By: Liz Brignac, ChurchNext
Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville is facing a challenge. Parishioners are maintaining their numbers at Sunday services, but involvement in weekly activities like adult Christian
formation and Bible study is diminishing. The cause is one many parishes face, especially in rural areas or in communities encountering urban sprawl: distance. The parish footprint has spread and many parishioners are driving half an hour or more to attend services and events. Because of the long drive and other commitments, it can be difficult to engage parishioners in activities during the week.
This is where ChurchNext comes in!
Founded and run by an Episcopal priest, ChurchNext produces interactive, online Christian education opportunities. Over 200 classes are available on a wide range of subjects. The classes are structured around four short videos (about five minutes each in length) taught by experts in the class subject matter. After each video, the classes offer opportunities for parishioners to discuss questions related to the videos online or in person, depending on the class format.
The Rev. Rob Banse, rector of Trinity, is utilizing ChurchNext classes to help his church face the challenges presented by an ever-spreading footprint. He uses ChurchNext to reach out to some of his more distant parishioners and allow them to profit from education and discussion they can participate in from home.
The Diocese of Virginia has purchased discounted access to ChurchNext classes for its parishes, inspiring many to start taking advantage of the offerings. All classes are available in both group and individual learning formats that are designed to take less than an hour to complete and that require no special software. This service is proving to be useful in a variety of ways.
The Rev. Phoebe Roaf of St. Philip’s, Richmond, is one of a number of priests who have found that connecting particular ministries to relevant classes has been the most effective way to use ChurchNext. “Initially, I thought ChurchNext classes would be a way to connect with parishioners who aren’t able to attend church on a regular basis,” says Roaf. “To my surprise, the persons already actively engaged in congregational life are the ones enrolling for classes.” Some classes being used at St. Philip’s support liturgical ministries like helping to train and refresh lectors and lay Eucharistic ministers. A gardening and spirituality class was helpful to persons working on the parish’s community garden.
The Rev. Dr. Hilary Smith of Holy Comforter, Richmond, uses the classes in part to reach out to young parents in the parish who cannot regularly attend classes and Bible studies due to family commitments. She invites parents to take part in a “faith-based” parenting class online, which enables them to participate as their schedules allow, and provides for discussion with other parents through comments that can be posted to questions. She also uses the classes as part of her Episcopal 101 class. Smith says, “The participants really love the way Frank Wade describes what being Episcopalian means to him. He uses humor to describe our Church in a way that is engaging. We watch the short videos together, and then discuss the material during our class. It is a great way to get the conversation going.”
Many Diocese of Virginia churches use ChurchNext’s group-oriented classes as the basis for some of their adult Christian formation discussions. Some also have found the classes helpful in supporting seasonal or short-term needs. Emmanuel, Greenwood, has used a class on vacation church school to good effect in developing summer children’s programs. St. Thomas’, Richmond, uses ChurchNext classes to enhance Lenten programs for adults and children. The list of satisfied customers is long and, with the new diocesan discounted subscription, many more parishes stand to benefit from the offerings.
Julie Simonton, staff officer for Congregational Development and Stewardship at the Diocese of Virginia, hopes that churches will continue to utilize ChurchNext. “These classes build both parish and diocesan communities,” says Simonton. “I hope our parishes will continue to use ChurchNext to bring together people across our Diocese.”