On June 7, the church accepted seven new people into membership during a Zoom meeting with the congregation.
The joining service was just one example of the ways in which First Churches is adapting to the pandemic and the suspension of in-person services. In addition to worshiping online, the congregation has been involved in book discussions, evening vespers, centering daily prayer, after-worship coffee hour, a young adult group and a Bible study. In total, the church is averaging almost 2 online events per day.
For Buteux and Weir, the online programming has been a challenge of adapting in order to keep people engaged.
"How do you take the medium and make it feel like there is energy and connection?" asked Buteux.
Buteux says it's about thinking through the visual. For example, during a prayer, the participants were asked to rub their hands together and then hold them out. The effect was a group of people all holding their hands out to each other. During a passing of the peace, the co-pastor invites each worshiper to greet anyone who is with them as they watch the worship.
Another adaptation is connecting with new faces. Buteux says the two pastors are intentional about looking for unfamiliar names during any of the online programs. The two reach out to these new people afterward and start a conversation.
The adaptations and efforts to create connections seem to be working. Buteux and Weir have seen an increase in participation from some congregants who may not have been as involved in person. Weir calls Zoom the "great leveler" because he sees brand new people becoming the core of events. Folks who were involved in only one aspect of church life are leading in prayers or doing readings, and simply being more vocal than they were before. In fact, five new people have joined the church council recently. And Weir and Buteux feel that they are able to connect with more people online that they could in person when they would often find their time dominated by only a few worshipers after church. They are also seeing more participation from those congregants who were in situations that made it difficult to attend in-person activities.
Feedback from parishioners and increased participation are not the only signs that online engagement is growing. A recent stewardship campaign raised more money than ever before, showing an increase in generosity throughout the congregation. The co-pastors also have seen a number of people joining activities who would not attend in person. Weir says some people feel more comfortable joining online and are even willing to speak to others when they would not be willing in person. Buteux shared an example of a father she had invited to worship years ago who never came to the church. Now he is participating in online activities.
Weir and Buteux expect to continue with their online programs in the future, even as in-person services and events become more possible.
Drew Page is the Media and Data Manager for the Southern New England Conference, and a member of the Conference's Communications Team. He writes and edits news, blogs, and devotionals, produces video, and spends a week each summer as a Dean at Silver...