Tony Lawrence from the Bybee Branch Church of Christ joined this episode to discuss how the church didn’t modify its message, but how it was conveyed in a different way during COVID. The church used technology to ensure that members and visitors – whether at home, in the hospital, or around the world – could still participate in services during the pandemic.
Transcripts are lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Karen Wilson: Welcome to the BLC Connection Podcast. I am Karen Wilson and your host for today. These small episodes will focus on local businesses that excel at particular parts of customer care. Today’s guest is Tony Lawrence from the Bybee Branch Church of Christ to discuss how the church didn’t modify its message, but how it was conveyed in a different way during COVID. Welcome, Tony.
Tony Lawrence: Glad to be here.
Karen Wilson: Very excited to have you. Your son, Micah, who is one of our podcast members, told me about all the innovative things the church has done and continues to do, even post-COVID. So let’s start. That’s kind of a jumping off point. Seems like a lot of things changed with COVID. Church attendance and people’s being comfortable being there, being quarantined and all of that. So tell us, when you and the elders at Bybee’s realized that you would need to modify how you reached your members?
Tony Lawrence: Well, in about March 2020 is when Tennessee began to really start seeing the COVID take over. And at that time, several members were beginning to respond by limiting their contact, and some felt it necessary to quarantine because of their high risk. And some of them had even been infected. But at the height of the pandemic, the elders decided that we would go to a Sunday morning only worship, and then stream our Sunday evening and classes on Facebook Live. But when the virus began to spread even a little further, it was necessary, even for a few Sundays, to suspend our services completely. At one time we had 20% of our congregation that was either infected or quarantined, including myself. And so for that reason, we had to modify things. But we’ve been back in-person now for a long time with all of our services.
Karen Wilson: Well, good. That’s what everybody really, you know, the traditional way of attending is always preferred by most everyone. But, you know, even people that are home, “Hey, I don’t feel great today.” It’s so nice to be able to pull that up either on your phone or tune in on BLTV Channel Six, whatever the preferred method is. So what, I guess, were the churches goals when you began to kind of formulate a plan and think about, “Okay, step one, we’re going to have to do something a little bit different.” How did that plan take shape?
Tony Lawrence: Well, obviously, when we started, we realized we needed to do something for everybody. And there were people who were not going to be able to be present. And so what we wanted to do is make sure that we had it where everybody, for instance, was able to participate like they were there. So like they were sitting in a pew. So we included all of our services from the announcements all the way to the closing prayer. And as we begin to explore options to do this, obviously there was Facebook Live and that was free. And then there was YouTube, and we use both of those, but we had several members who said “We don’t have access to Facebook,” or “We don’t want to use Facebook.” And so some of them said, could you put it on BLTV? And I contacted Kelvin Bond and Tammy Vinson in late March 2020, and the rest is history. We’ve been on ever since then and really enjoy being able to be on BLTV.
Karen Wilson: And I know you all have even taken it to the point of where you put your meeting your, you know, your normal meeting on there and your vacation Bible school as well.
Tony Lawrence: We did. We, in fact, our gospel meeting was scheduled to be in April 2020. And because of the pandemic and everything shutting down, we said, “Well, we’ll just cancel it.” And then I suggested to our elders, I said, “Why don’t we put it on BLTV? And also to stream it on Facebook.” And we did and had just an amazing result. In fact, one of our episodes has had on just Facebook, not Facebook, but YouTube, has had over 3,000 views. And so that’s just one option. And so we’ve had really good results from that.
Karen Wilson: All right. So I guess with all that comes technology. What type of technology did you use or did you kind of look into to make all that happen?
Tony Lawrence: Well, when we first started, we realized that this technology existed long before we started. In fact, I had suggested to our elders the possibility of us streaming before this began. But a couple of times I had tried Facebook Live and using special meetings and used it and used my own iPhone. Of course, obviously the microphone wasn’t very good. We had a lot to learn in a short time. Lot of time and a lot of preachers became televangelist in our area. But we initially used some of my own personal equipment and borrowed a few things. And but we realized real quickly, in order to do something well, we had to purchase some quality products. And so we purchased a professional microphone, professional camera, and even purchased a streaming computer and the software to use it. In fact, that was one of the things that you want to do it. You want to do it well, and do it right. And so we also had to obtain a license for us to legally stream the songs that we sing. You know, everybody’s copyrights has to be paid. And so we put everything in place. But one of the things that was real helpful was we use Ecamm software, and it’s real simple, real easy to use. And it connects with what’s called an Elgato Stream Deck. And so training people to operate it was a concern. But we have it where you just have like four or five buttons, and you just press a button when you start. You press a button when there’s the sermon, and it puts my PowerPoint right next to the camera shot. So it it looks real good. There’s other free versions of this, like OBS. But we found Ecamm so easy to use and so easy to train, so that’s why we used it. And we’ve been able to have sufficient speed. Ben Lomand came out and worked on getting our speed up fast enough to be able to stream a high definition signal. And we’re looking forward to when fiber gets there, and then we’ll be able to even do some more things.
Karen Wilson: We’re looking forward to fiber being there. You know, you mentioned your team. I guess this is kind of a group effort. You have to have people that okay, John is going to be out this Sunday, so we have to have somebody to replace John. So how many people do you have help?
Tony Lawrence: We have about four who rotate. And what we, it really didn’t take long to train people because there’s only just a few buttons that you have to press and like just to use, for example, when we have our singing, you don’t want to hear just the song leader, and you want to hear the congregational singing. And so when you press one button, it goes to the songs that we display on the screen, and then it also puts the song leader in a little box and the small part, and it changes the microphone from the pulpit microphone where he announces the number, back to one that’s back in the back of the auditorium, which picks up the congregational singing. So press one button and it goes, changes microphones, changes scenes. And so that made it very easy.
Karen Wilson: I noticed that whenever I pulled it up on Facebook, I appreciated the fact that you all put the words to the songs up for those viewing so they can participate at home. And then the song later kind of takes a smaller, he’s in a smaller box on the right, still being seen, you know, and leading. But that’s an extra step that some some congregations wouldn’t think about, I would think.
Tony Lawrence: Well, what makes it great is that one button the stream deck is. And so when we trained people, it didn’t take but just a few minutes. And so after a few days, and we stream live to Facebook and then the software immediately afterward uploads to YouTube. So those two are taken care of automatically. And then we edit it for the Ben Lomand BLTV.
Karen Wilson: Yes, we were talking before we started recording that you’ve taken on the role of editor because we have to have the service in 60-minute increments. So, you’re editing out any unnecessary spots to keep it within that 60 minute time frame.
Tony Lawrence: Yes. And I just use my Mac and iMovie and it produces a 1080P signal. So we are able to use that for Ben Lomand. I upload it, and they’re able to put it in each week.
Karen Wilson: Yeah, that’s nice. For years people had to come by and bring the actual jump drive or whatever it was saved on. But now with Google and all of those Dropbox and all of that, you don’t even have to come into the office. Well, thank you, Tony. We’re going to take a short break, but stay with us. More great conversation to come on technology and worship services today on the BLC Connection Podcast.
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Karen Wilson: We are back with Tony Lawrence, minister of the Bybee Branch Church of Christ in Warren County. Tony, let’s pick back up with what response you had as a church you had from your membership in the community in making the worship services more accessible to those who are unable to attend in person.
Tony Lawrence: Well, initially our response was just overwhelming. We had a lot of people who were viewing our services who were never there in person. We had a lot of people, for instance, in distant places, as well as those people who were in our community but were unable to attend, like those who were shut in for a long time, or even some who are in nursing homes or in various places like that. People who were actually in the hospital, were watching our services. So we had a need that we’d not been meeting. And so it really, we found out that we were reaching a whole lot of people. We heard from people a long way off on Facebook and YouTube, but we heard a lot from people here locally. I go to Wal-Mart and people stop and say, “Hey, I saw you on church Sunday.” And that really sort of captured our attention. But as the pandemic has subsided, there’s been some concern. A lot of people that, you know, if you’re continuing to stream, that just makes it easy for people to stay home in their fuzzy slippers and, you know, not attend in-person. But I think most of the people, once they got an opportunity to get out and enjoy getting back to services and the personal nature of it, and but our statistics are telling us we’re still reaching a lot of people. When you contacted me, I thought, well, I’m going to check and see how many just in the last month and in the last 28 days on YouTube, we’ve had over 122 hours watched and then much more on Facebook Live. We’ve had 4,100 people view our videos, and they’ve watched 326 hours. And that’s just from those two. And we know there’s a lot of people who watch the Ben Lomand TV every week and because they called and say, “ey, I caught this or I caught that. And some of them watch it regularly.
Karen Wilson: Do you feel that people appreciated the fact that the way it was done, they felt like they were actually at the service versus just putting a camera on a minister standing in a, you know, in front of a podium. But they actually saw, you know, heard the prayer. They would hear maybe some of the announcements or that kind of thing. Do you think there was an appreciation for that?
Tony Lawrence: Oh, definitely. I just think there’s a lot of people who are really appreciative to the fact that they feel like they’ve been to worship rather than feeling like they just watched a sermon somewhere. And so, you know, they sing at home, they pray at home, and they open their Bibles. You know, I didn’t mention but on, you know, we’re not only airing our worship services, but our Bible classes as well. And we have a lot of people who are keeping up with our Bible classes on a regular basis who may attend other congregations, but they may want to study like we’re studying Ezekiel on Wednesday night. And so if that’s an interest to them, they’re tuning in and later and watching the program as well.
Karen Wilson: Now, as far as your membership goes locally, did you all have your communion available to be picked up during that time as they wanted to participate in that part of the services?
Tony Lawrence: We did. We actually set aside a time on Fridays for people to come by if they wanted to, and we put it right next to the door. And if somebody didn’t want to get out of their car, they can call the office, and we’d bring it out to them. We had a lot of people who did that for a while. And of course, you know, it’s phased back now as the pandemic is going away. There’s not nearly as much of that. We’re still using the individual packets, but still we’re not having near as many people who are just coming by and picking up the communion.
Karen Wilson: Yeah, it seems like that that may be a permanent change. Just, you know, the individual is more, not as many people touching it and that type of thing. So that that might continue, I would say. So does Bybee, I guess, continue to or plan to continue to utilize traditional media. But YouTube and Facebook, post pandemic, you feel like you’re going to continue on that route?
Tony Lawrence: I have no doubt. It’s meeting a need. It’s allowed us into people’s homes that would never come and visit us. You know, people who would feel like, you know, they don’t, they don’t feel comfortable coming to someone else’s building. They don’t know what they believe and what they practice. And so this way they can watch it. There’s nonthreatening in any way. It’s. And that way they can feel like. It’s actually we have a lot of people who visited us who said, you know, we’ve seen your presence on Facebook and otherwise. And so it’s really an outreach tool for us as well.
Karen Wilson: Well, that’s what my follow up to that was even outreach beyond Warren County, I think of like out west and places where the population is spread out a lot and there’s not churches within say, we’re used to we’re kind of spoiled here. There’s a church within 5 minutes of most every one’s home. But in other places and even around the world, that’s not possible. Is it kind of like even maybe a mission type field these days?
Tony Lawrence: Well, I’m sure it is because we probably rarely a week goes by, I don’t get a communication from somebody in Africa or India or in fact, if you drill down into the analytics, which I do, it’s just of interest to me. You find out that we may have 30 to 40 people each week watching from Uganda, and you don’t even think about the fact of how many people you might be reaching in other areas. Some communicate, but I’m sure many don’t. And but the fact that you are reaching people, perhaps who the congregation may not even have a preacher and they want to have a, you know, be able to have a sermon from somewhere else.
Karen Wilson: Well, Tony, I feel like we’ve talked about maybe even a positive side to the pandemic. I know it was painful and hard for all of us and brought a lot of loss and challenges. But it seems like Bybee’s and other churches have really risen up and almost found a new way to to reach people.
Tony Lawrence: Well, you know, the old phrase is, is with challenges come to opportunities. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. So you look at the opportunity that’s, it’s you know, it was negative. It hurt our attendance. But yet I think we’re probably reaching more people than we ever have. So that’s the positive side of it.
Karen Wilson: Well, you heard it here. Bybee’s made lemonade out of lemons, and as many people did. So thank you, Tony, for being our guest on this special edition of the BLC Connection Podcast. We invite our listeners to tune in for future podcasts and share this content with other businesses. Until next time, this is your BLC Connection.