Imagine this: an online church service that wasn’t uncomfortable to watch. One that didn’t have glitches, hiccups, or dropped connections. One that was expertly put together with high-definition camera footage shot from multiple angles like a movie. One that had background music, palpable emotion, and personal touches. One that you looked forward to watching every week and that didn’t feel like a loss of connection but rather a gain of community. Imagine a team of church members who could make that possible. Who have not just flipped on a webcam for a live stream and hoped for the best, but who have curated an entire online experience complete with study guides, blogs, podcasts, kids programs, devotionals, online giving opportunities, and even trendy merchandise. This kind of accessibility and creativity has been reality for Crosswalk church in the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s captivating.
In 2020, we’ve watched work meetings become lengthy conference calls and classrooms gather via Zoom due to the Coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world. The Internet is a crowded place as people try and remain connected while social distancing. Church is no exception to the transition and congregations everywhere are adjusting every week to the current reality.
Online church is a strange concept to those who are used to sitting in pews every week, and there are many approaches when it comes to making church service streaming possible. Some pastors broadcast live from home and speak to the webcam while others stand at the pulpit and record as if the rows are full. Some go live and archive later, and some record ahead and upload the video on Sabbath morning. Whatever the plan of execution, it’s no small feat to pull off, regardless of church size and resources.
For the smaller churches, it most likely has been a much more bumpy road to the online world. No one anticipated this transition lasting as long as it has and every week they are stretched as they try and capture some semblance of normalcy on camera. Little local churches who had never live-streamed before COVID-19 have had to put on a televised show with inadequate technology and experience. Offering plates are not being passed around, revealing a distinct lack of opportunities for online giving. Some churches are not even streaming at all and are even more anxious than others to get back in their buildings.
But this is not the case for all. In fact, some have been playing on the far-reaching virtual stage long before COVID-19. Some SDA churches already had a significant following and online presence before the Coronavirus pandemic and are thriving rather than simply surviving in these times. They are creative, they have stockpiles of technology and talents, and they are casting their nets wider than ever before.
Crosswalk is a Seventh-day Adventist church in Redlands, CA, with on-brand satellite campuses of like-minded friends in Chattanooga, TN, Clinton, MA, Northeast Atlanta, GA, Los Angeles, CA, and, most recently, Portland, OR.
Before church doors were closed by the pandemic, the Redlands Crosswalk church would seat 1,800-2,000 members every week between multiple services and would welcome anywhere from 300-400 additional followers through their online streaming. Other campuses like the Chattanooga location would see an average of 500 people between two services. Before social distancing regulations, these satellite campuses would run their programs live with their own worship teams and member-led gatherings and then would sit down and enjoy the sermon from the Redlands team via pre-recorded video, keeping all campuses connected.
Crosswalk in Redlands was additionally already live streaming every Sabbath service to online viewers who don’t have a satellite campus to join. This was expertly done with five or six cameras capturing not just the content of Crosswalk but also the feelings and emotions of the service, allowing everybody to feel connected, both online and in-person. Now that each campus has jumped into the virtual world full-time, they’ve doubled down on their efforts to keep the Crosswalk experience as personal as possible. It’s a team effort that, yes, kind of did happen overnight.
When Governor Gavin Newsom of California announced the official shutdown of California businesses, services, and gatherings on Thursday, March 19, a core group of the Crosswalk leadership team met to create a game plan of how to approach the transition. This included their Lead Pastor, Tim Gillespie, their Digital Content Manager, Charissa Roxas, and their Worship Leader and Youth Pastor (and wearer of many other hats), Isai Moran. In that Thursday meeting, a plan was made for the coming Sabbaths away from their church family.
The experience Crosswalk provides for its members has always been a priority and they did not want that personal connection to be lost through a screen. Every detail of how a one-hour church service would be shared each week was planned in that meeting. In less than 24 hours, an outline for storytelling and an editing team to make it happen were put together. A fully filmed and edited church service was uploaded online for Crosswalk members all across the nation by Saturday morning.
Here’s how they do it: everything is pre-recorded. It’s one final product that is shared with every Crosswalk campus through YouTube and Facebook Live. Viewers can tune in at what would be their normal church time and watch “together” and interact in the chat sections with their pastors, friends, and church family. Members and leaders from all campuses collaborate to film, produce, and edit the final version of the service that is shared every Sabbath.
“We want to put out quality,” Roxas stated. She explained that those involved in the service can turn their videos in ahead of time so videos can be re-shot when needed, and each element becomes part of one seamless story. To Crosswalk, pre-recording doesn’t mean a loss of intimacy and connection. It eliminates the risk of technical difficulties and failures like losing a live stream mid-sermon or partway through song service.
Pastor Isai oversees the music portions of the service from Redlands, CA, creating music-video-like films with his team members. “We really feel like the pre-recorded worship service allowed us to story-tell in a new way. We have felt that the Holy Spirit worked through that.” They are typically “intimate sets” rather than the full band for obvious reasons, and the words are added to the screen for members to join along from home. They’ve also had worship team members from the satellite campuses lead the song service by filming in their location, allowing more than just the Redlands group to be seen and heard in the service.
In addition to the music are a few portions every week starring church members who are home. Whether it be in a welcome clip or in a feature for Mother’s Day or Nurses Week, members participate in the service by sending in their pre-recorded videos.
“We’ve been able to highlight some of our community members every single week in a different way,” Pastor Isai said. “That’s something we don’t necessarily get to do when we’re all together.” This is another way all campuses are included in one service, and Crosswalk members share what their church family means to them every week.
“What I love about Crosswalk is how much we truly live up to our statement of ‘loving well,’” said Patricia Wityczak, Crosswalk member and a nurse at Loma Linda University Medical Center in a COVID unit. “I’ve been going [to Crosswalk] for years, and my love for Him just grows more and more. Even though we physically can’t meet right now, emotionally and spiritually we are still so connected and so united and so supportive towards each other.” She continued, “Being an RN in a COVID unit right now where times are so negative and filled with doubt and fear, I can’t thank my Crosswalk family enough for uplifting me with such powerful words and hearing what the pastor has to say and being able to take that with me and sharing it with my patients. It’s so uplifting.”
Those words from the pastors in the sermons may actually be filmed and ready to go before anything else when piecing together the church service productions. The message is recorded sometimes as early as Tuesday before the coming Sabbath. Pastor Tim goes to the church building or outdoors on a walk with his videographer and speaks directly to the camera, knowing his church family will be on the other side by the end of the week. His current sermon series, Gaining Ground, was actually adapted to be more relevant to the current circumstances. It was initially about the book of Joshua but was switched to themes of crisis in 1st and 2nd Thessalonians. He said that while most would pivot to Daniel and Revelation, he thought there was something more practically accessible about what Paul had to say to the Thessalonians about troubling times.
“I thought that, in 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, Paul is dealing with a lot of crisis in the church and dealing with end-time issues. But he deals with it in such a different way. It’s not the metaphors and the numbers of Revelation or the prophecies of Daniel. He deals with it in such a practical way.”
Each pre-recorded element of the full service is put together by the end of the week and comes together as one cohesive service. The week ends and again begins another six days of content gathering and editing as all Crosswalk campuses work together with the resources and talents they have to produce a service they love attending together.
The entire production plan has been well received. YouTube viewership is the highest, racking up close to 20,000 views when this switch first launched. The same content on Facebook brings in another few thousand every Sabbath according to the view count.
The same point of increase is true for giving, as well. Crosswalk has created several options for online giving including Push Pay, Pay Pal, and Adventist Giving.
“With a shattered economy, there just isn’t as much money to go around,” Pastor Tim acknowledged. “But we have not seen significant decreases. So far, it has not been devastating.” In fact, he later explained that they’ve seen growth in new givers as more people are learning about Crosswalk and joining the family. Even if just for now, people everywhere are responding to what Crosswalk is doing and want to be part of it.
But while the programming and story-telling style that has created successes for them in this time has not changed, Pastor Tim noted that viewership has declined slowly over the course of the pandemic.
“I think what is happening is two things,” he explained. “One is families are settling into the ‘Okay, we’re doing this, so let’s create a family time together.’ So there are fewer devices being used to watch it and they’re sitting down and watching it together. And secondly, I think people are really tired of seeing things on a screen. I know I am.”
As any person heading into their third month of quarantine can relate, fatigue is real. And while the Crosswalk team has done a creative and cutting-edge job making church possible through computers, it’s not the way they want things to be forever by any means. They are eager to take what they’ve learned in this time back into their buildings where they gather together.
“I think there are a lot of changes that are going to stick with us,” Pastor Tim said. “We’re going to curate the online experience very differently than we have before. From the equipment that we use to the way it looks, to the interaction we have with online hosts.”
In fact, Crosswalk had already toyed with the idea of online church “venues” in addition to their satellite campuses before COVID-19. At the time, no one was sure people would even watch church through a screen.
“Turns out, they will,” Pastor Tim deduced. “This has helped our model.”
Crosswalk has been in the growth mindset from the get-go whether its been prioritizing the growth of their online following or their in-person venues. In fact, the satellite campuses they’ve planted and continue to cultivate have happened over the span of months, not years. People who want a Crosswalk satellite church in their community continually approach them, and when the resources like a building and a new batch of people are available, it happens quickly and pretty much for free. The hurdles they’ve had to jump in the last few months to meet together online have only spurred their creativity. What they’re doing is continually appealing to people who have never attended a Crosswalk church and who are finding they like the experience Crosswalk creates. Even on a slow day for streaming on Sabbath right now, Crosswalk is seeing quadruple the numbers of people online they normally would. And while people may not uproot their lives to go and find a Crosswalk campus, they might stick around long after the pandemic to at least catch a live stream. So this doesn’t necessarily mean that smaller churches will lose members; rather, their members will gain an additional community.
“People will stay connected with the content that is meaningful to them,” Pastor Tim predicted. “They’re going to go back to their own churches because they need people.” But he acknowledged that when it comes to programming, Crosswalk “has been blessed to mature in this space and we have an incredible team.” He continued saying that, “quite honestly, in this time we have grown our expertise and what exactly it is that we do.” He expressed an excitement for what the future holds as far as continuing to build their online presence with the communities they’ve knit together. Crosswalk followers will reunite someday soon but are already, in many ways, closer than ever.
As for re-opening, Pastor Tim addressed questions and concerns during the May 23rd service after President Trump deemed places of worship essential. He announced that the Northeast Atlanta campus moved forward with a “soft opening” after reviewing new restrictions.
“As states and counties and cities reopen, we have continually been asked this question: ‘When can we come back and worship?’” He answered, explaining that each area will be moving through reopening phases at different paces, and the safety of each community and the implications that come with reopening under restrictions will be carefully considered.
“When we come back, particularly on our larger campuses and certainly here at Redlands, we want to make sure we can mark the occasion with a worship experience you have come to appreciate, expect, and one that is uniquely Crosswalk.” He continued, “We won’t rush back… we’re going to honor our community, state and national leaders, as well as our denominational leaders, with a cooperative spirit and a willingness to serve.”
Hallie Anderson is a writer, reader, and freelance marketing and communications specialist based in the foothills of Northern California.
Image: Crosswalk Church pastors pictured left to right: Mike Rhynus (Discipleship & Service), Tom Quishenberry (First Impressions & Hospitality), Tim Gillespie (Lead), Keren Graves (Children & Family) & Isai Moran (Worship & Youth). Courtesy of Crosswalk.
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