of the churches have also remained open during this time, allowing people to stop by individually to pick up devotional materials, and on Palm Sunday on April 5, palm branches.

“We sent home a worship packet of multiple weeks of worship,” said Rev. Bier. “This weekend we did a start at home service. If they had picked up palm branches, they could do a procession, walk around their house. For those who did it it worked well, people had stopped by and picked up palm branches when they were out doing other things.”

“We’ve been sending e-mails to the faith community, making phone calls to touch base with them,” said Rev. Tarras. “We have two other staff here reaching out to the community with people via Facebook, texts, calls and e-mails to stay connected.”

While for the past few weeks local pastors have worked to develop a system that works, for some Christian denominations, this week will be the real test. For Rev. Leo Stanislaus of St. Anthony Catholic Church in Loyal, St. Mary’s in Greenwood and Holy Family in Willard, Holy Week holds a special distinction from other services. That’s because while the Masses he has been uploading to the internet for the past two weeks were pre-recorded, Mass and services on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday must be recorded and watched by the faithful in real time.

“According to Rome, they have ordered certain things,” he said. “For Palm Sunday there will be no procession, Good Friday no procession of the cross. No washing of the feet on Holy Thursday. Rome decided we would not be doing these things. We will have online Mass. During Holy Week, Holy Thursday through Saturday, it will be live Mass, from the diocese and for our people. People should participate in the live Mass. This is one church, one Christ, one priest, one people of God and one with Christ at the same time. If somebody is praying at a different time, they’re not connected.”

This gathering in real time will also be important for parishioners of ONE in Christ Church on Easter Sunday. On that day, Rev. Bier said she will hold home communion with the faithful on Zoom, with the parishioners being asked to use their own bread, wine or juice they will set aside for the service. Because of the importance of the gathering, she said only those who will be participating at the time of the initial broadcast on Zoom will be allowed to participate in communion. “It’s been a big conversation (on whether or not to have communion),” she said. “It’s about being gathered as a community, gathering for worship. We’ve put together a home communion, I do want to have communion, on Easter Sunday we will do that. With the people they will have bread, wine or juice at hand, set aside for use during worship. When we do this it will be for those gathered on Zoom call participating in communion. It’s about being there in real time to participate in the sacrament, holding up the bread with each other.”

Once Easter is over, churches will return to the way they have been sharing services for the past couple weeks and will continue to do so until health officials say it’s safe to hold public gatherings again. A few, such as St. John’s Lutheran Church in Spencer, will also begin holding catechism classes with its middle school students via Zoom.

“We’re fortunate to have this,” said Rev. Tarras. “Following Easter we plan on reviving our middle school program, use Zoom to contact the students. Based on how many people we’re reaching (with online services), I think we’ll keep some type of live sermons on our webpage moving forward. People work on weekends, sports, we need to meet people where they are at.”

For more information about service times, links to online services and Masses and information about televised and radio programs for your religious denomination, please check your local parish website, Facebook page or give them a call.