Florida church and others say streaming, begun with COVID, is attracting new people

Jiajin Zhou was baptized Oct. 9 at a church she first attended virtually.

Under a light that aids Union Congregational UCC’s streamed and in-person worship, the Rev. Sheila Harvey baptizes Jiajin Zhou on Oct. 9, 2022, in West Palm Beach, Fla.

That same day, five other people also joined Union Congregational United Church of Christ in West Palm Beach, Fla. Four of them, like Zhou, had found Union online. The fifth had found it through the church’s food pantry.

All of them are part of a current uptick in attendance at the church. The Rev. Sheila Harvey, pastor of Union Congregational UCC, said she’s trying to figure out exactly why online and in-person numbers are up. Counting both kinds, church attendance is now even higher than it was before the onset of COVID-19.

Streaming and newcomers

It isn’t the only church with that experience. Most UCC congregations, like Union, started streaming services for the first time when the pandemic arrived. And some, like Union, are now seeing new people because of it.

Some of that will show in figures in the UCC’s recently published 2022 Statistical Report. Erica Dollhopf, director of the UCC Center for Analytics, Research and Development, and Data, said the report includes these findings:

  • Prior to the pandemic, only 9 percent of congregations reported offering virtual worship.
  • 88.7 percent of congregations reported holding virtual worship at some time during 2021.
  • 83.6 percent of congregations that held virtual worship in 2021 reported planning to continue to offer virtual worship beyond the pandemic.

And among UCC churches offering virtual worship:

  • 39.7 percent reported that people interested in becoming members have engaged with their worship service online.
  • 54.9 percent reported that people previously unconnected to their church have engaged with their worship service online.

Those results were based on answers “collected in early 2022 as part of our supplemental survey to the Yearbook data collection,” Dollhopf said. The CARDD year-end report can be found here.

In Union’s case, Harvey said, newcomers via the internet seem attracted to the congregation’s emphasis on Christian social justice and pastoral care — a unique combination among churches in West Palm Beach County.

Easing ‘the most difficult thing’

Harvey said she believes streaming can ease people’s minds. It lets newcomers try out worship online, live from the privacy of home, before deciding to come in person.

“The most difficult thing for people to do is to walk through the doors of a church,” she said. “They don’t know what they’ll find on the other side of the door.” She said online worship “is giving people access to our church without having to come through the doors.” And then some of them do choose to come through the doors in person.

Both in person and online, Union emphasizes a wide-open hospitality. Harvey said the church regards that welcome — along with its anti-racist, multicultural, peace-and-justice, Open and Affirming identity — as a matter of following Jesus’ commandment of love.

‘People that would understand me’

All of that mattered to Zhou. Originally from China, she moved to California in her mid-teens, then to Florida for college. Because of her sexual orientation, she never felt fully accepted in the conservative church her family attends, nor in the religious services she experienced as a student at a Catholic high school.

As a recent university graduate in her 20s, “I was going through a rough time in life,” she said. “I wanted to find people that would understand me, and to find my faith.” So she went online, looking for an LGBTQ-friendly church in her area. When she discovered Union, “I went on their website quite a few times before I went I in person,” she said. “I watched their livestream.”

Wanting to be sure Union’s welcome was real and not just “a claim,” she “did a little digging.” “I researched the history of the church, like how they (the UCC) had the first gay pastor, the first lesbian pastor,” she said. “That’s how I was like – I really want to go there.”

When she did finally walk through Union’s door, “the people there were really welcoming,” she said. “I was being accepted by my faith, by the church. I finally felt that this is where I belonged. After a few months I felt, I’m ready; I’m ready to go 100-percent into my belief instead of feeling isolated.”

The Rev. Sheila Harvey welcomes five of Union Congregational UCC’s six new members on Oct. 9 (one was unable to be present at the moment).

‘People are just finding us’

The streaming research Zhou did was not possible at Union before COVID-19. Like many churches, the congregation had never streamed or broadcast anything. Harvey considers herself “a fairly young pastor,” but before 2020, “I was old-school, in the sense that I believed the people who walked into the church on a Sunday were those who were meant to hear the word.

“And then when COVID hit, everybody had to stay home, and I said, I’m going to have to make a shift here.” The church started streaming its services via Facebook Live. Harvey worked to make sure Union’s people had internet access and knew how to find services online. “And it worked. People adjusted. Everybody had to. We didn’t have to have a meeting about it.”

The church still uses a basic streaming setup, with a single, fixed camera and a little added lighting. Counted together, in-person and online attendance currently average about 130 — exceeding the church’s pre-COVID, in-person average of around 90. For most of this year, as the church continued to emerge from the pandemic, 25 to 30 people were coming in person, Harvey said. “Just since summer, we’re picking up. The last couple of Sundays, we had over 100 viewers. We had 81 in person two Sundays ago.

“I’m trying to figure out what’s happening. People are just finding us and telling their friends.”

A graph from Union Congregational UCC shows the church’s average weekly worship attendance from before the onset of COVID until now. The “hybrid” figures are the sum of people attending in person plus people attending online.

‘We are very diverse’

Such word of mouth often revolves around Union’s uniqueness, locally, as multiracial, multicultural, and Open and Affirming, Harvey said. “We are very diverse — politically, racially, economically.” It also has to do with the church’s presence in the community, through such ministries as its food pantry and some 80 units of affordable senior housing it’s proposing to build on its property.

And while “many people come without knowing about the wider UCC,” they soon find out. Union has a version of the UCC crest on its pulpit and embraces one of the denomination’s longtime “extravagant welcome” mottos: “Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” The congregation is often featured as an example of the denomination’s Just Peace Church movement.

Harvey said Union members were “elated” when she was invited to be part of the UCC contingent at the World Council of Churches’ assembly in Germany in September — and to speak about the congregation at a workshop there.

The Rev. Sheila Harvey (second from right) and other leaders of Union Congregational UCC pause during the Annual Gathering of the UCC’s Florida Conference in October 2022.

‘Part of the church universal’

She and several of Union’s lay leaders also gave a talk at the Annual Gathering of the UCC’s Florida Conference earlier this month on “Celebrating Pastoral Care as a Church-Wide Ministry.”

And when Florida Conference Minister John Vertigan preaches at Union in November, “I’ve invited him to talk about giving to the wider church as well,” Harvey said. To be sure, Union gets a lot out of its UCC connections: they’re part of its life and identity, and an attraction to some newcomers, like Zhou. But Harvey said there’s a bigger reason why the church includes basic support of the UCC, through Our Church’s Wider Mission, in its annual budget.

“We need to continue giving to the wider church what we can, because we’re the part of the church universal,” she said. “Alone we cannot tackle all the injustice, alone we cannot meet all the needs. But together we can do more.”

Union Congregational UCC worshipers attend a fellowship hour and new-member reception on Oct. 9, 2022.

‘We have been intentional’

The latest new thing at Union is a deliberate effort to get members of different age groups together.

“We used to have these different fellowships: men, women, young adult, youth,” Harvey said. “Now we’re focusing on being more intergenerational. During fellowship hour on Sundays, we’re intentionally having themed fellowship and making sure it’s intergenerational in nature. We also had an intergenerational just-peace trip over the summer to Selma and Montgomery, Ala. … We haven’t had our choir over COVID, so we decided to do a holiday sing-along and invite people of all ages to sign up.”

Discerning Christ’s call, being willing to try new things, and being public about the congregation’s identity has brought Union to where it finds itself today, Harvey said. It’s how the church moved from being a “historically white church” to a multiracial, multicultural one, she said. It did so “largely because we have been intentional about making sure that everyone in that surrounding area know that we are welcoming to all people.”

That’s why Jiajin Zhou is there now. “It’s unlike any other church I’ve ever attended,” Zhou said. “I really enjoy it.”

Hans Holznagel is a former member of the UCC news team. He retired Dec. 1 after a career that included many roles in the UCC’s national ministries, dating back to 1984.

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Categories: United Church of Christ News

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