Churches’ shift online moves the medium but maintains the message during coronavirus crisis

Diane Hodgkins, left, family ministries director at Mariners Church in Huntington Beach, and Jen Epperson, children's pastor for Mariners' Irvine campus, record a family worship service Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Church leaders speak into cell phones feeding straight to Facebook or to video cameras on tripods before their words and images are edited for YouTube. They deliver messages in unusually quiet spaces. Echoes bounce off the ceilings of empty sanctuaries. Voices in song or response are elsewhere — probably living rooms.

Houses of worship have shifted to worship inside the house.

In these uncertain and isolating times of the coronavirus pandemic, clergy members from a range of denominations and traditions are directing the faithful to turn to what they believe to be stable and true — and to the internet.

As developments in the coronavirus outbreak continued Friday, several local faith communities made changes in a variety of ways — moving weekend services online, installing hand sanitizer dispensers and, in at least one case, removing the holy water basin.

In a Sunday school classroom at Mariners Church in Irvine, pastors moved aside a foosball table and low-slung chairs to open enough space to record the first segment of a new at-home service geared to families with young children.

“We want to worship with our whole hearts,” children’s pastor Jen Epperson said in prayer with a small pastoral and production team before rolling cameras Tuesday.

Then they sang and danced and played with props and made kid-friendly jokes to buttress a lesson on King Solomon. The children already had started learning about Solomon before local, county and state officials tightened directives restricting public and private gatherings.

Kids worship leader Bella Huff, center, and other members of Mariners Church's Irvine campus record a family worship service Tuesday to be shown on the internet.
Kids worship leader Bella Huff, center, and other members of Mariners Church’s Irvine campus record a family worship service Tuesday to be shown on the internet.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Senior pastor Eric Geiger wove both themes into the day’s story-time-style sermon.

“He just wanted one thing from God. Now sometimes people have asked that — if you could ask for one thing, what would it be?” Geiger said.

“Maybe right now some of you are like, ‘I would ask God that I could go back to school.’ Or some of you would say, ‘I’d ask God that I would never have to go back to school.’”

The segment is available on YouTube and the websites for Mariners’ locations in Irvine and Huntington Beach.

Mariners already had a robust online presence. The church regularly records its weekend services and other messages. Until now, though, digital ministry augmented its work. Today, it is the only way.

Geiger is effortlessly eloquent and warm, as ministers who strive to effectively engage would be. Nonetheless, he and his colleagues have had to work out in real time the bugs of preaching directly to lenses — where to look, how to fashion their speech rhythms without the reciprocal energy of live audiences.

“You just tell yourself [that] on the other side of that camera are a whole lot of people you love,” Geiger said.

Jen Epperson, children's pastor at Mariners Church in Irvine, leads a prayer before recording a family worship service with other members.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Mariners created its family web service to give children something comforting and familiar and to create a new routine, Geiger said. The church also launched a virtual gathering for teenagers.

Tuesday’s session had more people pitching in than would now be recommended, following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s updated directives Thursday. Mariners — which started in a Newport Beach living room in the 1960s — pivoted again for this weekend, adjusting its production methods to continue to make videos. On Friday, it reminded its congregation that it would still be there, so they could be apart but remain together.

“Tag a friend and let them know which service you’ll be watching,” the church posted on Facebook.

Solomon, the Bible says, asked for wisdom. This pleased God.

With his wisdom, Solomon wrote the Book of Proverbs — like 3:5-6, a passage that Geiger gave his young flock:

“Trust the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways, submit to him and he will make your paths straight.”

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