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Area churches adapt as more members participate online

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Posted at 4:35 PM, Nov 10, 2023

BRECKSVILLE, Ohio — For many, the way in which religion is practiced changed in March of 2020. Now, almost four years later, area churches across Northeast Ohio tell News 5 they're still drawing in online members at numbers they never expected.

At the Brecksville United Methodist Church, Reverend Heidi Welch is bootstrapping a background in video production.

"It was a complete shift and it has changed how I do ministry in every way," she explained. "We used our phone on Facebook Live that first Sunday [in 2020] and we quickly grew and adapted. We have been figuring it out as we go along."

Nowadays, Rev. Welch always has her eye on the four cameras during a Sunday service and sets aside more of their budget to reach beyond their walls.

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Rev. Heidi Welch shows off their control room which oversees four cameras throughout the sanctuary.

"We have two-thirds of the people here in the pews and about a third of the people on any given Sunday are worshipping online," she said.

And these aren't just church members in Northeast Ohio unable to attend in person. She points to repeat attendees across the U.S. and even in places such as Romania and Ireland.

"I don’t know if I could place Romania on a map, and part of our community is there, and that's amazing," she said. "We have new people who are joining online each week and they come in person if they can and engage and connect with the community and they’re people we wouldn't reach otherwise."

This was a common comment from church leaders in our area, pointing to more and more virtual worshippers.

Consider George Harb and his mother Nareen among them. Every Sunday, Harb can be found at his church in Tremont. But thanks to advice from a friend during the pandemic, he and his mother will also watch online the service for St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, located in Cicero, Illinois.

"She likes this particular priest; he’s very eloquent with his words," he explained. "We started listening to his programs and we started watching, but we also started watching my church too."

Over at The Word Church in Warrensville Heights, no short drive or even direct flight could take you to some of their newest tithing members.

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A map highlights all the cities and countries where at least several hundred people watched The Word Church for an extended period of time during the month of October.

As Ray Vernon, young adult pastor who also serves as Media director and e-campus lead points out, people regularly watch their Sunday service from faraway countries such as Spain, New Zealand and South Korea. And they’re doing it on their terms.

"We should not allow anyone that's in the world to say the church is falling behind or the church is irrelevant," Vernon explained. "Let us do it bolder and proudly with the highest technology we can."

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Ray Vernon highlights the control room inside The Word Church.

"On any given Sunday, while I’m preaching live, there are 3,000-4,000 people watching," Pastor R.A. Vernon added. "By the end of the day, it’s 10,000. By the end of the work, it’s 20,000-30,000. I need to have this double-minded mentality where my training in seminary teaches me to preach to the crowd, now I need to make contact with [the camera]."

As a result, Dr. R.A. Vernon and his team poured more than $1 million into their setup with a state-of-the-art control room and a team of 15-20 people handling the live stream and social media.

"I have members [who have joined our church] in Oklahoma, in Detroit, in South Carolina," he said. "They are members of The Word Church sending their money here, praying for us."

Vernon remembers when he first started preaching to an online audience prior to 2020 and the comments he heard from others.

"They thought this was demonic, too worldly, too not Godly, but then it became the only way to connect [during the pandemic]," he said. "Kudos to our team. We were ready."

In some cases though, the church buildings weren't necessarily ready to move online.

The Brecksville United Methodist Church has been in downtown Brecksville with a building for 200 years. Their current one was completed in 1953, and doesn't always work well with modern-day streaming.

"Our wonderful windows and the screen, we get some beautiful light that looks amazing in person and messes all the cameras up when we get a bright ray of sunshine or a cloud comes in," Rev. Welch smiled. "Our cameras are on the balcony, and if people are walking with a heavy foot, sometimes the cameras are shaking."

While some religions embrace this new shift, that’s not the case for all of them.

The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland confirmed to News 5 that they do have a presence online and stream masses for those unable to attend in person.

"It does afford an opportunity for those who are ill, hospitalized, or otherwise restricted from attending, to have some connection to their community of faith," a spokesperson said. "In fact, we record and make weekly/Sunday TV masses available via local broadcast for those unable to attend mass in person in the Northeast Ohio area."

However, for those able, a TV or online mass does not fulfill the Sunday mass obligation, in part because it does not include receiving the Eucharist.

"I’ll always be a little old school," Vernon said when asked about his preference of in-person vs. online. "Your family could do Thanksgiving online. Would it be the same? There’s something coming together, but at the same time, it is what it is. Something is better than nothing. So the hundreds who watch me on Sundays that would have never walked in anyone’s church still hear the message of Christ."

"God is much bigger than a building and bigger than we could ever imagine," Rev. Welch added. "That has been the best lesson for me and I hope and I pray we can all learn from this."

Clay LePard is a special projects reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow him on Twitter @ClayLePard or on Facebook Clay LePard News 5

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