By: Christa Meland
“No one is talking about the life-giving Zoom call they’re on,” said Rev. Matt Sipe, lead pastor at Hilltop UMC. “I think people are longing for the real presence of Christ in their lives—even more so in the pandemic now that all our touch points have been taken away.”
Over the past nine months, the Mankato congregation has moved all of its small “Connect” groups online and sought to create new touch points to both keep members connected and reach new people at a time when so many are craving community and Christ. Here are five specific things the church has done, all of which serve as great ideas and opportunities for other churches:
Unique online experience for Christmas: Hilltop has been recording its worship services for years and live streaming throughout the pandemic. But Sipe wanted Christmas worship to feel extra special. So the church contracted with a cinematographer (one who Sipe confirmed at a former church he served) to record two higher-quality and different-feeling services—a Carols by Candlelight service debuting at 7 p.m. Dec. 8 (all are invited to watch) and a Christmas Eve service. Hilltop is offering five songs from Carols by Candlelight to other Minnesota United Methodist churches to use in their Advent or Christmas services: “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Hope for Everyone,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “O Holy Night,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” (watch for info next week on how to access and download them).
Advent boxes: This year, Hilltop won’t be able to create a meaningful Advent experience for people in-person, so leaders decided to give people a box containing everything they’d need to make the season special at home. Each box contains an Advent booklet with daily devotions written by various church members, Adam Hamilton’s book “Incarnation” (which Sipe is preaching a series on during Advent), an Advent calendar that creates a manger scene out of stickers, candles to use during Hilltop’s Christmas Eve worship service, a postage-paid postcard to send to someone with an invitation to watch Hilltop’s Christmas Eve worship, a giving envelope for a special Christmas Eve offering benefiting a community organization, and four candles for making your own home Advent wreath—with encouragement to be creative in assembling it. People were invited to send us a photo of their wreath to be featured during live-streamed worship, and every Sunday throughout Advent, members will light the candles on their wreaths together when prompted during worship.
Prayer partners ministry: As this most unusual school year kicked off, Hilltop wanted to do something to support kids who are missing so many of their typical routines and activities during the pandemic and decided to cover every child in prayer. In addition to offering online Sunday School, each child in the congregation was paired with an adult who commits to praying for that child throughout the entire school year. Each adult received a card with their child’s photo, age, and birthday—reminding them to pray for that child at least once a week. Next year, Sipe hopes to expand the ministry so that church members are praying for children throughout the whole community. “Sometimes it feels like we can’t really do anything,” he said. “When you don’t know what else to do, prayer is the one thing you can do. The goal is simply to surround all the kids in prayer, help decrease the anxiety in their lives, help them know they’ve got another adult in church who is supporting them and loving them and praying for them, and through all that, spread hope and encouragement.”
Drive-through communion and commitment cards: Every other month, at the end of worship, Sipe has invited those streaming worship to come to the church over the next hour for drive-through communion. When this was offered in October, roughly 50 people showed up. As Sipe was pondering how to lead the church’s annual stewardship campaign amid COVID-19, he decided to expand on this idea and asked some of the church’s bakers to make fresh homemade cinnamon rolls on stewardship Sunday. Toward the end of worship that day, one of the bakers brought him one fresh from the oven—and he ate it on the live stream while extending an invitation to those watching: Drive up to the church, drop off your commitment card, and leave with a delicious cinnamon roll. It worked: The church received just as many, if not more, commitment cards this year than in previous years.
Fun with fundraising: On Halloween, Hilltop UMC served as a remote packing site for Jesus Food—similar to Feed My Starving Children. A small number of masked members of all ages packed nutritious meals for hungry children around the world. But the church knew not everyone would feel comfortable volunteering in-person so offered a fun alternative: Donate $50 to the organization and receive a life-size cutout of yourself, give $100 for a life-size cutout of someone else in the church (using whatever image you choose), or contribute $150 and get a life-size cutout of your whole family. The creative fundraiser was very popular and the life-size cutouts—including one member in a bunny costume and another dressed as a Minion—now fill the pews in the otherwise empty sanctuary; they’ll eventually be given to those who gave donations. Through these efforts, Hilltop packed more than 6,000 meals and raised about $1,350 for Jesus Food. There’s more interest in the cutouts so the church is planning to offer them again for another upcoming fundraiser.
“I believe one of our greatest evangelism moments will come when the pandemic is over,” said Sipe. “What do we have to offer that the world is hungering for? For me, I think that’s the presence of the living God. For now, we persevere in faith as best we can.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church