“Call to Worship” has a whole new meaning for two congregations in West Virginia these days. Because of the outbreak of the coronavirus, both Highlawn Presbyterian Church in Saint Albans and Saint Andrew Presbyterian Church in Pinch are using simple phone technology to keep the congregations connected on Sunday mornings. The churches, both of which are pastored by Nancy Didway, are located about 23 miles apart and are now regularly worshiping together for the first time.
“In the liturgy we looked at the Valley of the Dry Bones and the resurrection of Lazarus,” Nancy said, recalling the March 29 phone-in service. “We talked about how Ezekiel was brought there by the Spirit and then told to prophesy. And by prophesying the bones that were dry came up and lived. We talked about how people say churches are dying but, here we are, we’re closing our doors and we’re not dying. We’re actually finding out that the doors are irrelevant, that we can worship outside the walls of the church and in our homes.”
The experiment began on March 22 after people were encouraged to maintain “social distancing” by staying six feet apart and were also asked to not gather in groups of more than 10 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. This mandate has caused many congregations to search for online alternatives to hold their worship services and meetings. While video platforms like Zoom, Facebook Live and YouTube have become popular options for churches to use to meet their needs during this unique time, Nancy opted for a more tried-and-true option to keep her congregations connected.
“We wanted to use the lowest common denominator of technology,” Nancy explained, “since the majority of our people do not have internet access – and even the ones who do have internet access could be a little intimidated by joining online.”
Nancy found that GoToMeeting is offering a free, 90-day subscription to churches as well as educational and medical organizations during this pandemic. A $250 value, this program provides churches with a phone number and a meeting ID that worshipers can use to listen to the week’s service.
Normally, Nancy will deliver a 9:30 a.m. service on Sunday morning at Saint Andrew, then make the 30-minute drive to Highlawn Church for its 11:30 worship. Both congregations average about 35 people in attendance. With the phone-in service occurring in the middle of those two regular meeting times at 10:30 a.m., the first week there were 47 calls, which Nancy estimated included about 71 people. The second week, as word spread about the worship, there were 55 calls and roughly 83 people listening in.
“I’m very pleased,” Nancy said. “We have people who are normally not able to attend worship calling in and are really enjoying it, too. They’re shut-ins with health issues who can’t get out to church on Sunday mornings, or it’s just physically difficult for them to sit in the pew for that hour. This has become a nice option for them and we’re looking into the possibility of doing this ongoing.”
Nancy has been serving the Highlawn Church for nine years but only started at Saint Andrew in January. Because of the distance between the Saint Andrew and Highlawn churches, the two congregations rarely gather together for a Sunday morning service or any other kind of gathering. By having a service that has leaders from both congregations involved in the service and includes worshipers from the two churches, the two can be connected like never before.
In nearby Elkins where the church has turned to YouTube to broadcast its services, due to the remote nature of the area and inconsistent online signal strength, some of those worshipers have also elected to call in to hear Nancy preach her sermon on Sunday mornings.
“You don’t get the feel of worship like you do if you go to church, but from what I’ve heard from other people, it’s more personal than hearing it on TV,” Nancy said. “It’s the people you know and the familiar order of worship from your own personal church.
“The people like the phone because they are more comfortable with the technology. They just don’t feel comfortable sitting there watching the video. They feel like they are just watching TV, whereas on the phone it’s something personal to them. That’s my older folks. It does not appeal to younger folks at all.”
Nancy admitted that there are some drawbacks to using the phone-in option for worship. Unlike with some video conferencing systems like Zoom, the phone does not allow for people to speak prior to or during the service.
“You lose the ability for people to interact and respond,” she said. “For responsive reading, we have two liturgists – one person who does the ‘leader’ part and the other person who does the ‘people’ part – because we can’t have everyone speaking the people part at the same time on the mic.”
Nancy is planning to experiment with opening up the mic going forward so that people can offer prayer requests before the service. Music has been the other main challenge for Nancy as the sound of the piano does not always project clearly into the phone. Because voices have been broadcasting well, Nancy is planning to have someone sing acapella as a way of getting music into the service.
Aside from the “Call to Worship” Sunday morning services, the elders and deacons of the Saint Andrew and Highlawn congregations are calling their members weekly to check in with them and remind them about the Sunday phone-in service. The worshipers also weekly receive – by email or regular mail – the bulletin for the worship so they can follow along with the order of the service.
“We’re really reaching out and wanting to have that connectivity so that when church does come back people don’t say, ‘Well, I did fine for five weeks without it, I might as well sleep in on a Sunday,’” Nancy said. “We want people to know that we’re praying for them and we’re connected to them.”
The “Call to Worship” services are being taped, and for one situation where a person isn’t able to make the long-distance phone call to access the GoToMeeting broadcast, the worship is recorded onto a CD and sent to her by mail. It’s all part of a new outreach at Highlawn and Saint Andrew churches that had never been available before but is now due to a unique situation that has overtaken the world.
“Maybe God has brought us to this Valley of Dry Bones,” Nancy said, “which is this COVID virus, so that we could prophesy, so we could speak out for what God is doing, and thereby re-animate those bones through the power of God and spread the word.
“People are starting to invite their neighbors. I see this as a beginning. God’s doing something here. He’s showing the churches that we can join in together and we can worship outside the walls and bring more people in. I’m excited by this ministry, which you would think would be so depressing (because of the circumstances). It’s been an amazing couple of weeks.”