‘Watching church’: Oakland churches embrace technology during COVID-19 shelter in place

The COVID-19 shelter in place order has changed our ways of living, from how we shop, to cancelled events, to attendance of our worship services. For many this doesn’t mean the services for many are discontinued.

Churches have been able to increase parishioners’ connection to their places of worship with streaming online, radio and television broadcast options to attend services outside of the standard in person worship had to close their doors. 

“Everything is about being communal,” said Javier Reyes, a Bay Area church goer, organizer for Mobilize Love, who also runs online writing groups in the Bay Area. “The church is just a building. We the people are the church.” With the use of technology there has been a shift with providing accessibility to spiritual services, a necessity during the shelter in place. 

However, “watching church” is not a new phenomenon. What we think of as Televangelism or television ministry began in the 1950s with weekly Sunday services broadcast on television.  Along the same lines, many Oakland churches had to prepare for serving parishioners using streaming of Sunday Services, with Easter Sunday being one of the more significant Christian holidays.  

We’ve been doing this for years now.  We’ve had online virtual Bible studies, online meetings and a Facebook group.

Carlos Jackson, West Oakland Church of Christ

“It seems like we were already ready for this,” Carlos Jackson, assistant minister at West Oakland Church of Christ said. “We just didn’t want to let go of the previous way of physically going all the time, so we’re kind of having to release our attachment to it,” explained West Oakland Church of Christ  continues providing worship services to their congregation with the use of online streaming on their website. The church previously utilized local access TV for broadcasting their services and later used YouTube to save previous broadcasts  for their members to view later. 

According to the Hartsford Institute for Religious Studies there are over 350,000 houses of worship nationwide and over 500 in Alameda County.  More than 56 million people worldwide stream their worship services online and, according to Livestream.com, by 2016, 2,700 houses of worship hosted online services. Many Oakland churches have a website to let their congregation know when and where services can be held. Many of which have archived services going back to 2015.

[Six places of worship in Oakland providing virtual services]

Jackson explained they have been able to serve their congregation and keep them connected to the church even prior to the shelter in place order. “We’ve been doing this for years now.  We’ve had online virtual Bible studies, online meetings and a Facebook group,” Jackson said. 

Worship services aren’t the only thing that has been moving online. Over $2.2 billion has been donated to churches online. A number of online companies are specifically designed for giving to houses of worship.  The changes were first met with resistance, “You know, whenever there’s change as humans we’re always resistant initially. It took some convincing and it took a little bit of time for certain older members to become comfortable and confident to do it and now it’s been in place for at least five years now,” said Jackson. 

Reyes is enthusiastic about churches using technology to increase their serviceability to their congregation and what this means for the church moving forward. “I was having this discussion with my pastor and I asked him, ‘What’s better accessible or available?’,” Reyes said. “Accessibility is meeting where you are and I’ll come to you. I like that we are at the point of accessibility and through that we can be more accessible.”

One Comment

  1. Ammar Saheli

    Brandy Collins, thanks for the article and joining our COVID-19 Virtual Forum last Wednesday.

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