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Efforts aimed at flattening the novel coronavirus infection curve have prompted churches around the world to cease meeting in buildings. First Assembly North Little Rock in Arkansas had long been prepared for such a time as this.

Parker Loy, First NLR’s online pastor and the son of lead pastor Rod Loy, already oversaw the internet presence of the church that has 11 physical campuses. Additionally, Parker Loy and his assistant, JT Espejo, had taught other churches how to use technology at hand to reach those beyond the walls on Sunday morning.

Loy remains convinced that no matter the size of a church, the internet can be utilized to reach those both inside and outside the existing flock. Anybody’s smartphone can broadcast and view sermons through platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, he says.

Social media already connects 2.65 billion of the planet’s 7.8 billion people. Using social media such as Twitter and Instagram, anybody can share links to a church’s worship services, even during shelter in place, whether the pastor and worship team remain at home or are on stage in an empty auditorium.

A church doesn’t even need to take out advertisements to get the Word out. Loy encourages churchgoers to use their networks to share links with their friends. Even better, it’s all free.

As meeting together everywhere now means moving to websites, “It really does appear that for a long time, the Lord has been preparing us for this season in our ability to help churches in crunch time get online,” Loy says. “Our big hope was that churches would go online, and now we’re all being forced to do it.”

At First NLR, “Really, the whole church is on our team because we’re all online at this point,” he says.

By late March, as government jurisdictions throughout the country announced mandatory shelters-in-place, banning gatherings outside of households of more than 10 people, Loy had replied to inquiries from over 30 churches about moving ministries online. “We already had answers to the questions they've had,” he says, adding that many queries regarded live streaming.

Last year, First NLR’s online viewership averaged 35,000. Then came COVID-19. Viewership has shot up to 75,000.

“As the church, we have to take advantage of believers and nonbelievers being on the internet,” Espejo says. “How are we going to reach new people with the content we’re creating?”

Now displaced are the pre-virus concerns that online church meant people would stop coming to in-person services.

“Before corona, the church needed to be both online and in person,” Loy says. “But what we’re seeing is that God is continuing to move,” even though the church is now meeting strictly online.

During shelter in place, “People are on social media a ton because they have nothing else to do,” Espejo says. The church’s social media platform points to scriptural truth. On March 24, for example, using Instagram and Facebook interactive, First NLR prompted responses to questions such as What’s your favorite character in Bible?

What’s the most important lesson First NLR has learned about online church?

“Pre-corona, we were asking ourselves, How do we facilitate meaningful connections online?” Espejo says. “It’s not just watching a service.”

COVID-19 has spurred First NLR to ask how it can use social media and online avenues to connect people who can't leave their homes. Espejo isn’t just thinking about the current crisis.

“How do we create systems that are going to last even when churches are up and running in person?” Espejo asks.

The team has pinpointed part of the answer: engagement. While the number of viewers might be high, if there isn’t interaction, Loy says it’s not truly meeting heartfelt needs.

Loy wants to make sure watchers are commenting, sharing, asking for prayer, having conversations, subscribing to the channel, and joining online groups.

“We want to build relationships with people,” Loy says. “We don't want to be just a TV show.” He notes during recent Sunday night services viewers have reported healings, while people have been baptized in the Holy Spirit online in chat rooms.

Connecting online isn't just for the main Sunday services. The church is using Facebook groups for classes and ministries. One Facebook group, for example, networks church volunteers. The church’s “Soul Café” ministry director moved to Facebook Live his weekly verse-by-verse Scripture teaching. The director monitors the chat to answer questions.

Seniors between 60 and 95 meet Sundays in a “connection class” and again at night. Rather than use live cam, the teacher visited the church studio where Espejo filmed her 40-minute sermon. Even though only a dozen in her class use Facebook, 75 others watched the message. Youth and young-adult ministry each have their own online group. Wednesday night church last week was broadcast on Facebook Live.

This pandemic marks an Esther moment for the Church, Loy believes.

“If the world needs anything now it is peace and hope, and we have the Person who provides that,” Loy says. “People more than ever are searching, and they can't get it anywhere else.”

“It’s pushing us to think in new creative ways,” Espejo says. “It’s a sad time for the Church, but it’s an exciting time for the Church, too.”

Loy isn't fearful that the online church won’t reconnect once shelter in place orders are lifted.

“We’ve met multiple people who now come to our church who had their first Christian introduction online,” he says. “The Lord saved them through online, and they couldn't help but be part of the actual church family in person.”


Lead Photo: First NLR lead pastor Rod Loy preaches to an empty sanctuary in delivering an online sermon.


Bottom Photo: Mattie Ruth Tipton records a sermon to be viewed on Facebook.

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