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Scholars Help Churches Build Digital Presence During Pandemic

November 24, 2020

The COVID-19 global pandemic disrupted nearly every aspect of North Carolinians’ lives, especially those centered around in-person gatherings and interactions. Churches scrambled to find ways to reach their congregations at home, once the physical fellowship of weekly services was put on pause. Small churches without the financial resources or staffing to build and run technology platforms were especially ill-prepared to pivot to digital outlets, but two computer science majors in the Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program volunteered to help out.

“When the pandemic started, churches realized that they didn’t have good plans for reaching their congregations digitally,” said Charlie Helms (UNC ’20, CSS 5). CSS program coordinator Richard Watkins told Helms about Truth Teaching Ministries (TTM), a national organization dedicated to building connection among pastors from different churches. TTM was seeking volunteers to help small churches build websites.

Helms quickly signed up and was paired with a church in Graham, NC. In his initial meetings with the church’s pastor, he practiced project management skills he developed through internships with Microsoft and Cisco. “Something I’ve learned in my internships is how to really listen first and then ask clarifying questions,” Helms shared. “Sometimes [the churches] don’t know what they want. You have to be really patient, because they are still learning themselves, and you have to be mindful of the gaps in their understanding of the technology.”

Tsion Coulter (UNC ’20, CSS 5) agrees that communication is key: “Getting to know the pastor is the first step, because the goal is not to build whatever I want. It’s to build what he needs.” With a lighter academic load during her final semester at UNC, Coulter had free time this fall and decided to volunteer with TTM in order to build her own web design skills. She is working with a church in Newcastle, NC.

Both Coulter and Helms have brought personal perspectives to the projects they have developed. According to Coulter, one challenge has been gently pushing her pastor out of his comfort zone in an effort to keep the site modern and appealing to younger audiences. “At first, he wanted a lot of text and wasn’t very open to the idea of using many photos on the site,” she said. “But once I showed him what it could look like, he was interested. I’ve also designed a simple logo for them to use, which I had never done before.”

Helms attends online services through his own church, and has used that experience to help inform his suggestions for the church in Graham. Accessibility for visual or auditory learners, smooth camera transitions in broadcast services, and captions for sermon recordings are all on his mind. “I’m thinking about all these things that have helped me, because I’m a huge visual learner, and these are the things I’m recommending to them as they choose a good platform for their live events,” he said.

The students credit their experiences in the Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program for their ability to succeed in helping TTM provide resources to churches and pastors. Helms had little to no foundation in computer science before coming to UNC, but he found the confidence to tackle new challenges through CSS. “My cohort really supported me in advancing my career in tech,” he said. “They have always had my back, which helped me believe in myself and believe that I could do something like this.”

Coulter’s strong communication skills were honed through interactions with her cohort and other scholars. “In CSS, students come from all walks of life, with different communication styles,” she explained. In the Summer EXCELerator program, she had to quickly get to know 35 other people and connect with them. Now, she says, it’s not so hard to find common ground with strangers, which helped her build rapport and trust with the pastor in Newcastle.

The finished sites make it easy for the community to connect with the church, even those who aren’t very tech-savvy. Churches are able to reach new members and provide spiritual connection in a time of isolation.

“I really like TTM’s goal of connecting pastors from all different sized churches so that they can share resources to help them grow their congregations, develop their technologies, and become accessible to a wider audience,” said Coulter. Although her current project is wrapping up, she plans to continue working with the organization to help another church after she graduates from UNC in December.

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