It was on February 25 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that organizations make contingency plans in case of COVID-19-related shutdowns. That same day, Northern New England Conference leaders began to draw up plans, but in doing so, they were faced not only with large knowledge gaps, but also with a lack of organizational experience in critical areas. They could anticipate the possibility of suspending church services—that was obvious from a quick research of the 1918 Spanish Flu—but how could they then effectively deliver spiritual support services to members and the community?
Social media platforms were the obvious answer, and the conference immediately set about laying the groundwork for implementing their use. “Our conference membership skews toward older members who are less adept at technology, so we hadn’t been a leader in using social media platforms,” said Ted Huskins, interim president of the conference. “Still, we adopted a war footing and pressed for the rapid adoption of digital delivery. Our pastors started pulling their congregations together using Facebook livestream, Zoom, or conference calls. They soon discovered that the resource they really needed—a 17-year-old with a smartphone—was pretty much available to them.
“But while we were pivoting to digital delivery for members, there was the dawning realization that we were seeing a much deeper, much more important thing happening—a paradigm shift, some would call it. We realized that people wanted to hear what we were saying—that they were actually searching the Web for our message. Maybe the reason we didn’t immediately realize that was because this conference had spent generations taking an oblique approach to our message. We’d tried cooking classes, health classes, and community service as methods for trying to get people to listen to the message of salvation. Then, suddenly, we found we didn’t need any filters; people actually wanted to know what was in the Bible, and, frankly, that was a bit of a shock.”
The shock wore off quickly and was replaced with a sense of urgency and an attitude of market research. Pastors and Bible workers were encouraged to make a short video for Facebook or Instagram, offering to study the Bible or pray with anyone who desired prayer. The videos ran as paid ads. Production values varied—some had graphics and titles, while others simply made a video of themselves in their living rooms. But almost immediately it was obvious that at least some of the ads were working well.
As more and more pastors started live streaming their services, some started experimenting with ways to increase community viewers. A good example might be Leon Twitchell, who pastors the Oxford church in western Maine. Twitchell is a bi-vocational pastor who, as a rough-cut carpenter part of the week, connects well with members of his community. He is, or at least was, something of a technology holdout, and resisted getting a smartphone until about a year ago. When he was faced with the challenge of ministering to his congregation remotely, he was initially flummoxed by the unfamiliar technology platforms and the steepness of his learning curve. But Twitchell summoned his western-Maine grit and enlisted the help of his wife and late-teens daughter and soon was using Zoom for prayer meetings and church.
He was elated to find that virtual attendance for both services was higher than for in-person services, and he branched out to posting his sermons on YouTube, garnering a still larger audience. Twitchell then experimented with video recording sermons from his very rustic basement and posting them to Facebook. His rapid adoption of digital platforms and reaching into the community with messages of courage and hope will have lasting impacts.
Another example is Peter Flores, a pioneering “digital missionary” and church planter working for the conference. Flores usually makes short videos with a spiritual theme, and gets assistance in making them from a group of technically-adept, spiritual-seeker community volunteers. “My objective is to reach a digital audience, but I usually end up having the most meaningful conversations with my volunteer crew. However, while we’re all isolating, I haven’t been able to get together with them.” Flores pivoted and put his energy into producing more online content, including video recording a straight-up offer to give Bible studies. The response was extremely encouraging and Flores rapidly started Bible studies via face-to-face apps. He was also able to channel his creative energies into some ambitiously-large video projects that take a novel approach to explaining some aspects of the war between Christ and Satan.
A final example is the conference Facebook page, where outgoing president Bob Cundiff and interim president Ted Huskins gave Sabbath School lessons and sermons in the early days of the shutdown, giving those members whose churches did not immediately go digital a place where they could join in with Sabbath celebrations. In starting the livestreams, both Cundiff and Huskins had low expectations. But when the first livestream garnered over 1,000 views on the day it was broadcast, their appreciation for the power of the platform mushroomed.
“We’re going to come out of this forever changed,” said Huskins. “And that’s a good thing. Our pastoral team and our Bible workers are now engaging their communities through platforms that previously saw little use. When we come out of this pestilence, we’ll keep using social media platforms aggressively to proclaim Christ. And maybe we’ll be able to come up with some creative approaches that impress the teenagers who helped us make our rapid pivot. Or better yet, maybe those teenagers will start producing content and become our next generation of missionaries!”