Small churches overcome the digital divide with innovative strategies
By Lindsay Peyton
Most churches are moving their services online, however, for those located smaller towns and rural areas, the internet is not an option. The result is a digital divide between congregations with the access and ability to use technology and those that cannot. Churches in the Texas Annual Conference are searching for innovative ways to stay connected during the pandemic without relying on the internet – and still reach members who do not have the resources to use it.
Lonna Nunn stays busy in her role as administrator for the North District of the Texas Annual Conference, working in the Texarkana office. She never expected to also become teacher to her four children – ages 11, 7, 5 and 4.
Still, when stay at home orders were put into effect, that’s exactly what happened. Nunn had to completely switch gears and focus on their educations. Every other week, she picks up paper packets for each child from their school to complete as home assignments.
“The teachers send home lesson plans,” Nunn said. “They also send you reminder texts. They expect you to get that packet done.”
She lives just outside of Maud, with a population of just more than 1,000 people, and explained that switching to online education does not make sense for smaller towns or rural areas.
“People here may not have the equipment or they live remotely and cannot afford the internet,” she said. “There’s a digital divide – and I’m not sure everyone gets it.”
The school district, Nunn said, serves as an example of respecting that uneven access to communication and technology, which exists based on location, as well as income level.
Teachers were able to spring into action – and provide lengthy paper packets so children could continue their lessons at home, regardless of whether or not they had computers.
Since the internet is limited at Nunn’s home, the school district’s understanding and empathy makes a world of difference. “When our son is using our electronic equipment, it knocks me out of the saddle,” she said.
And Nunn has a lot to do to keep the North District office running in the midst of these uncertain times. She believes that churches can learn best practices from school districts during this time.
“Most households out here don’t have that equipment for their kids,” she said. “Even this household doesn’t have internet for all of the kids.”
That’s something congregations should consider as well. A lot of services have switched completely online.
“What about the ones who don’t have the capability or the know-how?” Nunn asked.
When churches move operations to Facebook, they could lose members who are not on social media, as well. “Going online is what we’re pushing, but you’ve still got to have some human connection,” Nunn said.
Some churches have found creative ways to stay connected during the pandemic, she explained. For example, one church created activity packets for children for Easter.
“We need to realize that personal touch, that handwritten note, that type of contact is still important,” Nunn said. “Not everyone has technology or knows how to use it. Those are the folks who feel lost even when it’s not a pandemic.”
The answer is not simply providing more equipment in areas that are struggling, she added. “Even with more equipment, you’ve still got the divide,” she said. “And even if the church is still able to get there digitally, there’s still a divide for the members.”
That fact is not lost on Pastor Raymond Vermillion. He leads Laneville UMC in the town of Laneville, population 1,072, about 13 miles south of Henderson.
“Many of our members don’t have the internet,” Vermillion said. “So, I give them a call on Sunday morning.”
The pastor rings up every member of his congregation, and it can take most of the day to get through the list. Last Sunday, he offered communion over the phone. Usually, he leads each household in a devotional.
“It’s more personal,” Vermillion said. “I can talk to everyone and find out how they’re doing.”
During the week, he calls sick and shut-in members. “I can’t visit the sick anymore,” Vermillion said. “I try to still ‘visit’ them in the middle of the week, just to see if they need anything, just to see how everyone is doing.”
Vermillion, 78, said he was in the 5th grade before his family had a phone. “A lot of people out here, you have to remember, were born when there weren’t even telephones,” he said. “Out in the country, there just weren’t that many.”
That background makes it even more difficult to adopt the internet now. A phone call can make a world of difference to members.
“They appreciate it; they really do,” Vermillion said. “You make due in this time. These are different times, and it’s going to take different things. The church has to roll with the punches.”
Rev. Dudley Plaisance serves as pastor at Pirtle UMC in Overton, population 2,515. His members also have difficulty accessing the internet. “Big churches think rural churches are just a smaller version of what they are,” he said. “That’s not true.”
Out in the country, Plaisance explained, people rely on dial-up modems and satellites. “If the wind blows, or clouds come in, you lose service,” he said. “It’s inadequate.”
In the past, the pastor said the church mailed out newsletters to members, but that became cost prohibitive. “We try to do things online now, but we have so many people who don’t have computers,” he said. “That’s not ideal.”
Pirtle UMC decided to print out newsletters instead of emailing them and hand them out on Sundays. That stopped during the coronavirus pandemic. “We haven’t been able to really take advantage of technology, but we’ve tried,” he said. “It’s almost better to go back to pen and paper.”
The church also moved to online services. Plaisance asks members with Facebook to share with a neighbor who does not have social media – if they can do so safely. The same goes for when he sends an email. “Make a copy and give it to a friend,” Plaisance suggests.
In addition, the pastor created phone chains so members can check up on one another. “It’s amazing how close our attendees are,” he said. “They’ve all been around here for a while. They’re really good at checking on each other and asking if someone needs help.”
The key is staying connected during these uncertain times, Plaisance explained, and finding ways to do so.
For example, he offered a drive-through communion the first Sunday of the month and collected offerings for the food bank at the event.
“This is not a new normal,” Plaisance said. “We will return back to normal. We have live broadcasts, but I miss the hugs. I miss the handshakes.”
In rural areas, where internet broadcasts are not accessible to all members, finding other ways to stay connected to church is essential.
“Larger churches have to remember that all churches are different,” Plaisance said. “They all have different resources and a different mix of congregants.”