Many people are unable to attend worship in their communities due to health issues, work, or travel schedules, and churches have responded in recent years by relying on a number of platforms, including Facebook Live, to minister to their congregations. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, these platforms have become the primary means of outreach. The Co-Moderators of the 223rd General Assembly (2018) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have found their own ways of connecting and ministering. Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and the Reverend Cindy Kohlmann have each used the medium and are finding a welcoming audience.
“At a moment such as the one we are living with the need to stay at home and suspend in-person contact for groups of people due to the COVID-19 virus, how can we continue to be present with our fellow Presbyterians when we cannot travel to visit as scheduled?” Cintrón-Olivieri asked. “Both Cindy and I came up with ideas to continue being connected with the church at-large, beginning with a prayer for these uncertain times and published on March 16.”
Kohlmann soon began hosting a nightly hymn sing and invited Presbyterians to join her virtually.
“Singing has always been an important expression for me. It’s a way to express emotion, a way to be connected. I saw on Facebook where people in Italy and other places were going outside and singing popular songs or their national anthem,” said Kohlmann. “I thought I could do it on Facebook with hymns. It’s as much for my health and emotional well-being and I thought of a stay-at-home hymn sing. We can still sing together. That’s how that started for me. I look forward to picking the song, teaching it, and look forward to singing.”
Kohlmann says the response to the hymn sings have been very positive.
“Since we’ve connected in so many places all across the country and world, I’ve started asking people where they are watching from,” she said. “We’ve had people from Indonesia, Kenya, and Peru. In fact, when my husband and I were in Peru last year, I became friends with one of our guides. We became Facebook friends and he watched the other day. I haven’t talked to him about my work in the church, but it was wonderful to see him.”
Kohlmann hosts the hymn sing live at 5 p.m. (Eastern Time) on Facebook.
As for Cintrón-Olivieri, her previous career as a teacher came through and she began a weekly reading program.
“In my case, my teacher’s heart turned towards our children and young people. My social media feed was booming with worship services and creative ways of doing ministry, yet what I was seeing was mainly geared towards adults,” said Cintrón-Olivieri. “I reached out to our denomination’s Christian Formation and youth ministries offices, as well as to several youth and children ministry leaders, and discovered there is a lot being done.”
Cintrón-Olivieri says leaders shared what their congregations have been doing: from holding virtual youth group via Zoom or story time at night via Facebook Live at the congregation’s private group, to offering the children’s sermon via YouTube. The Christian Formation Office shared that the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators is offering “Zoom Gatherings” on all kinds of topics, including conversations on how to minister to youth and children during the pandemic.
“Inspired by these efforts and by one of our ruling elders in Puerto Rico, Desiré Sánchez Cardona, and the reading community she leads, “Leamos por SIempre,” now turned virtual because of the pandemic, I reached out to our own Presbyterian Publishing Corporation to inquire about reading some books from the children’s division, Flyaway Books, online,” she said. “With the given permission, the first story time went live on Friday, March 27.”
The hymn sing and story broadcasts have apparently found a niche. The posts from both of the Co-Moderators are drawing an average of 1,400 to 2,000 views.
Other PC(USA) staff have also found ways to reach out. William McConnell, mission engagement advisor with the Presbyterian Mission Agency, also serves as accompanist and music leader at a number of church conferences and gatherings. He began playing music from his home on Facebook.
“Several of my friends have been posting occasional short living room concerts for some time. As we all began hunkering down to ride out COVID-19, I noticed more and more of these being posted — some from friends I hadn’t seen or heard from in many years. I was thrilled by the rekindled connections,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed sitting at the piano to either improvise or play the works of great composers, often getting completely lost in the sounds. I decided this was a good way to bring others into my living room to join me in music, even if they could only be here virtually.”
McConnell says the response has been very positive as he provides an array of music from classical and musical theater pieces to hymns.
“I also think it is critical for us to make things of beauty during a time when there is a lot of un-beautiful stuff going on around us” he said. “No matter the rhetoric we hear, the scary and difficult news, or the circumstances we find ourselves in, music allows us to breathe deeply and relax into a place free of ugliness and fear.”
Church leaders believe the growth of virtual services and ministry won’t go away when the crisis has passed.
“When this is all said and done, churches will recognize there’s a need to offer worship remotely. It’s not an either/or,” said Kohlmann. “I see churches beginning to invest, as they can, in a long-term virtual offering. This will create permanent changes for many of our churches.”
“Churches are being very creative. It has been a way for people who can’t leave home to participate,” said Cintrón-Olivieri. “Churches are coming up with different ways of communicating using technology that is already in place.”
In addition to their current online projects, the Co-Moderators are also utilizing virtual communications for other purposes. The two plan to record greetings that can be shared with presbyteries and churches for planned meetings over the next few months.
“Presbyteries are welcome to reach out and if we are available, we’d be happy to bring a live greeting or do a 15-minute question-and-answer session, because it’s all virtual now,” said Kohlmann. “We are available to say hello and strengthen those connections.”
For parents and church leaders who have been inquiring about virtual story time using Flyaway Books, visit the website for books and details at https://www.flyawaybooks.com/.
To join the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators” “Zoom Gatherings” visit https://apcenet.org/apce-zoom-gatherings/.