Pastor Ned Lenhart of Living Water Lutheran Church in Cameron addresses a largely empty nave while broadcasting through multiple online sites. (Photo by Pat Kreitlow)
Pastor Ned Lenhart of Living Water Lutheran Church in Cameron addresses a largely empty nave while broadcasting through multiple online sites. (Photo by Pat Kreitlow)

Churches getting used to modern tools to deliver timeless messages

Some are seasoned veterans utilizing professional grade cameras, stage lighting and sharp graphics. Others had never done this before, as was apparent by low sound from distant microphones, makeshift settings on couches, or even an online apology that their live stream wasn’t working.

Regardless, the women, men, couples and groups who lead houses of worship made an effort to reach their congregations by creating a new form of electronic community necessitated by a pandemic. The pastors, priests and other worship leaders urged calm, encouraged peace, and reminded their members that by adhering to this strange and new mass isolation, there would again come a time to pray together, break bread, and share signs of peace.

A sample of the many opportunities for online worship including Pastors Kevin and Jolene Taylor from Journey Church in Kenosha (upper left), Pastor Scott Eastman from Life Church of Green Bay (upper right), the Rev. Oswald Bwechwa (l) and and the Rev. Seth Dietrich (r) of Christ Church Episcopal in Whitefish Bay (center left), Pastor Ned Lenhart of Living Water Lutheran Church in Cameron (center), Pastor Donna Rutten of Peace Lutheran Church in Poplar (center right), Pastor Larry Metterig of Osceola Community Church (lower left), Eagle Brook Church online (lower center), and Chad McCallum of Hayward Wesleyan Church (bottom right). (Screen captures by Pat Kreitlow)

In one of Wisconsin’s northernmost communities, Pastor Donna Rutten had been planning to mark exactly 50 years since Peace Lutheran Church in Poplar first opened its doors. Instead, from her pulpit came a greeting no one could have possibly imagined half a century ago.

“Good morning, and welcome to Peace Lutheran’s first Facebook Live,” she said at the start of a worship service that had some of the traditional elements. But there and elsewhere, the readings and prayers and preaching could not be accompanied by handshakes or choir members standing close together.

Even the churches that regularly use the internet were playing in new territory. Musicians were spaced far apart, a drummer well off stage right, the keyboardist stage left. Pastors Kevin and Jolene Taylor of Journey Church in Kenosha offered comfort and prayers while seated on a couch.

“We are really missing you in person,” Jolene said, “but I’m so glad we can be together this way. We hope moments like this will not only bring a break from the stress of the worries of the week but also encourage you and carry you through to another week.”

Kevin Taylor referenced the familiar story of Jesus calming the disciples when a storm tossed their boat. It was a parable one could find on live stream after live stream. Homilies continually came back to biblical references about the need to be courageous in the face of the uncertain.

At the Osceola Community Church, Pastor Larry Mederich asked his viewers to not be discouraged and to continue being part of a more virtual community through their Facebook and YouTube sites.

“This is how we’re going to be doing services for a little while, but this is what we’ve been dealt with and we are going to do the best we can,” he said seated next to a TV screen in a chair more likely to be found in a living room than near an altar.

There were admonitions not to make a stressful situation worse by embracing condemnation. 

“Rather than asking who to blame, we should be asking what can we do to help,” said Rev. Oswald Bwechwa of Christ Church Episcopal in Whitefish Bay. “Although we are separated by distance, we are united in the same spirit.”

“It would be so easy to take out our frustration and turn it into a litany of blame,” said Rev. Melodie Long of First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh. But blame, she said, “only feeds the darkness that weighs heavily on us,” when the better alternative is to be a spiritual source of light for one another. 

For the services being watched on Facebook Live, little hearts popped in and floated up the screen as each viewer pressed the “Like” button on their computer, phone or tablet. Comments posted alongside shared greetings, updates and prayer requests. Each congregant was making the best of their new electronic pews.

At online sites like Eagle Brook Church, even they acknowledged the need for “putting our heads together to figure out how to stay engaged.” 

Pastor Ned Lenhart conducts an online service from Living Waters Lutheran Church in Cameron.

In Cameron, Pastor Ned Lenhart stood in his usual spot, front and center, but the wide view from a webcam in the back of Living Water Lutheran Church showed the rows of empty seats representing the challenge that he and all worship leaders face in a time when congregations cannot congregate. Rather than wallowing in misery, he offered up prayers for the health care workers making sacrifices, prayers for the elderly and others whose loneliness may grow during this time, and prayers of gratitude “for the means to be together, even when we can’t be together.”

The band, socially distanced from one another, played a closing song, as did a piano player in some churches, organists in some churches, guitar players in many others.

And after a benediction or an invitation to join them at midweek or next week, the screens faded to black on some sites. On others, the pastor’s closing prayer was followed by an awkward silence before remembering to lean forward and hit “Stop” on the feed, a final few hearts still popping up to signal a togetherness woven through the solitude.