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Innovative churches worship despite blizzard


5:30 P.M. EST Mar. 3, 2010 | BALTIMORE (UMNS)

A shoveled walkway to
 the parsonage gives a “rabbit's eye view” of Trinity United Methodist 
Church in Catlett, Va., after a recent storm. </br>A UMNS photo 
courtesy of Stephen Little, flickr Commons.
A shoveled walkway to the parsonage gives a “rabbit's eye view” of Trinity United Methodist Church in Catlett, Va., after a recent storm. A UMNS photo courtesy of Stephen Little, flickr Commons.
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It’s said that “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” will keep mail carriers from completing their rounds. Apparently, recent record snowfall didn’t prevent some United Methodist pastors in Maryland from completing their sermons.

Thanks to high-tech innovations like webcasting and social media — and simpler options like conference calls — some clergy in the Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference conducted Sunday services in blizzard conditions.

On Sunday, Feb. 7, when almost all churches in the state were closed because of snow, the Rev. Ramon McDonald of Mount Oak Fellowship United Methodist Church in Mitchellville, Md., delivered his sermon, "Focus on Jesus," from the comfort of his home. More than 100 people were a part of the service, but they didn't challenge the winter elements and drive to McDonald's house. They simply picked up their phone or turned on their computer.

Using his home computer and a video camera, McDonald broadcast his church service on www.ustream.tv, a site recommended by his youth pastor. The site also allowed him to download popular Christian music videos from YouTube. He made sure to download videos that included the lyrics so people could sing along.

"One of our primary goals is to provide people a place to worship," McDonald said. "Worship is an integral part of someone's week. I have to provide an avenue for that. This is particularly important for our elderly and shut-ins."

Virtual Worship

The virtual worship experience gained traction last December, the Sunday before Christmas, when the Rev. Chris Owens of First United Methodist Church in Laurel, Md., held church via teleconference, using a product through Freeconference.com.

"I have reached so many people,” Owens said. “A few people from as far away as North Carolina have participated, as well as some who are not Christians.

"I think for many people, especially the non-Christians, this is a safe and nonthreatening way to check things out, as far as what we do and what we're about," he added. "I'm not sure if they will ultimately come to our church or not. But it's a good start, and it's an avenue that we didn't have before."

The Rev. Rachel Cornwell of Silver Spring (Md.) Cooperative Parish conducted the Feb. 7 service via conference call. Her director of music played piano over the speakerphone. Hymns, Bible studies and prayer concerns also were voiced. A church member vacationing in Utah and a member who relocated to Panama also joined in.

"Many of the elderly who would have been homebound, regardless of the snowstorm, were very appreciative and would like us to consider doing this on a more regular basis," she said.

Cornwell added that she wasn't able to collect tithes and offerings, but online giving may be a way to address that in the future. The pastors primarily used their Facebook and Twitter pages to promote the virtual services, and others started to post the virtual church services on their own social media pages. Pastors e-mailed people who did not have Facebook.

"It really took off when I created a Facebook event," Owens said. "People were posting it on their pages and it just gained momentum. People saw the service as a great way to stay connected when they couldn't get out."

"If I would have held the service at church (Feb. 7) like I did in the storm before Christmas, we might have reached 50 to 60 people," McDonald said. "I reached many more people than I anticipated. It shows that worship is a large part of their spiritual journey."

*Lane is communications director of the Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference. A version of this article originally appeared in UMConnection, the conference’s newspaper.

News media contact: Joey Butler, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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