It is well documented that church attendance is decreasing around the country. This was an issue prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus, and the pandemic has made it even harder for many congregations to connect with their parishioners.
However, First Presbyterian Church of Allentown, PA, has seemingly thrived during the past 12 months, offering many online opportunities to its congregation to keep everyone connected.
“There’s a lot of blessings that we’ve been able to find even in this virtual world,” said Jan Nolting Carter, the transitional pastor at First Allentown. “And while everyone’s yearning to be back together, to hug one another and to have conversations face-to-face, I think there’s been a lot of ways that we have nurtured our community even as we have been distant.”
These efforts have helped maintain energy within the First Allentown congregation during this unique time and has even paved the way for a large class of new members. On Easter Sunday, 14 people were formally introduced as the latest to join the church. They had officially become members during an online session meeting two weeks prior. That act in March was recorded and replayed during the Sunday morning worship service on April 4, which was also held online.
“That’s an ancient tradition,” Jan noted, “to do baptism and welcome new members on Easter Sunday, so it seemed appropriate for us.”
Fourteen is a large number of new members for a church at any time, let alone during a pandemic. Add in the fact that Jan has only been the transitional pastor since October, and that only adds to the impressiveness of this class.
“It’s a blessing,” Jan said. “This is a group of people that are really excited about joining the church and are committed to integrating themselves even further into the life of the church. It’s clearly the work of the Spirit. We’ve worked really hard to be connecting during this time of distance and it’s been valuable.”
Jan added that the new member classes themselves have been incredibly important. Director of Adult Faith Formation and Connections Pam Weiss and elder Janine Santoro used a “flipped classroom model” where the information is available for viewing before they discuss the material. First Allentown distributed resources like church life videos to the in-coming members to view prior to their online classes.
“We were able to offer them access to more information than if we had three one-hour classes where there wasn’t any of that,” Jan said.
The new members came from 10 different family units and ranged in age from their early 30s into their early 70s. Most had been attending the church prior to the pandemic and were able to stay connected thanks to First Allentown’s online presence.
“There are a couple individuals who have been worshiping with us because their church had closed,” Jan explained. “There are a handful of people who are worshiping with us and joining the church because they are starting their families.
“There are a few among them that had only visited in-person a couple times. In a lot of ways our virtual experience solidified their commitment.”
Jan credits the church’s online presence as one of the main reasons for this large class of new members. Like most congregations in the Synod of the Trinity region, in-person worship stopped in mid-March in 2020, leaving church leaders scrambling to find online alternatives to broadcast their messages. Since that time, First Allentown has been almost exclusively online, except for a couple outdoor services in the fall.
“We have a deep commitment to offering in worship as many different voices as possible,” Jan said. “We are very intentional about including a lot of community members in the way we put together our worship.”
First Allentown pre-records its services, which has several positives and negatives to go along with it. It does allow for worship to take place at different venues, something that has been powerful for the congregation.
“We have made a commitment to taking our congregation to different places,” Jan explained. “We have recorded our videos at places where we do mission, at different places in the building, around town. That’s the pastoral leadership.
“Then we have included multiple voices in everything from the Call to Worship to reading scripture to sharing stories in different ways. In that sense, it’s truly the work of the people. Our liturgy is lots of different voices. The feedback we have received is that a number of people really, really appreciate that. For the season that we are in, they like the innovation of that.”
Because “Zoom burnout” is a real thing, First Allentown makes sure that its online small-group ministries are engaging and have different elements associated with them.
“I think there’s a unique opportunity with Zoom to be close in terms of being able to see someone’s face,” Jan added. “There’s an interesting thing that happens with the screen that it’s a kind of protection. There’s a greater sense of possibility of vulnerability that is very different than when they are meeting in a room together.
“One of the things we have found in the small-group ministry is that there has been a deepening of many relationships. It has been a real blessing, and some of the people who are new members have been a part of that.”
This is just one outreach First Allentown provides online. Since the pandemic started, Associate Pastor for Youth and Faith Formation Taylor Hall has coordinated daily prayer services offered on Facebook. It started with First Allentown’s pastor and program staff leading the services and now has grown to the point where they are offered by members and friends of the congregation.
“There have been a number of different prompts, but the most moving I think has been the Lenten one,” Jan said. “It was a 40-day series of spiritual micro-practices. The instruction for the people has been to do the micro-practice in advance of your recording and then the recording is a reflection of how it worked for them and how that drew them closer to God. It’s just been stunning.”
Clearly, First Allentown’s online presence has been crucial in keeping the congregation – whether it be new members or those who have been a part of the church for several decades – connected during the pandemic.
“God has been present in so many ways in this pandemic,” Jan concluded. “In some ways, we need to see it as a blessing and a learning experience. There are so many ways that God is at work, offering us new ways to connect with one another, offering ways to deepen our relationship, not only with one another, but with God. I think this is all movement of the Spirit.
“Cultivating that spirit of flexibility has been a real gift for all of us during this and it has given us ways to be closer and more connected as a church.”