It’s Not Business; It’s Personal — Virtual Ministry Series

Loma Linda University Church has always been known to more than just the 6,000 registered members living in the Southern California blue zone. Even before the virtual shift churches made in the COVID-19 pandemic, Loma Linda University Church hosted thousands outside their sanctuary walls for years. Whether through the flip of a TV channel to Loma Linda Broadcasting Network or a click of a subscribe button on YouTube, Loma Linda University Church’s services have graced screens around the world for a long time.

On a usual, non-pandemic Sabbath, Loma Linda University Church was viewed online by at least 2,500 over any given weekend. That number was easily up to 8,000 by the end of each week as viewers decided to catch up on weekdays, as their weekends were likely spent with their local church family. This is only counting the online streams via Loma Linda University Church’s website and not even the inestimable number of people catching the sermons on cable TV or with a link to more modern options like Facebook Live.

When mid-March 2020 brought the world to a halt, Loma Linda University Church moved solely online as gatherings were limited and social-distancing guidelines went into effect. They started out filming in the sanctuary as usual, with a limited media and pastoral team in place to preach to empty pews. But they quickly changed their plan of action after just one week when a team member was potentially exposed to COVID-19 through a person who was also potentially exposed, a contact tracing story that is all too familiar now, more than six months later.

It was in that short amount of time that Loma Linda University Church set up work-from-home technology for their pastors and key media staff in order to produce a completely remote experience. In the same way Loma Linda University Church has always resonated with people both far and near, their online productions have drawn quite the digital crowd.

That first weekend of online streaming welcomed 5,000 viewers and saw an exponential growth of 15,000 views by the end of the week. By the fourth week, their YouTube stream was as high as 40,000 views. The numbers have fluctuated throughout the pandemic, but Loma Linda University Church has gained a significant online following as people around the world search for a service they can enjoy from home.

All of these streaming statistics are conservative estimates given by Stew Harty, Loma Linda University’s Director of Media. Harty has been instrumental in bringing Loma Linda University Church’s message to its members and onlookers for many years, but like all professionals in this time, Harty and his team are in new territory. He explained candidly that even when a week of recording, editing, and uploading goes smoothly, it requires three to four times the time commitment than they were previously use to in their full-time roles. When there are technological hiccups, it’s even longer.

A typical week for Loma Linda University Church’s media team and pastors nowadays is busier than ever. Filming begins early in the week, from the children’s story to the sermon, and is done independently by those doing the recording. Ideally, videos are all in by Wednesday, Thursday at the latest. They are then edited together by the media staff and ready for sharing by Sabbath. The planning, organization, and equipment it takes to perfect this is enormous, and it’s done week after week.

This is just the tip of the iceberg as Loma Linda University Church has never been a once-a-week kind of place. Loma Linda is home to a world-renowned medical school, hospital, and community. There is always something happening at a place in the Adventist world as instrumental and populated as Loma Linda, and that hasn’t changed just because people aren’t gathering. Loma Linda University Church’s virtual schedule is packed even on weekdays with Bible studies, small group gatherings, vespers, and prayer meetings. They have also managed to pull off online versions of camp meeting and Vacation Bible School. Loma Linda University Church has something every day for everyone. They do this not because they need to attract more and more people. It’s quite the opposite. They do it because they want to make something that has quickly become so big and so busy feel more intimate. As they continue to welcome a growing audience, it’s their personal approach that stands out most.

Dan Matthews, associate pastor for Loma Linda University Church Senior Ministries, is a great example of this approach in action. Every church service, he wishes members a happy birthday or happy anniversary on camera, spotlighting the people who would normally be in Loma Linda’s pews every week. These are the faces of friendly neighbors, extended family members, longtime co-workers, and old friends that make up the Loma Linda University Church. With a background in media as Executive Director for the Faith For Today television ministry and host of Lifestyle Magazine for 19 years, Matthews has a passion for quality production and a heart for people.

Being both a leader in Senior Ministries and a senior himself, Matthews knows how difficult that transition has been for their generation. Seniors are in a high-risk group when it comes to COVID-19, and it’s important to their church family that they are both protected and connected in this time when visits to care homes are not allowed and house visits are not encouraged. In light of this, Matthews and his two Senior Ministries colleagues have made every effort to communicate often with Loma Linda University Church’s senior population over the phone. Matthews said that each of them easily spends 20-30 hours a week talking to as many members as possible. They have additional volunteers who do the same and who also offer any kind of help or services from the church they may need.

“The whole ministry environment has dramatically changed and we simply do the best we can to call,” said Matthews.

While these phone calls mean more to isolated members than anyone can truly know, there is no perfect solution to replicate the feeling of being together. Members as a whole are used to being in the sanctuary with one another and have never needed to rely on so much technology to attend church. Many have access to Loma Linda Broadcasting Network where they are familiar with finding the service on TV, but this is not necessarily the best way for members to connect with their church family in these times. Matthews explained that, as the church and broadcasting network are separate entities, Loma Linda Broadcasting Network has their own programming and scheduling. If the Loma Linda University Church service for the week goes longer than the allotted time slot Loma Linda Broadcasting Network has for Loma Linda University Church, the service may be cut off and programming rolls to the next piece. Loma Linda University Church is also producing much more than just a sermon a week, so they are more inclined to direct members to the Loma Linda University Church website where they can find everything from sermons, to music, to study groups, to Sabbath schools all in one online place. This is also the best and farthest-reaching place for their growing worldwide audience to find them in their search for Loma Linda University Church content.

Matthews spoke highly of the Loma Linda University Church leadership and media teams and the way they swiftly moved the church community online. Not only was it quick, it was quality.

“Stew [Harty] and his team put forth remarkable efforts to produce a program that is not only spiritually inspiring but also technically inspiring,” said Matthews. “It is unbelievable what the media team is able to do… There is a production quality at Loma Linda University Church that most other operations can’t even aspire to.”

It is this kind of high quality production with such a wide variety of continual content that is both drawing a new crowd and making the material relatable for the members who know those on screen personally.

Perhaps the best example of that high quality content can be seen in the musical portions of a church service. Loma Linda University Church members are accustomed to a robust, musical church service filled with a wide variety of talent. Their services are known to feature diverse sounds and genres ranging from classical, folk, and contemporary worship. And it can all still be enjoyed in their online services.

Adriana Perera, Director of Worship and Musical Arts at Loma Linda University Church, is the newest team member who makes that possible. Perera joined Loma Linda University Church’s staff in July, leaving her role at Andrew University as Chair of the Department of Music. Moving to Loma Linda and taking on the major role in a time where everything about worship is online was no small task, but Perera said the transition has been going well. She inherited the role from Kristian Leukert who was also instrumental to bringing music to the online masses and helped Perera get her footing in her new work environment and church family.

“The team here is really remarkable,” she said of the music, media, and pastoral staffs that make up Loma Linda University Church.

Perera’s training and background is in piano, composition, and the study of worship. She has spent more than 30 years teaching and researching the subject of music. She has even been writing the scores of the songs performed in any given church service, creating special arrangements of familiar songs with accompaniment parts for piano, strings, and more. Perera explained that hymns are just the vocal portion, limiting many churches in what they can perform, record, and stream due to music copyright laws. Having their own scores allows Loma Linda University Church to record and stream music that is fully developed with many musical parts and moving pieces.

But even with that edge, nothing quite prepares you for a time like a pandemic where church members cannot safely gather to sing and worship together. Perera described what she calls the “heart posture” of worship, an “inward attitude,” and how that unique feeling, emotion, and experience changes when it is shared through a screen. She said that has been the most challenging aspect of the role.

Perera and her fellow department leaders have combated this challenge with practice and prayer. During the week, musicians leading the worship service or performing special music meet with the music and media teams to rehearse. This is done with as few people as possible and with masks and social distancing in place. Perera said that at these rehearsals, they pray together that their music will be a meaningful experience to everyone who will hear it later that week. By doing so, the time spent together rehearsing and recording has become a sacred moment for the musicians, too. Whether it is a special music performed by children at home or a complex postlude played at the organ by Kimo Smith, every moment of music is an important part of the worship experience.

WATCH — This Is My Father’s World, performed with 30 pianos, from Loma Linda University Church:

This has been a season of trial and error for Loma Linda University Church as they continually work every week to deliver the best online experience for their church. Perera likened it, naturally, to “playing it by ear.” She and her team are doing their best to provide a worthy worship experience for members, and they know that many smaller churches look to Loma Linda University Church for inspiration. In fact, Perera shared that Loma Linda University Church is planning to make the scores Perera has done available to churches everywhere by the end of the year. Perera said this is a special gift that will make it easier and less expensive for other churches to access worship music. They hope it will help others create meaningful worship experiences for their church families in a time where many ache for those worshipful moments they miss.

Perera mentioned that one of the most beautiful things that has come of her brief but busy time at Loma Linda University Church so far as been getting to be part of the collaboration of the media and music teams. She said that the media leaders are especially good at listening to feedback and taking suggestions from musicians, church members, viewers, and staff to improve the worship experience. From the look of the set, to the sound quality, to the body language of those on screen, Perera said they pay attention to it all.

Those seemingly small details go a long ways. The same can be said for the sermons. Senior pastor Randy Roberts has been a longtime celebrity figure at Loma Linda University Church and in the Adventist Church organization as a whole, so it’s no wonder his on screen appearances in these last seven months have been popular. He has a comforting cadence, a Jesus-focused faith, and a knack for good storytelling. Even through computer or TV screens, he makes viewers feel seen by looking directly into the camera, connecting both with members who know him personally and those who he may never meet.

Pastor Roberts has the nuances of a recorded sermon down, but he doesn’t have to rehearse anything to make members feel seen and heard. Even with an online atmosphere and in a congregation as big as Loma Linda University Church’s, Pastor Roberts is connecting personally with his church family after a service. But no, it’s not in the church sanctuary filled with members milling about after a service, as it would’ve been before March 2020. His son Austin Roberts, pastoral intern at Loma Linda University Church and Master of Divinity student at Fuller Theological Seminary, explained further.

“Every Saturday afternoon, there’s a Q&A live stream with the senior pastor, Randy Roberts, along with other hosts and guests where the church members get a chance to ask questions and hear direct answers from people on staff. We have found that this is a great way to connect with members.”

He continued, “I always love my LLUC family and it’s certainly been a journey and a learning experience over the months. I think the best parts have been seeing the church remain connected to its members and watching the staff learn to adapt and adjust to new challenges. For an industry that’s primarily built on human connection, this is a very difficult period of time.”

The up-close-and-personal touches like a virtual Q&A with the senior pastor, the reading of a special anniversary announcement, or a few beautiful moments of worship on screen are what makes Loma Linda University Church’s productions week after week feel intimate. Those personal touches are what local Loma Linda members crave, while the excellent quality and potpourri of content is what keeps a broader audience coming back for more. As they welcome more spectators, Loma Linda University Church is careful to not outgrow the people who have attended for years. They remain adamant that the services every Sabbath and the content available throughout the week is geared specifically toward their local congregation. So perhaps the only explanation for their personal approach bringing in thousands of viewers they’ve never met is that they’ve simply made people everywhere feel right at home.

 

More articles in the Virtual Ministry Series:

Loving Well at Crosswalk Church” by Hallie Anderson, June 10, 2020

Behind the Wall at Oakwood University Church” by Hallie Anderson, July 31, 2020

 

Hallie Anderson is a writer, reader, and freelance marketing and communications specialist based in the foothills of Northern California.

Image: Pastor Dan Matthews doing his birthday/anniversary announcements. (Video still.)

 

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