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10 Low-Cost (or FREE) Ways to Be A Virtual Church In A Time of Self-Isolation

We have been asked to stay home. The coronavirus (COVID-19) is a pandemic that is circling the globe quickly, and – around the world – there have been many deaths already (for some Canada-specific stats, click here). What does this mean for our church gatherings that are being suspended? If gathering weekly is our most public witness, and our most regular form of connecting, what do we do when we can’t go out? Most people are on the internet, these days. Many churches have websites, engage some form of social media, and some already stream their services. There are ways to connect online. Even the smallest church-body can make use of these services without breaking the bank. Here are a number of little-or-no-cost means of connecting via the world wide web! This is meant for those who are thinking, “where do I even begin?” (Disclaimer: if you have some basic internet skills, these suggestions are probably not new. This is an attempt to draw together in one place a number of things churches have been trying in recent years, and to offer them as churches scramble today.)

1) Website. This is perhaps the most basic, but also the most daunting. What is your congregational website for? (Will you use it as a static place with contact info and service-times, or will you be updating it regularly with meditations, and perhaps other media from around your church?) Will it be primarily for your membership, or is it for new people to learn about you for the first time? In a time of isolation, how will it be used? Generally, websites are respositories of information. Here is a helpful list of website builders, if you’re starting from scratch. (If that is overwhelming, I’d point you to Wix – it’s fairly easy to use, and can make a splashy website.) Note that you’ll probably want to spend the money on a domain name and hosting. Most online website builders, these days, make things “mobile ready,” but you might double-check that whatever you use does that – it means that the look of the screen adjusts for smart-phones and tablets, which is desirable.

2) Email blasts. Many churches collect email addresses along with mailing (or “snail mail”) addresses, these days, in their directories. Many will simply use their email program for sending out emails from the church. You may look into an online mass mailing software – it can make what you send easier to read, more fun to navigate, and generally more appealing (and, once you are using it, much easier to use than your email program). Perhaps the most popular online program for this is MailChimp.

3) Facebook. Understand the difference between a page and a group. There are other social media platforms, but Facebook tends to be the one that will be used by your parishoners the most (and has higher age-ranges using it). You will likely want to have a page for your congregation: among other things, it will allow you to use “Facebook live” (see #5, below) and to make your congregation visible to those who don’t have Facebook accounts. (A nod to the United Church of Canada, here, who started Wondercafe around the same time that Facebook broke through as the major social network – it was an early means of getting churches to connect online.)

4) Online offering. I think it’s fair to say that many churches have shied away from anything to do with money online – perhaps that’s prudent. It usually costs a percentage of the donation, or some flat fee that can feel like our offerings are being gouged. However, I’ve heard it said that “we’d rather have 90% of an offering than no offering at all.” And, in these days where people aren’t in church every Sunday, perhaps online offering is something to consider seriously. And, in a time of self-isolation, who is passing the plate? For Canadian charities, the most straight-forward, easy-to-set-up online donation site is CanadaHelps. If you have a charitable number, you can use that site.

5) Streaming live. Consider how you do this! Many churches are jumping to the “we are offering services live,” but in a time of isolation, what if the service amounts to the minister standing at the front alone? Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. (Maybe an edited video is your better option…? See #7) In normal circumstances, a live-streamed worship service (with members in the congregation who will participate in things like the singing of hymns and the Eucharist) is a lovely way to connect with parishoners and guests who can’t be there in-person. With a Facebook page, Facebook live is a quick and easy solution (can be done with minimal equipment: a smartphone is enough!). Here are some other online tools to get going (setting up an account, and possible subscription rates, will likely apply). Most of these streaming sites will stream live, and then archive your video, these days – which is cool!

6) Gathering by video conference. Perhaps you are doing a Bible Study? Perhaps you are running an event where you invite some back-and-forth between presenter and those attending. Committee meeting? This differs from a live-stream in some small ways. A stream is basically a video-broadcast (like a live TV show). A video-conference invites responses, sometimes in a chat-box or sometimes so that audio and video are used. So it is a conversation. You might be familiar with Skype, which requires users to have accounts. An easy-to-use online program for video conferencing is Zoom (the free version allows up to 100 people to gather at once for a meeting of up to 40 minutes). **UPDATE** Some are saying Zoom is not very secure; know your options with the program. Another free option is Jitsi.

7) Creating and sharing videos. This is where I would point people in place of streaming a service. My preference (which may not be yours) is to create something that may be shorter in length, but produced better – taking a bit of time to script, record, and edit something. If you use a Mac, iMovie is easy to use for assembling still photos with audio, or editing video footage (though it takes some time to learn). Windows has its own movie maker programs. There are open source ones available, too. Setting up a YouTube channel (like this one) is as easy as having an email address; in fact, if you have a gmail address, YouTube is ready-to-go.

8) A blog is a condensed word from “web-log” – it’s a place to put the written word online! WordPress is a popular platform that began as a place for people to post blogs, and turned into a place where people built their websites (like the one you’re checking out now – sort of “part-blog, part-website”). Here are a few others possibilities. Perhaps the pastor of your church will write reflections that can go on a blog for devotional purposes during this time of isolation.

9) Online cloud storage – once you start uploading things to the internet, where is it going to be stored? Perhaps you have digital files you want to share with members of your parish.� These may be printable pdf or doc files, or some jpg picture files, or audio mp3 files, or even video mp4 files. You may want to have people download these and use them at home. An online cloud storage server is useful, here. Google Drive is easy and free to set up (and, like YouTube, if you have a gmail address, you already have it at your fingertips!). Box works well, too, and is being used by more and more churches. Most cloud storage is free for the first few gigabytes, but then a subscription rate kicks in once you exceed that amount (which may not happen if you’re only storing documents and pictures; it’s audio and video that adds up!).

10) QR codes. I don’t deny: this is not the “newest” form of communicating online, but in contexts where paper is still a regular medium of sharing the word – as it is in churches, still – QR codes are quick and easy for those with smartphones to find your website link. It saves having to type out a big long name that often includes a confusing list of numbers and letters! QR codes can be generated for free at sites like this one.

Bonus for the keeners… Podcasting! Do you have ideas to share in a radio-show format? Maybe this is the way to do it!

This list is not exhaustive, but it is meant to help with what may feel like an overwhelming task ahead of us in a situation with significant added pressures! And you might find you have capable people in your midst who are willing to spear-head different parts of your congregation’s online presence! Email or text a young person and invite their involvement! No need to dive into all at once. Poll your membership, find out their needs, and go from there! One note: the web-presence described in the suggestions, above, works well for a public presence. Pastoral care with individuals would need to be navigated differently.

Peace be with you!

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