To say that the pandemic has changed the form of worship is basically a redundancy. After more than a year of living with Covid-19, you've certainly used technology to “go to” church. This is reflected in the numbers of access to online services in some churches across Brazil.
Many of these congregations already had a structure that allowed for good-quality broadcasts. However, many others had to adapt and, even with few resources, started to offer sermons, the study of the Sabbath School Lesson, and other events through the internet.
This was the case of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the city of Campos dos Goytacazes, in Rio de Janeiro. According to Pastor Robson Menezes, before Covid-19 "there was a medium-term planning for the start of broadcasts, [but] the pandemic expedited the process."
The biggest difficulty, however, was training the volunteer members who would take care of the technical part of the transmissions. Even though they participated in training before the pandemic, as part of the planning, it was still very embryonic, according to Menezes.
After encountering technical challenges, many doubts arose about the participation of members in this new type of worship. “When services were suspended, we soon started our broadcasts to facilitate the process and [getting] a positive response from the church,” he adds.
In order to keep members engaged and still involved with their community, even from a distance, Pastor Robson Menezes started doing virtual visits. Telephone and video calls were the means that allowed him to be attentive to people's needs, both spiritual and material.
“The online visitation work contributed a lot so that the brothers remained connected to the local church. Although [a] few [members] prefer to watch broadcasts from other churches, we have the vast majority of our members preferring to participate in local services”, describes Menezes.
Unlike the church in the interior of Rio de Janeiro, the congregation on the São Paulo campus of the Adventist University Center of São Paulo (UNasp) already had a strong online presence. Up until March 2020, however, their audience consisted mostly of people linked to the institution in some way, such as former students or their families.
According to Fábio Bergamo, advertiser and also the person responsible for the digital presence of the Unasp Church, “after a restructuring of communication as a whole, together with the pandemic, the channel became the church itself. Our brand positioning is 'Lugar de Encontros' and this has fully transferred to our digital channels. It became the real meeting place”.
In the beginning, it was possible to count on a more individualized service with the spectators. However, as the audience grew exponentially, it was necessary to develop strategies to keep in touch with these people. “We created special forms for different types of service requests: Bible studies; prayer; baptisms. These forms are sent to those responsible for coordinating contact with those [that express interest”, explains Bergamo. Today, the Sabbath service receives about 15,000 people simultaneously, approximately three times the number of registered members of the local church.
After a few months of the pandemic, when the churches could be reopened, the insecurity about the return of people to face-to-face contact became another reason for concern. However, a survey conducted by the Digital Strategies department of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in South America indicates that 63% of members want to return to the traditional modality of worship.
Mission in Practice
Those who are also concerned about the matter are members linked to music. This group, with the desire to introduce Christ to others in a more intense way, created a kind of digital Bible school. “The idea was to offer to teach about the holy book of Christianity, [the Bible], to those who were already listening to our music”, says Rodrigo Palheiro, leader of the Bons Ventos project. About 57 volunteers are divided into teams to care for approximately 84 people interested in studying the Bible.
These teams, called ministries, work with technology, content, engagement in social networks, and a relationship with participants. The latter, especially, deals with the integration of the digital medium with the physical, in-person church.
The studies take place via videoconferences in groups of up to 10 people during the week and, on Sundays, a special program with one guest encourages everyone to share their experiences. Today, there are 87 people on the waiting list to participate in the initiative, and volunteers are working to clear that list.
Preaching in all languages
In Paraguay, in addition to Spanish, Guarani is one of the official languages of the country. In some regions, it is the only language spoken. When the quarantine began in 2020, Pastor Anastacio Gimenez decided to record biblical messages for this audience. The idea came from his daughter and the project grew from there. What was created to reach only this one region now has extended to three-minute messages that are broadcast on local radio and also sent to Paraguayans living in other countries through WhatsApp, Facebook, and Youtube.
At almost 60 years old, Gimenez says that he does everything at home, with his own cell phone, and cannot estimate how many people receive the content, since those who receive it on their cell phone also share it with others.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has been investing in digital content for a few years, so when the pandemic hit, there was a structure ready to meet this demand. This initiative attracted a new audience.
“Many people who knew Adventists, but were afraid to visit a church, were able to see how it works and had the opportunity to participate and get involved,” explains Carlos Magalhães, Manager of the Digital Strategies Department for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in South America. In addition to this new audience, people who already belonged to the denomination saw in this tool an opportunity to continue their religious ties.
One factor to be taken into account is the diversity of contexts found in South American countries. Some regions do not have access to the internet to support a broadcast, or even the financial means to acquire the minimum necessary equipment. Thus, the resources offered by the institution and by TV Novo Tempo are critical for worship service.
One of these digital tools is Esperança, a robot that offers Bible courses through WhatsApp. In addition, sermon series and biblical questions on digital channels in video, text, and posts on social networks are a connecting bridge for those interested in knowing more about the Bible.
Pastor Rafael Rossi, Director of the Communications Department for eight countries in South America, recalls that the goal of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is to preach the gospel to the entire world, in reference to the text found in the biblical book of Matthew 24:14. “I like to think that the internet is a network of people and not a network of computers. Therefore, the Church must go out to meet people and not passively wait for them to come to us”, he points out.