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Prepared for Cyberchurch Season

AG churches in Silicon Valley already had adopted plans for virtual preaching.
The second Sunday of March, a plumbing catastrophe left the women's restroom sinks in Sacred Church in San Bruno, California, without water.

In 2018, California Bay Area forest fires filled the rented facility of Canvas San Francisco with smoke two days before weekend services.

Even before lockdown orders forced churches nationwide to adapt to a new normal, Sacred Church pastor Kathy Kerfoot Cannon closed the building and preached to the congregation of 75 via Facebook Live. Likewise, rather than finding another meeting place that Sunday two years ago, Canvas pastor Travis B. Clark  led a service exclusively on the Zoom videoconferencing platform.

In time, both recognized that moving Sunday worship exclusively online had prepared them for this season of sheltered-in-place congregations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virtual pastoring has long been accepted in Silicon Valley, the Northern California area noted for 80-hour workweeks, high-tech innovation, and two-hour job commutes. It is home to Apple, Facebook, and YouTube. Church leadership powwows routinely have been held on Zoom.

“We've been slowly moving toward online church especially in the past few years,” Cannon says. Then the Bay Area became the first in the United States to shelter in place in an effort to flatten the coronavirus curve. “This is taking that into hyperdrive.”

“It definitely prepared us to some extent to have a digital game plan,” says Clark, 32, of that Sunday two years before. Thanks to what proved to be a dress rehearsal, Canvas San Francisco averted whiplash from moving online, either amid outright bans or best-practice recommendations against in-person services. “We had no digital game plan until we were forced into the situation.”

Doing church in 2020 is different from last year. At least for now, gone are the days of calling the church secretary for an appointment and sitting in the pastor’s office for a face-to-face pastoral care session. “Now somebody sees you're online and sends a message, Pastor, can you pray for me? And a conversation begins,” says Cannon, 38. “From the outside, it looks like I was spending an hour on Facebook.”

Cannon adds that she’s just finished a weekly marriage counseling appointment on Zoom, a company that has existed only since 2011. Now with the world on virtual lockdown because of SARS-CoV-2, Zoom is a popular venue hosting everything from Sunday School classes to prayer.

“As people adapt to doing things online, finding deep relationships, connections, and community in online ways, we’re able to switch more readily than other generations,” Cannon says. She credits her husband, Ben Cannon, for handling the technical side of Sacred’s ministry.

Early during the COVID-19 lockdown, the AG Northern California & Nevada District, of which Sacred and Canvas are part, invited Cannon to hold a virtual preaching practicals workshop. In it, she takes viewers behind the scenes to a bedroom corner, where she now preaches messages, and guides pastors faced with the daunting task of making an abrupt switch to online ministry.

“People still need to hear from their local pastors,” Cannon says. “How do you talk to the camera so it doesn't look like you're a terrorist doing a ransom video? What's the easiest way to make people comfortable listening to you?”

She addresses camera angles, the space in which she's preaching, how to pause while speaking to allow people to ponder a point, and feedback without seeing body language.

Other AG staffs such as First North Little Rock are mentoring fellow congregations through the learning curve of moving to a virtual platform.

Cannon says long-term sheltering in place means finding methods of connecting congregations spiritually in worship, in community, and in discipleship, using various aspects of technology.

Doing video conferencing is not a new concept. Clark notes that getting people online proved to be easy.

“The difficulty we had to navigate was finding our ultimate purpose,” he says. “What do people need the most to feel — a digitized version of Sunday service,or pivot to meet a different need in a different way?”

What that looks like is unique to each congregation. Even though the church body of Canvas is Silicon Valley workers accustomed to high-tech polish, the church doesn't prerecord its services. Instead of a broadcast finesse approach to Sunday gathering in which average attendance is 305, Canvas uses the relatively retro-looking Zoom platform. Its rough audio and video quality gives a raw feel, and its interface tags each participant. Clark says over 90 percent of pre-COVID attendees take part in Zoom services. The church also holds Zoom prayer Wednesday mornings and evenings.

“We've really felt what people were going to need most in this crisis was community,” Clark says. “Even though we don't have physical contact, we need to feel we have connection with humans. “

During the message via Zoom, worshippers engage with each other and Clark, who interacts in the platform’s chat box.

“We see everybody's face, see their names, hear one another, and can dialogue and communicate,” he says. “It’s not just viewing — watching worship or preaching. Everything happens in real time.”

Clark now preaches messages from a bedroom closet.

“For people isolated without contact with humans outside their home, it’s very fulfilling emotionally, relationally, and spiritually,” he says.

For Cannon, during this lockdown season she's seeing seeds planted long ago showing signs of movement. People she’s invited to in-person church for years are now showing up in virtual church. She believes once shelter in place has ended, the Holy Spirit will draw them to connect on the physical grounds of Sacred Church.

“My goal isn’t just that they show up for a service in our building,” she says. “My goal is that they show up for eternity in heaven.”

Deann Alford

Deann Alford is a journalist and author. She attends Glad Tidings of Austin, an Assemblies of God congregation in the Texas capital.