IN DEPTH

Church in a paddock: How a church in a tiny town called Warren went worldwide

PLACEMENT: Simon Cant, Warren Presbyterian Church, NSW ensures the piano stool is in the correct position, ready for the Warren Church Online live stream to Facebook.
PLACEMENT: Simon Cant, Warren Presbyterian Church, NSW ensures the piano stool is in the correct position, ready for the Warren Church Online live stream to Facebook.

THE piano is lowered into shot from above, hoisted by a set of forks on a tractor.

Thankful for its arrival, Simon Cant, places a piano stool carefully in front, just in time for 84-year-old pianist Cath Russ to walk in and start thumping out a tune.

And so begins another Warren Church Online episode.

Needless to say, it's not your average online worship service.

It is in fact the online iteration of the Warren Presbyterian Church's weekly Sunday gathering, albeit with more scrub, bird noises and water holes.

Each week since late March, a small production team has posted a 12-18 minute service onto its Facebook page.

The idea took off, to the point of gaining international attention.

Warren is a tiny town 120km west of Dubbo in the NSW Central West, The 2016 Census recorded its population at 1530.

With coronavirus restrictions denying churches from gathering in NSW, Simon Cant said it was just natural to use whatever means possible to keep the congregation and community connected.

Other members of the team that help put the service online include John Ryan, Will Cant and Annie Cant.

PLAYER: Resident pianist, Cath Russ, belts out a tune while on the back of a ute for Warren Church Online.

PLAYER: Resident pianist, Cath Russ, belts out a tune while on the back of a ute for Warren Church Online.

"We simply pressed 'live' and posted a message to our congregation expecting about seven of our 25 regular attenders to be watching," John said.

"Soon after, a local friend (with no church connection) posted it across to the Warren community Facebook page and suddenly things accelerated.

"That first post is now up to 1700 views. Subsequent broadcasts seemed to moderate, then climb again."

But that was just a start.

The May 31 service (the one where Simon drives into shot with the piano, and Cath, mounted on the back of his Landcruiser) drew the attention of the BBC's Songs of Praise, a popular British program which broadcasts choirs singing every Sunday.

A share later, and the views accelerated past the 4500 mark.

Considering the church has about 25 members, it's a remarkable reach. Warren instelf, located about 120 kilometres north west of Dubbo, has a population of around 2000.

SHARED: A screenshot showing the BBC's Songs of Praise sharing the Warren Presbyterian Church's online service.

SHARED: A screenshot showing the BBC's Songs of Praise sharing the Warren Presbyterian Church's online service.

The church already had a Facebook page "with very few views" according to Simon but it provided an ideal platform.

"To be honest I'd never looked at it. In fact I didn't have a Facebook page when we first went to air," he said.

The videos make the most of the Warren scenery, with backgrounds including cotton bales, creek beds, emerging crops and bushland.

Bible verses and song lyrics are generally written on bits of cardboard or sometimes printed out on white paper... and then glued to bits of cardboard.

OUTDOORS: John Ryan, Warren Presbyterian Church, delivers a creekside message.

OUTDOORS: John Ryan, Warren Presbyterian Church, delivers a creekside message.

That low-tech approach is an echo of Simon's own "electronic limitations".

"Technology, in my hands at least, is notoriously unreliable," he said.

"I will always opt for cardboard even in church where a data projector is available.

"My concentration span can't deal with fumbling with tech. If a homepage pops up looking for the next slide, my brain has moved to the next paddock."

Simon usually kicks off with a welcome to viewers, a local news wrap-up and perhaps a rainfall update.

The whole thing is posted via an iPhone on a tripod, which isn't without its hairy moments.

"We have had to have an emergency battery boost once, and twice frantically loaded more credit immediately before going to air," Simon said.

A pre-recorded sermon by one of the members, often done in a home kitchen or backyard, is posted on the Facebook page as well.

TECH: Simon Cant shows off the low-tech appeal of the videos, using cardboard to highlight Bible verses and hymn lyrics.

TECH: Simon Cant shows off the low-tech appeal of the videos, using cardboard to highlight Bible verses and hymn lyrics.

Homemade approach

THERE are no plans to lose that ramshackle nature which gives the services their charm.

"The whole process has been by the seat of our pants," Simon said.

"From the outset, John and I agreed we weren't aiming to recreate a classic church service, and out in the fresh air was far more appealing anyway.

"There has certainly been no master plan. At the conclusion of each broadcast we decide who will be doing what the next week and throw around some ideas of a venue.

"That can change within the last 15 minutes depending on the wind direction and other factors."

The Warren Presbyterian Church has reacted well to its members taking up the online challenge, something which has become a global trend since the pandemic.

"Churches right across the country, and around the world, have stepped up to the opportunity of taking their service, or at least a message, online during the COVID-19 lockdown," John said.

LOCATION: Warren Presbyterian Church in the town of Warren, NSW.

LOCATION: Warren Presbyterian Church in the town of Warren, NSW.

That's an overwhelmingly positive thing, according to Simon.

"The evidence is there- the message of hope presented in the Bible still has an appeal," he said.

With quite an online following now, the team behind Warren Church Online continue to look for ways to engage and bring scriptural encouragement and teaching to their viewers.

"I'd like to use a flying fox. Not sure how the piano will go with that," Simon said.