These days, every church is looking for ways to connect their congregation in a time when things like “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” have become part of our everyday vocabulary due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus in the United States. Second Presbyterian Church in Carlisle, PA, is no different.
Rev. Jeff Gibelius and his staff have been constantly seeking ways to keep worshipers connected. A livestream of the church’s Sunday morning worship service through its website and Facebook account was just the start. There are daily messages and meetings held using Zoom video conferencing, a program a lot of churches, businesses and schools are turning to these days. But it doesn’t stop there.
Jeff wanted other ways to keep his congregation together. He also held a Saturday bingo night, and it was done virtually using Zoom through an email invitation. The church is planning to piggyback on the success of that event by having a trivia night using similar technology during these times when people are urged to stay at home.
“We’re moving our Bible studies to a Zoom format,” Jeff explained. “Our goal is to have one daily Zoom offering for each day of the week so that people can participate and connect that way.
“One of the things we had to do very early on was to think about what is worship? The key element for our congregation, and I think for many Presbyterian congregations, is there is an element of being gathered together. We were receiving a lot of pressure to simply stream something online, just get up and preach to a camera with no congregation and no interaction. What we realized is that’s not the essence of worship for Presbyterians. It’s the people of God together and the Spirit moving among them.”
It caused Jeff and his staff to have to rethink how to do online worship. For the Maundy Thursday worship service, Second Presbyterian will use Zoom to bring everyone together because this program allows for up to 100 people to join in and also has the capability to have people who are logged in do the readings for everyone else to hear.
Second Presbyterian is also planning a drive-in worship service on Sunday mornings going forward. While this type of service will still be available by livestream online, it also allows for families to park in the church parking lot (which can accommodate more than 100 vehicles) and tune to an FM radio station in their cars to hear the service. The people will park facing the building and be able to see Jeff and his staff perform the worship.
“People want to gather safely,” Jeff said. “There’s power in that. Where I’m experiencing God’s power is in the creativity that’s being opened up and the new resources.”
Jeff has invited the local African American church and nearby Muslim mosque to use Second Church’s equipment to host their own online services or join the congregation for its drive-in style worship services that will most likely stretch into Palm Sunday and probably even Easter.
“It’s conceivable that this technological solution that we’ve come up with will end up serving multiple Christian congregations as well as congregations of other faiths,” Jeff said. “There are people working together now at a level that we wouldn’t have had just a few months ago.
“This crisis is enabling some people who really weren’t online extensively before to do much more. Many are using Zoom for the first time and are realizing they have a camera on their laptop for the first time.”
Technology allowed Second Presbyterian to hold its first online bingo event, complete with virtual prizes that included a used tennis ball, a can of Mountain Dew, a log and a roll of toilet paper, which has become a coveted item in recent weeks. The church had held one bingo night in the fall, so this was a chance to gather worshipers again for a light-hearted event in a time when a distraction of this kind is welcomed. The hour-long event drew about 30 people – just a handful less than had turned out in the fall – ranging in ages from 7 to 87.
Played using the honor system, people either made their own bingo cards or downloaded one from the internet. After each game, the winner chose either “right” or “left,” and that determined which costume Jeff, the host, was going to wear for the next game. Outfits ranged from Mardi Gras themed garb to an Elsa outfit from the “Frozen” movies.
“We’re planning to continue it,” Jeff said. “It gets different generations together, and it’s good to just plain laugh.”
The night concluded with a sharing of concerns and prayers for loved ones and community members. It’s all part of a future of church that many knew was possible, that congregations weren’t quite ready to dig into but now, because of the coronavirus, must.
“I believe (how this present crisis impacts the future church) is in our hands,” Jeff said. “How well does the church rise to the occasion? If you’re a small church and you pride yourself on family connectedness and caring for each other, this is a time to shine, people. Make those phone calls, prove your worth, prove who you are.
“If you’re a big church with lots of resources, for goodness sake, mobilize them for the good of the community. Not just your own congregation, but for the welfare of the community. How this impacts the church six weeks or six months from now, I think it depends on how well did we responded to the crisis each day?
“I feel this is a chance for churches to really shine, to do what we do best, caring for each other, caring for the caregivers, offering hope and inspiration. This is definitely a crisis. It is also an opportunity to shine. People have been complaining that folks see the church as irrelevant. This is a time to show our relevance.”