Doing digital church

Lansing’s Cornerstone Church shares some of the adjustments they’ve made during quarantine

by Melanie Jongsma

LANSING, Ill. (May 12, 2020) – Most churches know that “the church is not the building.” A church is a group of people. Those people happen to have regular meetings in a specific building, so it’s common for that building to become known as “the church.” And it’s common even for church members to become dependent on the building—for Sunday services, weekday meetings, staff offices, and a variety of gatherings, programs, and ministries.

One effect of the coronavirus pandemic and resulting quarantine is that churches have explored who and what they can be when the church building is no longer a focal point.

Cornerstone Church (3440 178th Street) had actually begun this process of discovery a few years ago when they launched a campaign to renew their vision. (See “First Baptist Church changes name, renews vision,” July 2018 article.) The church had been known as First Baptist Church, and changing their name to Cornerstone was one outcome of the visioning process.

Another outcome was a commitment to updating their physical facilities—including the technology. So they had already invested in equipment that would allow them to livestream their Sunday services. That equipment is now set up in the remodeled fellowship area, which has become Cornerstone’s broadcast studio each week. “The sound is better here than in the sanctuary,” explains Saad Abbasy, who is part of the technology team.

Saad Abbasy was part of the revisioning team, and he continues to develop that vision as part of the technology team. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

About half of the people who have been meeting at the church building on Sunday mornings since quarantine began are members of the Abbasy family—and that is an intentional strategy for minimizing the spread of the coronavirus. Saad’s wife Lindsey leads the worship and praise team. His brothers Sam and Suhail play drums and guitar. Family friend and fellow Cornerstone member Michael Bolz helps out on a laptop, and James Wall is another technologist at the ready. Pastor Michael Eberly is the final member of the team.

The Abbasy family works together to make digital church happen each Sunday morning. From left: Saad, his brother Suhail, his wife Lindsey, and his brother Sam practice music and check sound levels. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Throughout several weeks of producing a weekly online service, the team has learned that “success” requires rethinking the church experience. “Everything is different in the digital world,” explains Lindsey Abbasy. “People have shorter spans of attention when it’s a video, so we’re learning how to make everything shorter.” Back when Cornerstone was meeting in person, Lindsey and her praise teams would prepare 4–6 songs for a Sunday morning. But for an online service they sing two. And knowing that people won’t sit and watch a 45-minute digital sermon, Pastor Michael trims his messages to about 20 minutes instead.

The team has experimented with production techniques as well, trying to accommodate digital expectations. They use different locations throughout the building for different segments of the service—announcements might be broadcast from the sanctuary, a children’s message might be filmed outside, while the sermon takes place in the fellowship hall. These visual cues are part of the broadcast culture viewers are accustomed to from watching television, where even half-hour shows are broken into segments separated by commercial breaks.

Michael Bolz comes on camera to make some announcements to the church family, including information about online offerings. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
Kandi Elliott records a message for the children of Cornerstone each week. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
Pastor Eberly uses visual aids to help hold the attention of his digital audience. For a verse from Hebrews about running a good race, he brought weights and cords to help people visualize “everything that hinders” and “the sin that so easily entangles.” (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Cornerstone congregants traditionally observe communion—the Lord’s Supper—on the first Sunday of each month. Aware of the irony of celebrating communion in isolation, the leadership team uses social media to prepare church members. On May 1, in anticipation of the May 3 communion service, they posted on the church Facebook page, “We can’t wait to worship with you online Sunday! We’ll be taking communion together this Sunday as we do the first Sunday of each month. Have your elements ready for service (crackers/bread and juice).” Another reminder was posted a few hours before the May 3 service began. In the Christian faith, the Lord’s Supper is called communion because it represents God entering into community with His people—not just during Jesus’ final meal, but during Jesus’ full life and ministry on earth. The broken body and blood represented by bread and wine symbolize the sacrifice necessary for authentic community, particularly when that community comprises diverse peoples and generations of wrongs that need to be righted. Surrounded by real people, community is visible, tangible, emotional. Seated in front of a computer screen with grape juice and saltines, church members have to remind themselves of the deeper meanings. But perhaps being forced to remember the meaning behind the symbols is good spiritual exercise as well.

May 3 was a communion Sunday, and viewers were encouraged to prepare their own elements in their homes and then partake of them together with the rest of the online audience. The team at the church was served bread in leftover cupcake wrappers and juice in disposable plastic communion cups. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
The entire online service—including praise, announcements, children’s message, sermon, and communion—lasts about 45 minutes. Saad Abbasy gets ready to signal the team when recording is completed. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

In spite of the new routines, the reworked traditions, and the underlying concerns about staying healthy and protecting the vulnerable, Lindsey Abbasy recognizes good things that have come out of the past two months. She’s learned new things through podcasts, classes, and collaborations with other church leaders—and she’s shared her learnings with others. “I feel so much more connected to all the other churches now,” she says. “People are helping each other out.”

The lessons of this pandemic apply to life in general and maybe to church members more specifically. “The world is changing,” says Lindsey, and she’s not referring only to the past two months. The world is always changing. “So if you’re not constantly moving at some sort of change trajectory, it might be safe to say you’re deteriorating.

“If you’re not growing, you might be dying.”

The Cornerstone Church building is located at 3440 178th Street in Lansing, Illinois. The Cornerstone Church family uses their Facebook page to connect with each other while they are unable to meet in person—and they welcome new connections anytime:

Sunday services begin at 10:30am.

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