Flint, MI — In early March, just before the COVID-19 pandemic caused a state of emergency declaration and implementation of social distancing and stay-at-home measures in Michigan, Pastor Martez Warren at Church Without Walls in Flint made a fortuitous request. He asked members of the congregation to put their phone numbers in the offering plate as it was passed around during a Sunday service.

“It must’ve been the Holy Spirit that told me to do that,” Warren said.

Sunday services at Church Without Walls typically have about 150-200 people in attendance at the church’s brick and mortar located at 6202 DuPont Street. Those phone numbers have provided a vital communication tool now that the church has moved to virtual services.

“It has given me the opportunity to text and reach out to people and stay in touch,” Warren said. “This is unprecedented and we’ve never witnessed anything like this. It is difficult to not have face-to-face interaction, but the fact that we are keeping in touch and I can aid with advice or spiritual wisdom is good right now.”

Church Without Walls is one of many Flint churches that has been able to continue services by using a variety of online tools or social media platforms to stay engaged with members. Sunday services and Wednesday night Bible studies are broadcast on Facebook. The church is also looking into tools like Zoom, to provide counseling or communications to members individually or in smaller groups.

“Having the sermon online is good, but how do I address individuals who have a need for pastoral or clinical counseling?” Warren said. “Zoom and Microsoft Teams have allowed us the opportunity to do that. The problems that were present in peoples’ lives before the coronavirus are still here, so there’s still a need for those types of (less public) interaction.”

“It has given me the opportunity to text and reach out to people and stay in touch,” said Pastor Martez Warren of Church Without Walls. “This is unprecedented and we’ve never witnessed anything like this. It is difficult to not have face-to-face interaction, but the fact that we are keeping in touch and I can aid with advice or spiritual wisdom is good right now.”

Zoom has also been a useful tool for Woodside Church in Carriage Town. Rev. Deb Conrad said that the church has used Zoom some before, but is now relying on the tool for more functions.

“We use it for church meetings, we have two book study groups that use it, so we’ve really been embracing it,” Conrad said.

Both churches have previously had services live streamed on Facebook to complement in-person worship, but with online as the only current option for disseminating those services, both have focused on improving the production quality.

“We’ve always had members who would stream our services on Facebook, but it’s new in the sense that it’s our only mode of communication now,” Warren said. “People would only catch certain parts or the battery would go dead. This has taken us to the next level. I’m actually streaming from my house, so I bought equipment and lighting to make sure people get quality service and views as they watch service and teachings. It’s still very difficult and very new. We’ve done it three times — two bible studies and a Sunday morning service. Each time I come on, telling people please bear with us.”

Woodside Church has streamed its Sunday services for about a year, but has had to rethink the production.

“It was really great for capturing everyone being together in one place and reporting out to the online world,” Conrad said. “But we needed to reshape worship to focus on the online constituency.”

Now, Conrad and members of the church who do readings record their portions of service, and then a technical director edits it all together and the services debut live on Facebook on Sunday mornings. They’re later uploaded to YouTube as well. The new format has shortened worship time by about 20 minutes — things like waiting for readers to walk to a podium or other elements of a live service are able to be edited out.

“We are able to provide a sharper worship,” Conrad said. “We’re still learning as we go.”

The worship team of Woodside Church of Flint meet for a video conference late March after Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer orders residents to stay home to help decrease the spread of COVID-19. (Facebook)

Another element that gives Conrad herself a new experience is, because the services are pre-taped, she is able to watch the live streams and interact with members of the congregation, something she wouldn’t be able to do if she were giving a live sermon.

“We’re all gathering at the same time to watch, and we can interact through the comments,” she said.

Woodside has also used its website to provide information to the public about resources available during the COVID-19 outbreak and upgraded their online giving platform. Without offering plates at in-person services, churches still need to raise money to pay for expenses.

Warren and Conrad have both reported increased participation since they’ve moved services online. Warren said that more than 1,000 people streamed their first Sunday morning live stream, and approximately 35-50 people have watched the Wednesday night Bible studies. Conrad said Woodside gets hundreds of people streaming the live services on Sunday, and she’s also been doing short 2-3 minute reflection videos on Facebook that are getting as many as 650 views each.

“I think it’s a good reminder to clergy and congregations that a lot of people are hurting and searching, and we have an opportunity to be that for them in a way we haven’t imagined,” Conrad said.

Warren said that he has always understood social media is powerful, but never fully grasped its reach until the Church Without Walls virtual services started picking up an expanded audience.

“We are definitely looking into once this is all over and done with, buying proper equipment for the church, so we can get the gospel out,” he said. “We’re touching thousands on a computer screen and only 150 in the building. It would be a disgrace to God to captivate that message for only a small crowd when there’s a whole world out there.”

Conrad also believes churches being forced to adjust how they deliver services and get comfortable with new platforms is ultimately a positive way to engage new members or re-engage people who have disconnected from religion.

“There are people who have been so damaged by their experiences with the church, or their life hasn’t revolved around Sunday morning services for a long time, and we’ll never see them in our building,” Conrad said. “And yet they’re still in need of grace and love and care. This will forever change the way we do church. The church goes through a major reshaping every 500 years or so, and this is our 500-year reorganization of the church. It’s a good thing.”

The expanded potential audience that online platforms offer also allows for the sharing of important health and safety information.

“I’m encouraging people to listen to the voice of God,” Warren said. “Right now, God is telling us that we should stay inside, allow this storm to pass over. When we follow the instructions of the voice of God, things will get better.”

Technology also offers the ability to communicate and check in on people easily.

“We like to see peoples’ faces and know that they’re doing okay,” Conrad said. “But we’re able to check in and make phone calls. Our care team goes through our directory and makes sure everyone is okay. We’re relying on each other.”

Patrick Hayes

Patrick Hayes is a freelance writer with bylines for ESPN.com, the Detroit Free Press, Next City, Sierra Magazine, Lifehacker, MLive, and others. He also contributed an essay to "Happy Anyway: A Flint...