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Preaching in the Elements

Small Oregon church attracted viewers from around the world in a pandemic-inspired video evangelism, discipleship effort.
When most churches in America went online in March 2020 amidst coronavirus fears, pastor Joel N. Morris of Outback Assembly of God in Lakeview, Oregon, wondered how the church of under 100 adherents in a tiny, rural town would stay engaged.

“Suddenly, all of us rural pastors were competing with big churches, digitally,” says Morris, 37. “We were concerned people would give up being part of their local church because something was done better at a bigger church. Who are you going to watch when you can go to church anywhere?”

Lakeview is a high-desert community with a population of 2,300. The town is the definition of remote: buying groceries and basic supplies requires a 190-mile round-trip. But Morris and his wife, Kimberlee, both natives of Spokane, Washington, and alumni of North Central University had prior experience in video production and internet technology. Joel and Kimberlee agreed they would be willing to put that to use in novel circumstances.

A man who attended the church offered a high-level camera he had purchased three months before the shutdown, though he knew nothing about video. “I think you’re supposed to put your messages online,” he told Morris.

So the Morrises did — and quickly decided not to record them against the uneventful backdrop of the church sanctuary, but instead to experiment with outdoor locations that featured Lakeview’s nearby, epic scenery. The first sermon was shot in a field with snowy mountains in the background. The film crew: the couple’s two sons, John, 14, and Andrew, 12.

“It felt like a cool opportunity to show off Lake County and what we’ve got in our backyard,” Morris says. “Sure enough, people in town were sharing the video.”

The next week, Morris preached from a boat in the water, with wind so gusty that he had to drop anchor to keep from blowing away. The third week he preached on top of a mountain overlooking the town.

“My hands were frozen to the pulpit,” Morris says, laughing. “I couldn’t move them when I was done. It took a couple minutes to warm them up.”

The effort proved worthwhile, as the videos reached people beyond the church. Morris realized the videos could be an evangelistic and discipleship opportunity.

“People were messaging us saying they go to another church, but couldn’t wait to watch ours online,” says Morris, who serves as an Oregon Ministry Network presbyter. “People shared it on their social media pages with family and friends, so we started getting hits from around the country and world because missionary friends would watch it. Because of the content we provided, people said they grew in their faith.”

Filming, he says, turned out to be the easier part; editing required dozens of hours. Each week, they added equipment — better microphones, lights, a third camera — and creative touches such as lead-ins, B-roll, and background music.

Seven years earlier, the Morrises had left a staff position at a large Pentecostal church in Spokane to embrace rural ministry. Joel says prior to that — while on the roof of his house in Spokane fixing his chimney and looking across the sea of nearby homes — he heard the Lord ask how many people he knew in the city. Morris figured 500, tops.

Morris says the Lord then queried, What’s the difference between knowing 500 people in a city of 250,000 and knowing 500 people in a town of 2,000?

“I had a heart to see something better in the smaller, out-of-the-way communities,” Morris says,

So when the world shut down due to the pandemic, the Morrises kept filming in new locations — in the middle of a creek in his waders and with a pulpit in the water; in a cave, to illustrate the empty tomb of Easter; on sand dunes; in a burnt-out forest; in a volcanic fissure 70 feet deep and 8 feet wide; and, in his wife’s case, in the middle of a sheep field to talk about the Good Shepherd.

“The idea was that every spot would be something new,” Joel says.

Other pastors began calling for advice for operating their own video cameras and editing software, he says. As part of the Rural America Ministries Network with Wes R. Bartel and others, Morris created a training video with ideas for other rural pastors.

Bill Wilson, lead pastor of the 200-strong Oregon Ministry Network, calls Morris the state’s most creative preacher during the pandemic.

“Not only were his messages clever, but they were full of content,” Wilson says. “He’s well-versed in Scripture and a great communicator.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Morrises involved upload speed, unreliable and slow because Lakeview is so remote. Sermons took six hours to upload, and “we had several all-nighters,” Morris says.

“By the end, we were ready to be done,” he says, noting that his family also produced five daily devotional videos per week, shot in their dining room. “Going back into the building was exciting.”

Creativity “kept the church alive” during that time, he says, and Outback AG continues streaming and producing live services. The Morris boys also produce original videos for their own Lego YouTube channel.

Joel Kilpatrick

Joel Kilpatrick is a writer living in Southern California who has authored or ghostwritten dozens of books. Kilpatrick, who served as associate editor of the Pentecostal Evangel in the 1990s, is a credentialed Assemblies of God minister.