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Adapting to conference call worship services

The phone pings start at 8:50 a.m. announcing who is attending worship.

Ping – Ron and Sally, ping – Barbara, ping – Doug and Maren, ping – Roy and on and on it goes for several minutes. Interrupting the pings, I shout out, “Happy Easter” and a huge chorus of folks scream into the phone – Happy Easter, Larry!

Ping – Martha and Bill, ping – Jack and Jean, and more until 9 a.m. I welcome everyone and ask everyone to shout out, “Jesus Christ is risen!”

The phone crackles and sputters as people on more than 100 phone lines shout out at the same time, “Jesus Christ is risen!” Then the phones are muted, and our unique conference call worship service begins.

The coronavirus crisis forced churches to close their buildings for the safety of their members and greater community, but COVID-19 did not dampen our resolve to be the church. Leaders quickly began exchanging emails suggesting ideas on how our churches could support each other and our neighbors during the crisis. The immediate question, how would we worship together on Sunday morning?

We were two churches meeting at two different times, but during the crisis we agreed to meet together. But, how to gather in a way that includes everyone? There are options online: Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube and others, but in our area, internet and cell phone reception was limited, so ideas readily available to most would not be effective. Then, one leader, Debbie Baggett, mentioned a conference call website, FreeConferenceCall.com.

Conference call? A hundred people all on the phone? Yep.

Our service began with a statement from Joan Lassiter, one of our church leaders. “On this Easter we’re not distracted by fancy clothes, beautiful flowers, big meals, chocolate eggs or decorated baskets. We’re keeping it simple. And that simplicity is a perfect reminder of what church is intended to be, not fancy trappings but simply a special connectedness with each other through our love for Christ, through His example. No matter the denomination or faith tradition, almost everyone around the world is celebrating Easter Sunday the way we’re celebrating. That connection can be healing despite the tragedy that’s unfolding. Remember, the church may be empty but so was the tomb. Church isn’t a place we go, it is who we are, it’s the family of which we’re a part.”

Each church shared announcements, then, we bowed our heads and imagined sitting together wherever we would normally be on Sunday morning, whether inside a church sanctuary or outside in the open air. During the silence we reflected on how important it was to be together celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Then, with heads bowed, we listened to “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.”

There was a children’s message about the Dogwood Tree. According to legend, the cross on which Jesus died was made from a dogwood tree. Afterward, God decreed that the dogwood tree would never grow large enough to be used to make another cross. The flower symbolizes rebirth and the resurrection.

Our challenge, our church doors may be closed but we can still be heavily involved within our community during the coronavirus crisis. Our church buildings may be empty but so is Christ’s tomb. Easter is the promise that Christ is alive and still guiding us. Do not be afraid. Even while following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, we can still creatively and confidently open our hearts and take Christ’s message of light and hope to our neighbors and to our community.

We promised to pray the following prayer every day during the coronavirus pandemic. “Lord, help me be the church today and believe that I can shine a light in someone’s darkness.”

We ended the service unmuting the phones to give one final shout out, “Christ is risen! Alleluia!” As phones began disconnecting you could hear various voices, “We love you! God bless you! Be safe!”

Like everyone, I will be thrilled to be back in our church sanctuary looking at people, talking with them face to face, offering a handshake or a hug. Being physically together is my preference, but after several weeks of conference call worship services, I have come to appreciate our willingness to adapt. We have found creative new ways to be the church and serve our risen Savior, Jesus Christ.

Lord, help me be the church today and believe that I can shine a light in someone’s darkness. Amen.

This Sunday you are invited to join Mineral and Mount Pleasant UMC and attend our conference call worship service. Gather around the phone at or a few minutes before 8:55 a.m. Sunday morning and follow the instructions below to participate.

Worship starts each Sunday at 9 a.m.

Call (508) 924-2730. No access code is required for this number but there may be long distance charges if calling on a landline.

REV. LARRY E. DAVIES can be reached at larrydavies@vaumc.org.