Michelle and Ric Saatzer typically attend church on Wednesday nights before their children go to religious education. This week the Plymouth family gathered in front of the TV to watch a livestream worship service on Facebook — featuring two pastors, three musicians and an iPad set up to record the scene.
It’s among hundreds of improvised religious services rolling out across Minnesota and the nation as worship moves from the sanctuary to the living room to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Every major Christian denomination in Minnesota now has suspended in-person worship — Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist — leaving faith leaders scrambling for alternatives.
“It’s very weird to be leading a worship service while the doors of our building are locked,” said Pastor Joel Bergeland of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Plymouth. “Faith is happening, even if we don’t see it.”
This weekend will be a trial run for many, with unprecedented numbers of faithful watching. But after viewing Mount Olivet’s worship on both their laptop and TV connected to Facebook, the Saatzers gave the experiment a thumbs up.
“I like that we were still able to connect with our church family during these uncertain times,” said Michelle Saatzer. “We can still support each other even though we can’t see each other.”
Minnesota’s mega churches are among the minority well prepared for the task, already equipped with professional lighting, sound and broadcast capabilities. Eagle Brook Church, with nine locations, reports that 46,000 devices logged into their online worship last weekend — double the usual.
But for the vast majority of churches, this is uncharted terrain. A 2019 survey by the Nashville-based Lifeway Research indicated just 22% of pastors livestreamed their entire service: about 10% livestreamed their sermon.
The Rev. Shawna Horn of Fairmount Avenue United Methodist Church in St. Paul was among the newbies. Last week, she drove to Best Buy to find a reliable but inexpensive way to livestream worship. She walked out with a GoPro camera.
She set up a YouTube channel, figured out how to use Facebook Live and put the GoPro on a tripod near the altar for last Sunday’s trial run. The livestream went smoothly until the pastor heard a click in the middle of the sermon.
“We learned the GoPro battery lasts 45 minutes,” Horn said with a sigh.
Fortunately, she had a backup: an iPad secured to a nearby flower stand. The livestream continued.
“We’re all learning,” said Horn.
Protestants were generally ahead of the curve in online worship compared to Catholics, who are required to attend mass on weekends, not just watch it. Until a few days ago, the Cathedral of St. Paul, Minnesota’s largest Catholic church, shared masses only through radio broadcasts, said the Rev. John Ubel, cathedral rector.
Suddenly Ubel, like other priests, had to secure videography equipment.
The cathedral was unable to buy what it needed, so it is now borrowing, said Ubel, who was also scrambling to expand information on the cathedral website.
“I’ve spent more time on a computer in the past 48 hours than I have in four weeks,” he said.
The first ordinary online mass — not for a special religious event — in the cathedral’s 100-year history went live Friday morning.
Said Ubel: “It’s rather primitive, with just one camera for now, but it worked.”
Last week, the Saatzers traded their second-row seat in the church sanctuary to a front-row seat in their living room to watch Mount Olivet’s venture into online worship. Michelle Saatzer and daughter Abi, 13, sat on the couch, monitoring the laptop connected to the TV monitor. Ric Saatzer relaxed in a chair closest to the TV. Son Tony Saatzer, 16, chilled on the floor.
The service opened with a guitar solo, then Bergeland stepped to the pulpit.
“There’s Joel!” Abi said excitedly.
“We’re learning how to worship online so this won’t be perfect,” Bergeland announced from the screen. He encouraged folks to hit the “Like” icon when they would normally say “Amen.” He offered a prayer, followed by more music.
Pastor Beth Horsch, who had been quietly communicating with online vsiewers from a laptop near Bergeland, then delivered a sermon from the Book of Ecclesiastes, known for the passage, “to everything there is a season.”
When it came time to share the sign of peace, the pastors encouraged families to post selfies on the Facebook page. The Saatzers tried, only to be disappointed that the photo wouldn’t post.
Something to fix for future services, pastors noted.
When the service ended, the Saatzers reflected on how different it was from a normal night at church, but said it felt comforting to see their pastor and friends, even if it was online.
“I thought it was cool,” said Tony Saatzer. “This is a time when we need God the most.”
For pastor Horsch, seeing her congregants’ faces on her laptop and connecting with them online brought a new dimension to her work.
“We’re recreating church as we go,” she said. “I think this is pushing us to places we needed to go. It’s just pushing us faster than we thought.”
Leaders at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie agreed. Pastor Kyle Robinson recalled the first church pandemic plan in 2004. It required the church to videotape the worship, then “burn DVDs and mail them.”
This weekend it is rolling out an online “church at home” project to give the faithful ideas for worshiping in new ways. The church drew viewers on 6,000 devices last week, which leaders expect to grow.
“We’ve pivoted to this in a matter of five days,” Robinson marveled. “It’s a whole new world for us.”