To understate the matter considerably, What a year it has been! We have endured political strife, social and racial unrest, and a COVID-19 epidemic that has wrought massive changes in the way we worship, work, shop, engage, connect, educate our children, and do just about everything else in our daily life. Understandably, many are eager to bid farewell to 2020 and put it firmly in the rearview mirror. It’s been challenging. And hard. And, in many cases, tragic.
As with all struggles, however, there is another side. 2020 has also provided moments of victory, joy, and the rewards that come with perseverance. The events of this year have provided opportunities to learn and to grow. To stretch and bend. To see new possibilities not formerly considered seriously or deeply. From the church’s perspective, this year has marked a time to envision, develop, and experiment with new ministry and communication models and approaches. To be creative in reaching, discipling, and caring for hurting people. To innovate, adapt, and overcome.
What Do We Do Now?
The ways churches have dealt with the shutdowns, social distancing, closure orders, etc., have been as different and varied as the churches themselves. At one end of the spectrum, some churches decided to close their doors in March for good. At the other end, other churches have largely ignored the shutdown orders and vowed to continue meeting “as normal” while engaging in litigation with various government entities. Most, however, as they have sought to cooperate with local, county, or state government guidelines, have employed a technology-enabled model that includes elements of small group meetings, online services (both live-streamed and recorded), and remote ministry.
So Many Questions
Before COVID-19, many churches had been employing a component of online or remote ministry for years. But most churches had never seriously developed alternatives to regular, onsite meetings with crowds of people at specific venues. So in March, many were scrambling to adapt. Questions abounded. Live streaming? Recorded services? Small group meetings? Locations? Quarantine and stay home? Some combination of these? How will this work in practice? What technology do I need? What processes? Volunteers? Staff? Online giving strategies? What considerations should guide our decisions? How can we truly connect as a body when we aren’t getting together?
Initially, many of our clients and friends hoped that this would be a short term problem and that the shift to remote ministry and streaming services would be a temporary “pivot.” The thinking was, “settle on the best stop-gap approach, figure out the details, and implement quickly.” More than nine months in, as the pandemic has continued to be an issue with spikes in cases reported daily, churches surely understand that there will not be a rapid return to “normal.” Moreover, with some of the new skills and capabilities churches have acquired this year, there is no definitive consensus on what “normal” or “standard” will or should look like in the future.
With all of this in mind, we reached out to several clients and friends who daily are in the thick of grappling with “remote church” issues. Below, they share some of their thoughts on streaming services, connection, community, hospitality, and the future of church ministry.
Not Your Grandfather’s Church…
We’ve talked with many who feel that 2020 was a watershed year in which COVID-19 adaptations reset the “rules” permanently. They believe that technology enabled ministry and the options that it affords will forever alter the ministry landscape. Jeff Reed, Director of Digital Church Planting and founder of TheChurch.Digital, believes that the new church model will be what he calls “phygital church” – a combination of the physical and digital church. He says further,
“It all has to come together. Your leadership and you need to be tightly aligned in terms of how your online and physical efforts are related, which is why we talk about phygital so much. It should be the same mission, the same vision.”
Jason Lee, Online Ministry Pastor at Northwoods Community Church in Peoria, IL, feels very strongly that,
“Online is no longer just for those that are sick or on vacation…digital [church] is a legitimate way to attend and participate in the church community.”
Of course, the big question for remote, digital models is, “How can we develop and encourage true community, connection, discipleship, hospitality, etc., when people are prevented from assembling physically?” After nine months of Zoom or Microsoft Teams meetings for work, family gatherings, and church services, most people are only too aware of the shortcomings of such “connections.” God has designed us as relational beings who need presence, proximity, and the cues and signals that physical closeness provides. So, what to do? How do we make the most of a less-than-perfect situation?
Fostering Digital Connection
Churches grappling with how to “do church” in a remote, non-contact model have learned that it takes great creativity and effort to foster a sense of genuine connectedness. All of this is new, and it isn’t easy. The conversations that typically take place in the lobby or in Sunday school after a church service are vital in developing the church’s culture and mission in its members and guests. These moments of mingling draw people into the life of the church. “Social distancing” definitely impacts that process.
We sat down with a few of our church clients to discuss their strategies for facilitating these same types of conversations in a digital setting.
- Changepoint Church in Anchorage, Alaska innovated to create a virtual “Commons,” a nod to their physical lobby where, historically, lots of people would gather before and after services. Now, immediately following their Sunday lifestream service, the digital ministry team and other guests gather virtually on Zoom to discuss the sermon and any encouraging updates and stories about Changepoint’s ministry and their community. This extension of the service helps digital attendees stay connected to Changepoint’s culture and mission and approximate the feeling of gathering together. Changepoint’s mission of “life in Christ for every Alaskan” lends itself to extending ministry digitally: outside of Anchorage and Fairbanks, most of Alaska’s population live in remote villages. Changepoint organizes its Life Groups so that members can join and experience church via online streaming and virtual Bible study.
- Northwood Community Church’s Online Ministry Pastor Jason Lee shares how they are extending a specific welcome to their online Livestream attendees: “We are using a live online introduction on camera with two hosts to encourage people to participate in the service through chat, a specific prayer chat, and by volunteering for opportunities to help with future services, etc. We also want to communicate other general information an online attendee needs to know. Different people are comfortable with different platforms, so we’re using Church Online Platform (ChOP) chat, Facebook Live Chat, and live note-taking via our church mobile app, in addition to a private Facebook group for those attending online.”
- Darrel Girardier, the Digital Strategy Director at Brentwood Baptist Church in Nashville, echoes the advice to use multiple channels for interaction. “We adopted an omnichannel approach and moved to multiple platforms to watch online. This approach has decreased technical issues and increased viewership.” For BBC, giving people more options for tuning in and increasing accessibility has positively impacted connection.
The Power of Hospitality
Providing multiple methods for people to connect reflects a commitment to hospitality. Graciously attempting to meet people where they are and in ways that are comfortable for them is at the heart of hospitality. Different people will prefer varied avenues for connection: your church website, an online platform, YouTube, Facebook, a church app, etc. The key is to understand the preferences of the people with whom you are trying to connect. In the absence of definitive knowledge, it is helpful to provide options.
Michael Warren, Changepoint’s Pastor of Community and Care, describes the hospitable connection that happens in their “Commons” virtual meetings in terms of relationships:
“A while back, we started to use a vision phrase to help us to see our people/our church family on Sundays. We started talking about the ministry of “presence” or the ministry of “availability” to keep us from never underestimating the power of time spent with someone in the Commons or in a conversation or answering a question about church life. The same remains today in that we’re wise to remember that behind each “like,” “thumbs up,” and comment in the chat or email is a person, eager to be known and to connect. We are working to develop lay-led volunteer teams to man the chats, equipped with time, heart, and resources to respond to all of the “traffic” that comes across the bow – never underestimating the power of presence, availability, follow-up. Sometimes the time and care we have extended online have translated to a new family member coming in-person.”
Extending hospitality in this way may well require additional staffing. Northwoods has a full-time staff member who oversees the online portions of weekend ministry and leads a team of about 20 volunteers. Another approach that they have taken is pulling the ministry leaders serving on staff in an on-campus ministry position into a parallel online ministry position – for example, new member welcome ministry, volunteer recruiting, prayer ministry, etc.
Small Groups in the Online Age
Small groups, by whatever name, e.g., life groups, community groups, connect groups, D-groups, etc., will continue to be a vital discipleship strategy for most churches. Small groups can make large churches small and new places feel comfortable. Pressing in relationally, sharing life, teaching truth, praying with each other, and caring for essential needs will continue to be important ways to grow in our faith and commitment to follow Jesus. Much of this can occur online, albeit not entirely. Online options also present new opportunities to connect people who are not near.
Many churches have people view their online services from far away. With the aid of technology, small groups of people geographically distant from a particular church can form a local group around the ministry of such online church services. This very thing happened with Cedar Creek Church in Aiken, South Carolina. When a woman living in a different state discovered their online service, she invited her neighbors to join in her home to watch it regularly. In time, they formalized as a home group of Cedar Creek and now function under the church’s care.
Unexpected Blessings: A Foot in the Door
Many churches have observed that their online church service provides people with a way to visit their church more comfortably, with a less intimidating experience than physically showing up to a brand new place with unfamiliar people. Changepoint’s Michael Warren encourages embracing people where they are, saying,
“If we speak and minister to the reality that ongoing growth and life change happens in the context of relationships, we eventually want those watching from home and interacting digitally to begin to know and interact with “the humans” in a deep and meaningful way. First impressions and “checking out church” is easier than ever and anonymous – so, let’s speak and minister to it!”
Using online chat to build relationships is a great way to lay a foundation so that when someone does take the step of coming to physical church, they already have some connections formed.
Many online streaming platforms, including Church Online Platform (ChOP), Facebook, and Youtube, have built-in chat capabilities. These can provide a way to connect with viewers in real-time. Moderating its online chat windows allows the church to converse with viewers, suggest calls-to-action, and make personal connections. At points in the service where in-person services would include a call-to-action (e.g., prayers of the people, greetings, offerings, sacraments, invitations to follow Christ, etc.,) online moderators could invite online viewers to participate in the chat or via SMS/text messaging. Brentwood Baptist has had great success with SMS integrated with their church management software to connect and communicate with people. Darrel Girardier says, “Find simple calls to action that will give people a rapid response. For example, have them text to a number to connect with a staff member, then respond immediately.” As much as possible, real-time interaction reinforces the relational experience.
A Final Thought
None of this is easy! But the ministry to be accomplished is well worth the effort required. Jason Lee of Northwood Church provides some beneficial closing thoughts for those trying to adapt to the challenges of ministry in this new and strange environment:
“Be willing to try things, and if you sometimes fail spectacularly, dust yourself off and try something else. Success online isn’t simple, quick, or easy. It takes intentional effort and persistence to find the unique identity and expression of your online ministry.”
Written by: Scott Smith, President of Enable Ministry Partners and Elliott Wood, Director of Consulting for Enable Ministry Partners