With a sanctuary that can seat 3,000 people and a membership list that has just about maxed out that capacity, Oakwood University Church is a full house of worship. As it is a university church to the historically Black Seventh-day Adventist college, Oakwood University, the church’s attendance is highest during the school year. But it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic that Oakwood University Church realized just how many their sanctuary could host, and it is more than they ever imagined.
Before the national stay-at-home orders due to the coronavirus changed lifestyles and schedules around the globe, Oakwood University Church was an active place. They offered ministries and outreach focused on family, health, and community service where members could connect more than just one day a week. Every Sabbath a full choir wowed the congregation with music professionally orchestrated. Children were never left out of the service and were invited to be part of OakTown, a ministry filled with Bible studies, programs, stories, and many other opportunities dedicated entirely to teaching them about Jesus.
Amazingly, none of that changed when church doors were closed to stop the spread of coronavirus. In fact, Oakwood University Church’s ministries, programs, church services, and even their music were all prepared for a new-and-improved online debut well before March. This is largely in part to the conversations happening in the fall of 2019 between Oakwood University Church and Breath of Life Ministries. Pastor Carlton Byrd leads both, and the two go hand-in-hand to provide the production and distribution of the messages they share.
“We were already talking as a church and as a media ministry,” Byrd stated. “We wanted to broaden and amplify our online worship offerings.”
Byrd explained that even before the fall, they had renovated the Oakwood University Church last year with new pews, new carpet, and new lighting. Included in these renovations was a video wall, a large, blank wall stretching across the stage designed for high-quality video projection.
“In addition to our already fixed HD screens and cameras, we wanted to add the feature of the video wall.” Byrd said. He explained how this video wall would be key to creating a unique and high-quality worship experience not just for the would-be present congregation, but also for the online viewers they wanted to attract.
“We were already in motion, if you will, relative to increasing online Internet offerings, enhancing our video ministry.” Byrd explained further that with these steps toward growing their video and streaming capabilities as a church and as a media ministry, discussions were happening about planting an online church. This would be a big endeavor, complete with additional resources like apps and podcasts, and they were ready to make it happen with the people and talents within their church community.
“When COVID-19 hit,” Byrd continued, “we felt that God had already, in His omnipotence and omniscience, put it upon our hearts to begin preparation for increasing our online offerings.” He continued, “This was again, for me, as the pastor, another testament to being in harmony with the will of God and to be in tune with the Holy Spirit to do ministry.”
While the planning for this was well underway by the end of 2019, Byrd had left in the new year for Tanzania to do a big-scale evangelistic series where 16,000 people were baptized. By the time the series was ending in the first week of March 2020, the seriousness of COVID-19 was beginning to make headlines. Byrd and his team had to leave quickly in order to make it back to Huntsville, Alabama, before United States borders were closed. When he returned, he found a very different home to his Oakwood church. He realized he would not have had time to efficiently move church services online under different circumstances.
“When I get back, there’s really no preparation time,” Byrd summarized. “But God is so good because He knew we had to be ready and had already begun doing some things.”
When the pieces that would make online ministry possible were put in place in the fall of 2019, they were founded in intentionality. In general, Byrd says that he strives to create a purposeful ministry and church that asks, “How can we reach our neighbors? How do they think?” He calls it being “seeker-sensitive.”
“Your people have to want to attend. And then after your people attend, they’ve got to want to invite other people to attend. And then whoever attends is eager to return and come back,” he explained. This same philosophy and intentionality was applied to the virtual experience.
“I believe in doing things that epitomize and reflect excellence,” he stated. He added that he knew when he returned, the Oakwood University Church and Breath of Life Ministries would have to fully embrace the online streaming and production ideas that they had previously envisioned, and it would have to be good.
In the early days of the shutdown, they began by having their core church service leaders come to the church to live stream the service. This included the media, pastoral, and praise teams conducting a service to an empty church while the members stayed home to watch online. As an understanding of the spread of the coronavirus accelerated, the plan of action was re-evaluated by April. They instead pre-recorded portions of the service ahead of time to then piece together as a whole program.
With the planning, equipment, and minds that had been at work to make that happen, the productions put together every week honored the church’s commitment to excellence and experience. Even the most integral parts of a worship service like Oakwood’s were not lost; rather, they shined even brighter. One of those elements has been music.
Stephen Manders, Oakwood University Church’s Music Director and Assistant Minister of Music, had plans for pulling off a virtual choir well before COVID-19 as a new way to be innovative online. When the video wall was installed, he was especially excited to make it happen on the big screen. He just didn’t realize that his dream would end up being groundbreaking in a world of social distancing. Manders rounded up 24 friends and fellow Oakwood alums to be his virtual choir members. They were from all over the place including California, New York, and even Bermuda. They each recorded themselves singing their parts as they individually performed his original song, “Adoration.” Their voices and filmed recordings were then combined into one video, mixing the sound to match. This took a team of sound engineers and producers to pull off, and took about a month to put together the final product. The face of every choir member filled the video wall and Manders “directed” the singers on stage as if they were there in person. This was all recorded and featured during the April 4 service of church. The full video was featured on the Oakwood University Church’s Facebook page and received viral attention, with over 10,000 likes on Facebook and more than 32,000 views on YouTube. Manders has since created additional melodic masterpieces for online church viewing, his latest being a music video for a song “Heaven,” released July 11.
WATCH Adoration — Stephen Manders & The Oakwood Church Online Choir:
Another important aspect of Oakwood University Church is the OakTown Children’s Ministries. Through the ups and downs, transitions, and loss of togetherness in the school year, OakTown became even more of a dedicated place for children to feel connection, both to one another and to Jesus.
“We have an awesome Children’s Ministries Pastor.” Byrd says, speaking of Pastor Marc Stephen Raphael. “He has a great team, and they were doing some creative things before. But when COVID-19 hit, given the use of the video wall, they just started taking it to another level.”
Productions put on for OakTown are complete with puppets, animation, skits, the whole nine yards. Each episode ranges from 20-30 minutes, making its time on air more than just a five-minute children’s story. It’s an experience that is dedicated to the kids who count on and look forward to being part of a community of their own.
With the high-quality productions Oakwood University church is putting out every week, viewership continues to increase. Numbers are well over the 3,000 registered members of the church, though Byrd did not isolate a specific number. Oakwood University Church has been able to use their growing platform to host guests virtually like music artists, guest speakers, and even high profile names like Al Sharpton that all garner further attention. Byrd’s interview with Sharpton on July 11 welcomed at least 9,000 devices to the live stream over multiple platforms, and likely an exponential number of viewers with each device.
What they’re doing is being watched and well received. Byrd makes an appeal every Sabbath to those watching that if they are interested in joining the church, have questions, want study materials, or need prayer, to visit their website to get in touch with him. He receives 100-150 responses to that appeal every week, and he then personally emails each of them to connect. If people are interested in Bible studies, they are invited to join a weekly Monday night Bible study via Zoom. That group now welcomes over 160 people every week. Surprisingly or not, this growth of interest and involvement has sparked a growth in giving.
“The Lord has enlarged our territory,” Byrd testifies. “We’ve got people all over the world who are responding.”
While they are meeting more and more new people every week through their online programming, there is still a more personal touch happening within their home base, as much as social distancing will allow. The Oakwood University Church’s original 3,000 members have opportunities to work together more than ever through all this thanks to all the coordination it has taken to make online church possible. They also are present throughout this pandemic to their community in Huntsville, representing the church to their neighbors.
For example, every Wednesday, they put on a contactless food giveaway. This happens at the Family Life Center, a 20,000 square foot structure built a couple years ago to facilitate engagement and outreach. Cars line up to receive fresh produce, canned goods, and other food items. This community service provides food to at least 150 families a week. The Family Life Center is also home to a barbershop. People from the community come to the shop for haircuts, providing church members with jobs, the church with residual income, and Huntsville residents with a perspective of the church that can be found outside a pew. The Family Life Center also facilitates a health clinic and a small ABC store, both of which are popular.
“We are a church on the [Oakwood University] campus, but we are here to serve both the campus and our community,” Byrd said.
Between the Bible studies, church broadcasts, ministries, services, and many programs, Oakwood University Church is a busy place working to safely serve their personal community and growing online crowd.
“I would dare to say we are doing more work now than we were before, and we were working hard before,” Byrd stated. “The intentionality that we have to engage, practice, and follow is a stretch that requires work every day at the church.” While they make that stretch look pretty easy, Byrd has a message for any other churches who may be watching and saying that this wouldn’t be possible for a small church with a small congregation and small budget.
“The key is the commitment, the faithfulness, and the intentionality,” he states. “A lot of people don’t understand the work that goes behind it. You have to be committed to provide quality content. Your words on the screen are spelled correctly, your grammar is correct, you have the right shots, and your lighting is where it needs to be. You have to be committed to that.” He continues, “It goes back to what I said earlier. Your members have to want to watch, they have to be proud of what they watch so they invite others to watch.”
Byrd believes that even as local churches open back up, those who have found a home at Oakwood University Church in this time will continue to tune into the Oakwood worship services, particularly younger people.
“I think people miss fellowship,” he stated, “but in terms of the quality of the worship experience, I think people look for that.”
Oakwood University Church will continue to produce their online church service for the unforeseeable future after considering the limitations placed on churches choosing to open up.
“With all the guidelines, our leadership team felt it best to just keep doing what we’re doing. We’re reaching more people anyway, we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing,” Byrd shared.
As far as what they’ll do differently in their service or choose to continue focusing on when they are able to meet again as a congregation, Byrd said they will “definitely keep an emphasis on children’s ministries.” Manders is planning on creating more virtual choir videos and hopes to include singers from all over the globe in the next one as a way of inviting more people to be part of the Oakwood family. Byrd also says they will commit to keeping the format they have now which has cut out some of the extra filler content like announcements, saying it will remain an “essential worship service.” Whether on the screen or in the sanctuary, they hope to continue to stretch their reach.
More articles in the Virtual Ministry Series:
“Loving Well at Crosswalk Church” by Hallie Anderson, June 10, 2020
An Interview with Carlton Byrd by Alita Byrd, December 11, 2018
Hallie Anderson is a writer, reader, and freelance marketing and communications specialist based in the foothills of Northern California.
Image: Video still of Stephen Manders, Oakwood University Church’s Music Director and Assistant Minister of Music, directing his virtual choir as they perform his original song, “Adoration.”
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