Local churches turn to tech to stay connected
Last updated 4/8/2020 at 1:42pm
As Christians throughout much of the nation look ahead to a homebound Easter Sunday, separated from their fellow worshippers by coronavirus-related restrictions, those in the Upper Blackfoot Valley will be able to stay connected to the churches through the internet.
Local churches have been streaming their services online for the past few weeks as a series of restrictions, which began with the March 16 Lewis and Clark Public Health order to close bars and restaurants and culminated with Montana Gov. Steve Bullock's stay at home order, increasingly limited gatherings and movement as part of the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Before Bullocks order went into effect March 28, ministers exercised a fair amount of freedom in how they stayed connected to their members.
The Blackfoot Valley Bible Church members met one-on-one or in small groups, and Pastor Art McCafferty and his wife Connie delivered casseroles and necessities to the older members of their church who lived alone. Pastor Marshall Visger with the Lincoln Baptist Church made efforts to visit people, or to call them if they were sick, and church members were able to get together for small-group worship.
"As far as the Congregation not meeting as a whole, my concerns are small and my hopes are high," Visger said at the time. "I've been encouraging the folks to reach out to each other and be uplifting. We have a great group of folks who care for each other and the community. I know they will show great examples of love and kindness."
The governor's order may have taken a toll on what little direct contact church-goers were able to maintain, but the earlier closures set the churches up to keep spreading the good word as they turned to live streams for services.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena, which includes Lincoln's St Jude and Helmville's St. Thomas Catholic Churches, was prepared earlier on than most, perhaps due in part to the COVID-19 impact in Italy. They began livestreaming Mass at the Cathedral of St. Helena on March 14. The practice gained additional importance after the diocese suspended public Masses and gatherings March 17. Their videos can be found at diocesehelena.org/video-and-livestream or on YouTube at youtube.com/dioceseofhelena.
The Rev. Jeff Fleming, who ministers to the two area Catholic churches, said he has been trying to keep in touch with his parishioners through e-mails and phone calls.
"I've reached out to them through a number of means we have, to tell them if they need anything to let me know," he said. "I've also asked everyone to keep an eye out for those who are isolated or who may need some extra help."
Visger began posting sermons on the church's Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/lincolnmtbaptistchurch/, Sunday March 22. Likewise, Pastor Art McCafferty worked with Shane Brown shortly after the order closed churches and got set up for the Blackfoot Valley Bible Church's first Facebook Live steam March 22 at https://www.facebook.com/arthur.mccafferty
Dave Carroll of the Community Bible Church of Lincoln, whose congregation opted to forego gatherings of any size early on due to the age of most church members, put Facebook's livestreaming technology to use for his first live-streamed service March 29 at http://www.facebookcom/davecarroll.
So far the responses to streaming the church services seem to be favorable.
"Even though we had some hilarious moments in getting our live-stream going, the positive response from around America, and even internationally, was surprising," the McCafferty's told the BVD. "Many asked us to 'keep streaming all year long.' So, we are planning to do that."
Likewise, The Community Bible Church sees the use of the technology continuing beyond the pandemic.
"I think that is something we should continue doing." Carroll told the BVD. "I am not the best techie person, but have wanted to get a website and try to use technology to minister to people. It is big. I record my sermons on audio and need a forum to get them accessible to people. With the demographics of Montana, older folks, dispersed, etc. it seems that having an online option just makes sense."
There isn't much concern that streaming services might impact physical attendance at regular church services, once they can begin again, because most regular church goers are committed to gathering together in corporate worship.
"Being a healthy follower of Christ leads itself to body life (church life), and not just our church but other churches," Visger explained, adding there are some good churches in Lincoln. "Choices reveal the heart. This hopefully will provide folks ways to connect who otherwise cannot due to circumstances."
With the anticipated extension of Bullocks' stay-at home order, originally slated to expire April 10, it seems likely that churches may have to rely on the internet for a while longer, barring a miracle.