As churches respond to the spread of coronavirus by shifting temporarily to online worship, one Anabaptist congregation has been exclusively in that position for years.
Living Stream Church of the Brethren is an online-only church, and these days its pastors are fielding questions from leaders of other congregations.
Unlike traditional worship services streamed or broadcast from a physical sanctuary, a Living Stream worship service is entirely online, with all participants logging in, wherever they may be.
Pastoral team member Bobbi Dykema said the first service took place on the first Sunday of Advent in 2012.
She said it was the brainchild of founding pastor Audrey DeCoursey of Portland, Ore., who worked with Enten Eller, pastor of a brick-and-mortar church in Ambler, Pa., who also coordinates online broadcasts of Church of the Brethren annual conferences.
At the time, Eller was working in electronic education at the Church of the Brethren’s Bethany Seminary in Richmond, Ind., and was part of a group seeking to meet the needs of small congregations spread far and wide west of the Mississippi River.
“One of the ideas was online church,” said Eller, who is also a member of Living Stream’s pastoral team. “We became convinced we would need to increasingly use electronic communication, and virtual church was one idea.”
Living Stream meets on Sunday evenings. Pastoral team members take turns crafting a meditation, selecting Scripture and leading the broadcast.
“We have a dedicated video library of congregational hymn singing, because your typical CCI license does not cover broadcasting, and then I’ll typically find someone from our list of volunteers to record the reading of Scripture,” said Dykema, who is also interim pastor of First Church of the Brethren in Springfield, Ill. “We will invite people from the first hymn to share prayer requests in the chat box, and we’ll do congregational prayer. It kind of flows like your typical mainline Protestant worship service.”
Offerings are gathered by PayPal. Communion is a bring-your-own-elements affair. Footwashing is an important part of Church of the Brethren worship and a bit trickier, but can be a great opportunity to invite a friend to join in-person.
Some participants are members of the “Brethren diaspora” who don’t live near a congregation or belong to another congregation that may be at a different theological place than they are.
One reason the congregation meets in the evening is because many participants are pastors.
“One pastor in Florida said, ‘I sometimes log in because sometimes I need to be fed and I just want to show up and worship,’ ” Eller said.
It is not uncommon to encounter misconceptions about a church that doesn’t exist “in real life.”
“One of the things we’ve done on that is to initiate a monthly fellowship time,” Dykema said. “The first Sunday every month we shift from the chat box to a Zoom [online conference call] space where we can all see each other and converse in real time, and we always have a luncheon at annual conference so we can meet each other in real time.
“People will call each other, reach out, follow up on prayer requests.”
Eller added that some people think online church means spectator worship. At Living Stream the person who presents the message engages with people on the broadcast afterward. Online community can exist, but it takes intentionality.
“It’s not TV church — not as we do it. It can be if people never introduce themselves and engage, and just sit back and be a spectator,” Eller said. “But that’s not how we do it because Anabaptist church is the work of the people. It’s not just leaders presenting things for people — everyone together has to be part of that.”
Besides saving money by not having a facility to buy, rent or maintain, the church can easily bring in guest speakers from around the world. With recordings available in an archive, Dykema knows of traditional congregations that have used Living Stream broadcasts on short notice.
“This is also a low access point,” she said. “For people who are slow to get into church, they can just watch and see. There’s not a lot of pressure to tell people your name or participate.
“I find I can proselytize Living Stream all day because it’s just, ‘Hey, tune in.’ But there’s a spiritual and emotional commitment to walk in the door of a brick-and-mortar church where you don’t know anybody.”
Over the past eight years the congregation has steadily grown. An average Sunday has 25 to 40 participants who tune in and about 100 view the recording.
One size doesn’t fit all
With increased interest due to coronavirus, recent services have grown even more. Every member of the pastoral team has been fielding phone calls and emails from other pastors.
Dykema recommends that churches thinking of starting online worship should not dive into high-end computer-processing.
“Zoom is fine. Facebook Live is fine. Especially for a smaller congregation,” she said. “Just be prepared for a lot of hand-holding, especially for people who aren’t tech-savvy.”
Eller decided to use a different approach for his Pennsylvania congregation than Living Stream because a basic online video meeting conference-call platform was more important than a polished worship service.
“Seeing the whites of each other’s eyes is more important for that congregation right now,” he said. “Worship is present and seeing, which adds to chaos with children running and people’s mics on without them knowing, but it’s a small price to pay for that kind of gathering.”
So no one is shut out
And while there are challenges facing churches questioning how to worship together during a pandemic, Eller believes when life gets back to normal it will be important to keep in mind lessons being learned now.
At Ambler Church of the Brethren, he and others were delighted when online worship resulted in some people showing up who hadn’t been around for years.
“My question for the church is going to be when the restrictions are lifted and we can return to church as we used to do it, is that shut-in going to be shut out or are we going to think about changing our paradigm to include those who we previously didn’t think about?” Eller asked.
Living Stream welcomes anyone interested to come and worship at 5 p.m. Pacific time at livingstreamcob.org. The church has also begun a prayer service at the same time on Wednesday evenings.
“You’re welcome to post in and chat,” Dykema said. “But we always have lurkers, and they are welcome too.”