Today in many churches, aging of the membership has become a matter of concern. Especially noticeable is the absence of church members who cannot attend worship services due to age or sickness. Various ways are being attempted to provide care for members who earnestly desire to attend but cannot.
Until recently, the simplest means of providing access to sermons and church information has been the use of printed matter and recording tapes. But these methods have not enabled everyone to worship at the same time. The least expensive way to enable simultaneous participation in the Sunday worship service is use of the Internet; but adoption of its use for the elderly is difficult because many older adults are not accustomed to computers and bedridden persons are unable to sit in front of the apparatus. A simpler method that enables participation in worship and is adaptable by older people is use of a telephone circuit, and several churches have adopted this.
Takacom Corporation's "service-phone" (a multiple-circuit voice-receiving device) provides multiple receive-only circuits. The basic monthly cost of 2,700 yen (under $30) is less than that of usual telephone circuits. Because it is designed only for reception, there is no call fee for the church to pay. Having decided that the system's ability to receive several calls at once is advantageous for ministry, a number of churches have adopted this system.
Nakashibuya Church introduced the system in 1993, starting with five circuits. Feeling that some provision should be made for elderly persons who were unable to come to church, it was decided to install adequate speakers and amplifier equipment and to introduce the service-phone. The original cost, including microphone and amplifiers, was 660,000 yen (about $6,400). In 2006, due to an increase in the number of users, the order was changed from five to nine circuits. When an application is received from someone for whom coming to church has become difficult, the pastor gives the applicant the telephone number. The person in his or her own home can take part in the worship services being held in the church sanctuary. It is reported that offerings from the users are adequate for covering the telephone fees.
In prayer times during the worship service, these participants are remembered through the use of such expressions as "for those coming to worship by telephone." Also during the worship service, a committee member checks a counter so that the number of persons taking part by telephone that day can be included in the attendance report. Thus, a ministry not just for those who gather in the sanctuary was born. Pastor Oikawa Shin says, "When I came to Nakashibuya Church, it was so good to have this equipment. Really, it would be good for any church to have. It would be good even now to get it. It would greatly strengthen a church."
Chitose Funabashi Church introduced the system in 1996, beginning with three circuits. At one time, the number of users decreased, and the order was reduced to one circuit; but now there are two as there are always one or two pregnant women or elderly persons to use them. In order to improve the sound absorption, the number of microphones was increased and special ones installed for the worship leader, the preacher, and the organist. It is possible to listen by telephone not only to the weekly worship services but also to special Christmas music worship and organ concerts.
The worshipers too appreciate these opportunities as "times of blessing." Above all, the ability for everyone to take part in worship at the same time has become a major element of the church's fellowship. Many of the telephone users say simply, "Changing to the system for joining in worship was most suitable for 'me as I was at that time.'" A woman who died recently had switched from usual worship attendance to worship via the telephone and is an example of one person who was able to take part in worship even after becoming bedridden.
Other problems remain, such as the difficulty of churches with limited financial resources being unable to meet the initial cost and being unable to use the service-phone in places like hospitals. However, it is true that with this system, there are people who can be blessed by joining with others in worship. (Tr. RB)
Tsuji Junko, pastor of Shitaya Church
East Subdistrict, Tokyo District