By Rebecca Wallace
As we’ve seen, worshiping while staying in place during the global pandemic has taken on many various and creative forms, most of which have utilized some sort of video technology and nearly all have utilized the Internet. But what if you don’t have internet service?
To address this omission at Birmingham UMC in Milton, Georgia, Guy Wyant, husband of Birmingham's associate pastor, Rev. Dr. Jennifer Wyant, set up a local phone number specifically for members call to listen to sermons. Each week, the pastor records the latest sermon. That recording is played as an automated message when members call the number.
In doing a little research, the Wyants realized it wasn’t as easy for other churches to implement what Guy had set up for their church. From that realization, Sermon by Phone was born.
Launched in early May, churches that sign up at sermonbyphone.com are assigned a phone number in their same area code, with no meeting IDs or passcodes required when parishioners call. Sermon by Phone has facilitated more than 800 calls for sermons since then. The service is currently being used by more than ten United Methodist churches in the North Georgia Conference, as well as dozens of churches in 26 states and other denominations.
Rev. Allison Unroe of Fairlawn Presbyterian Church in Fairlawn, Virginia shared, "You have made this so easy. I cannot tell you what a blessing this is to me. Truly. ... Every tool I have that connects my elderly, high-risk congregation to worship without gathering in person protects them and my immuno-compromised husband. I cannot thank you enough."
A self-service web portal allows pastors to upload audio clips of any length as often as desired. With this flexibility, some churches have taken a more intimate approach and uploaded daily prayers or meditations on scripture, while others have opted to upload their full hour worship experience.
Guy collects a small monthly fee to cover the costs of renting the phone numbers and paying for the caller minutes, but there is no contract; the service can be cancelled at any time.
"The idea is to be another tool in a church's toolbox for staying connected in these stressful times; not to rope people in to making costly long-term decisions when everything is in flux," he said.
Guy is covering the development and hosting costs himself, not to mention the countless all-nighters he gave (after his day job and family time) to get it launched and ready for people to use.
“It's still in active development,” he explains. “I'm currently working on a feature to allow users to assign names to frequent callers so pastors can see at a glance who they are consistently reaching and who might need some pastoral care.”
Once Guy started getting inquiries about Sermon by Phone, he learned that for many of the congregation reaching out, a majority of their members and communities lacked internet access. He said he believes this service and others like it have been essential for keeping parishioners connected.
“In fact, even after in-person worship resumes, it likely will be inadvisable for many of the elderly and others with compromised immune systems to return for some time for their own safety,” concludes Guy. “This simple phone number may be our best bet to keep all our people connected to worship.”
Rebecca Wallace is a communications consultant (and United Methodist!) in Atlanta.