Two sides to COVID coin for online church services
Some grateful for uptick in viewership, others see congregation decline
Head of the New Covenant Bible Chapel in Portmore, St Catherine, the Reverend Lloyd Millen is quite upbeat about the anticipated relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions to allow more worshippers to gather. They also allow for more services and more spiritual outreach initiatives come July 1.
In addition to longer days, places of worship have had the limit of 50 members moved to 70 per cent capacity to conduct services.
Millen admitted that the Church, especially in relation to attendance, has been significantly affected by COVID-19 for more than a year now.
“Following the first case in Jamaica [in March 2020], I took the decision, along with my leaders, to not have face-to-face [services] because we didn’t know what risk we would be putting our people at. We only restarted face-to-face when the Government issued the order that 30 people could gather,” Millen said.
He told The Gleaner that despite services being streamed during the period, the year-long closure of the church doors has resulted in the disengagement of a substantial portion of his congregation.
“It has significantly affected my youth population, so from that time until now, I think I only have three of my youth who will come on to church almost every Sunday, but the vast majority has not been out,” he said. “My congregation is made up predominantly of middle-age to elderly members and about 25 to 30 youngsters, and of that number, only three have been consistent ... . The others don’t come, or regularly. About 25 per cent would be consistent online. The others skip and jump from time to time.
HOPE FOR NEW BELIEVERS
Millen is hoping that the new breathing room will allow the church to bring in more worshippers.
“One of the positive impacts of going online is that we have been able to reconnect with some of our members in the diaspora, and now that we are afforded more time during the week, we are trusting that we will be able to pull the youth back together, start their youth meetings again that usually take place on a Friday evening, and once they start reassembling for fellowship, I think that will also impact their coming out on a Sunday as well, and inviting their peers to join,” he said.
As Reverend Millen tackles a retention strategy for his younger congregation, Courtney Morrison, senior pastor of the Fellowship Tabernacle, also in Portmore, shared that while the physical outreach arm of the church may have been negatively impacted, the evangelistic ministry has been thriving.
“There are two sides to the coin. There is an increased viewership for many churches online in terms of evangelical approach. They are having a wider reach, not just local attention,” he said. “The outreach arm, where you would visit homes to tend to persons and bring physical stuff, has been limited, but in terms of souls being saved and evangelical outreach, a lot of churches have reported an increase in persons making salvation decisions.”
Morrison noted that the presentation of online services plays a vital role in commanding and keeping the attention of the younger generation.
“One of the greatest things that has happened is to teach us as leaders to limit our time to the essential. Nobody wants to watch a four-hour programme, so we are now doing what is pointed and essential,” he said. “Many churches have pulled persons through online platforms, yet there is a downside for churches who are still traditional, not tech-savvy, and believe that they have to do face-to-face [services]. The downside is that they may have lost that personal touch, which nothing can truly replace.”
Noting that while he is grateful for the new developments, the Portmore pastor admitted that he is excited by the opportunities for mass salvation presented by the electronic modality.
“The Church wasn’t closed down during COVID. It was deployed. The Church has expanded because every home now had to have home church, and I think that is fantastic. Evangelism became deployed. We weren’t having crusades and tent meetings, but we were on Zoom and social media. We now have a wider reach, and traditional pastors need to see that going online has presented an advantage unto us if we properly manage this evangelical thrust.”
Morrison said that usually, his church building could not hold more than 150 members, but through streaming, they have been seeing viewership of more than 300 and 400 at any one time.
“We have seen a reorganising and reconstructing of how we do church, and for me, it has been exciting,” he said.