Covid forced every church online. This was both a great inconvenience and a great opportunity. To be honest, some churches have done better than others with their online services. Much of the result depends on the effort the church makes with their online services. For those who merely stream their in-person service, quality is spotty at best. (Take a few minutes to watch your church’s recent online service. You’ll see what I mean.)
Others put in the effort to pre-record their online service, like Pinnacle Church in Canton, NC. They provide a higher quality, direct-to-camera approach for their growing online congregation. Even this smaller congregation with limited equipment is doing a lot of the right things. Regardless of the quality of your online worship service, how are you discipling your online congregation?
Some churches are satisfied with using a multiplier to calculate their online audience based on the number of views. Certainly you want to know that your online service is effectively reaching others. But, your effectiveness online is far more than the number of eyeballs. Jay Kranda, the online campus pastor at Saddleback Church, had much to say about this in our interview earlier this year. Listen here.
Here’s what you know – people are watching online. Some are staying home out of an abundance of caution. Some are watching online because it’s just more convenient for them. Others are participating with your church online for the first time. This is the group I mentioned in last week’s post, Start Leading the Church You Have. Where are you leading them?
The Same Expectations
Prior to 2020, online ministry was a novelty. Then around March 2020, online ministry became a necessity. Today, online ministry is an opportunity.
While almost every church saw online ministry as a necessity during the pandemic, some still treat it like a novelty. They see the real congregation as the in-person audience and view the online congregation as a bit of a play thing. That may seem harsh, but let me ask you this: what do you expect from your online congregation? What are you leading them to do?
Typically, churches will ask their in-person congregation for contact information on their first visit in exchange for a welcome gift. They offer next steps, small groups, and serving opportunities. They expect participation, giving, community, and serving. Your online congregation is not any less than your in-person congregation. They are with you. And, they will take next steps when you offer them.
Engage Your Online Congregation
Online worship services can become passive unless you intentionally engage your online congregation. Some of this is accomplished by speaking direct-to-camera, which usually involves recording a separate online experience. Mere streaming video is not church online. Whether you stream live or pre-record, how you communicate with the online congregation is important.
If you direct your announcements and opportunities only to your in-person attendance, then your online folks won’t pay attention. You’re not talking to them. Make simple adjustments like referring to both your in-person and online congregations when you invite them to take next steps. Or during the announcements for your in-person service, have someone speak direct-to-camera to your online congregation. People will take a next step if you invite them.
Instead of asking them to respond with a card in the pew, ask them to text a word to your dedicated text line (check out Zipwhip) or send them to a dedicated landing page on your website for first time guests, giving, small groups, serving, etc. And, when they reach out, be prepared with a response. This could be a signed letter in the mail or an email sequence. When people contact you, reach out to them ASAP. In fact, you should have your response in place before you make the invitation.
Connecting into Community
Your online congregation might be around the corner, across the country, or on the other side of the world. Community Bible Church, Stockbridge, Georgia, recently baptized a member of their online congregation who flew to Atlanta from her home in New York City. She now has friends in NYC watching Community Bible Church online each week. Whether your church is large or small, by putting your worship service online, you can potentially see a global impact. But, don’t stop there.
While online worship services are a starting point for your online congregation, they are only part of the experience of making disciples. After all, sermons don’t make disciples. Worship services can catalyze a commitment to aspire to godly character, grow in faith, or improve their marriage or parenting skills, but the working out comes in biblical community or hesed. Without other believers encouraging, supporting, and holding each other accountable, lasting growth doesn’t happen. God designed us for community.
With an online congregation, community happens in various forms. Some people will join you in online small groups. These groups can meet by video, audio only, or asynchronously. Use the platforms that are the most familiar to your people. Different platforms will work equally as well for different people. But, don’t stop there.
Give your online congregation permission and opportunity to start their own groups – in-person or online. If people don’t live near the church, they can gather a group of friend just like Community Bible Church’s online member in New York. Whether the group meets in-person or online depends on the comfort level of the person starting the group. The church can support these group leaders by providing easy-to-use curriculum, offering a new leader briefing, and giving the support of a coach. Imagine if every member of your online congregation started his or her own group. Think of the impact.
Thoughts to Ponder
As I mentioned in last week’s post (Stop Leading the Church You Lost), the church you have today is your church. Too much has transpired since March 2020 for your church to just snap back to pre-Covid numbers. And, that’s okay.
For many church as many as 30 percent to 50 percent or more of their regular congregation worship online. You wouldn’t ignore a third of your congregation if they were in your church’s sanctuary, would you? Imagine turning toward the right side of your congregation, but ignoring those seated on the left side. That’s ridiculous. Don’t let this happen with the 30-50 percent who are gathering for worship online.
How will you engage your online congregation? How will you help your online congregation leverage their relationships to form groups either locally or online? Who needs a message of hope? Who needs encouragement? Think about it – the possibilities are endless.
The time has come to face an unpleasant reality. The congregation you have right now is your entire congregation. This is not necessarily bad news.
In talking to pastors I’ve stopped asking about their pre-COVID attendance. If the pandemic had only lasted a few weeks to a few months, then you could certainly expect your church to quickly snap back to where it was. After 20 months nothing will snap back now. The culture has changed. Habits have changed. Your church has changed. Let’s consider what happened.
Stadiums are Full, but Sanctuaries are Half Empty
If only Covid was preventing people from returning to church, you would also see this caution across the board in every auditorium or stadium of any size. As I watched the Kansas City Chiefs’ disappointing loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, Arrowhead Stadium was packed. As I watch the baseball playoffs between my San Francisco Giants and Mark Howell’s LA Dodgers, Oracle Park and Dodgers Stadium are at capacity. Yet, church sanctuaries are less than half full. What’s happening?
Some people have legitimate concerns related to Covid. Out of an abundance of caution, they chose to worship online at home. They are not ready to meet and sing with a large group of people for the time being. That’s understandable considering the amount of information and misinformation out there. There are very strong feelings about vaccines and masks. Covid accounts for part of your half filled auditorium.
Others became comfortable with online worship. They don’t have to get their family dressed, fed, and out the door on Sunday morning any more. They can sip their coffee in their jammies while their children play or sleep in. While online faithfulness has certainly lessened over time, some of your people are still there. They are giving. They are on your side. They’re just staying home. But, some people have changed the channel.
Now that most churches have an online worship service, it’s easier to church shop than ever. Let’s face it. There are more interesting sermons out there. There are professionally recorded worship sets with worship teams who sing in tune. If someone’s interest is only in worship and preaching, there are tens of thousands of choices. But, you and I both know that there is far more to church than songs and sermons. Rick Warren isn’t going to call to see how they’re doing. Andy Stanley isn’t going to make a hospital visit. If you wonder where you’re people are, you should probably give them a call.
The last group is the most exciting. People are watching online who have never darkened the door of your church. They are interested in spiritual things. They long for something solid in very anxious times. They enjoy watching the service without being watched. And, when you offer a next step, they will take it. Pastors are telling me how “first time” guests show up ready for baptism, next steps, small groups, and serving. They aren’t first time guests. They’ve been participating in your online worship services for weeks to months. This is the new front door of the church! How does your front door look? Are you actively offering next steps to your online congregation? Do you look directly into the camera and lead them on what do to next? Do you have a way for them to respond? Don’t make your online worship service a lesser experience. Don’t expect less of people who worship online. They need your leadership.
Stop Looking Backward
The whole world has experienced a massive reset. Regardless of who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s to blame, or who’s orchestrating a nefarious plot, God is not surprised by any of this. Why has God allowed this to happen? Why did God intentionally shake up His church like this? What needed to fall away to reveal what was strong? What outdated strategies needed to crumble? What changes that you’ve been dreading to make needed to happen? God has uniquely positioned you and your church to serve a changed culture, if you are willing to let go of what you used to do.
Some of us remember the battle of the 1990’s when we transitioned from traditional services to contemporary services. You couldn’t alienate the older folks because they were the givers, yet if you didn’t change your approach, you couldn’t attract or keep younger people. Remember those days? Some churches attempted “blended” worship, but as Stuart Briscoe said, “If you blend traditional and contemporary, you end up with contemptible.” He wasn’t wrong.
Imagine if you and your team decided to incorporate more stained glass into your building or include more hymns in your worship set this year. What if you threw out those uncomfortable stackable chairs and replaced them with uncomfortable wooden pews? You wouldn’t go back there. In the 1990’s churches chose to no longer use 1950’s ministry strategies. Now it’s time to move forward from 1990’s ministry strategies and embrace new things in the 2020’s.
But, this isn’t just about strategy. Change produces loss. You’ve lost much since March 2020. You can wear yourself out, but the pre-Covid days for your church aren’t coming back. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t hurt. When our church in California lost two-thirds of our congregation and the entire staff in a matter of weeks, I experienced the grief as if all of those people were in a bus caravan that went over a cliff. I was overwhelmed with grief. I managed to drag myself into the office at the crack of Noon and leave around 3 pm. Every person who called or stopped by the church was also racked with pain. It was all I could take. Our church had basically died, but good things were about to grow out of it.
Lead the People You Have
You have to put your energy into leading the church you have rather than trying to lead the church you used to have. Here’s what’s great about the church you have:
Everyone gathered is united in mission with you. It’s too easy to go someplace else right now. If they are gathering with you, they are with you! They are just as shell shocked as you are, but they are there. Embrace Gideon’s army. Cast vision. Empower your people to serve. Repurpose serving in your church. “Right size” your serving teams and encourage more people to serve their neighbors, lead small groups, and make disciples. Lead the people you have.
The regular, consistent givers are there. This is a tangible expression of the last point. Rather than lamenting all of the non-givers who have left, embrace the people you have. Call them regularly to see how they’re doing. Encourage them to serve and take next steps. Lead the people you have.
Your church is reaching more new people than ever before — online. Tune up your online service, which starts by watching it yourself. Create a separate mix for your music, because the house mix doesn’t cut it online. If that doesn’t work, then only stream the sermon. Watch your online recording. You will understand my point. Along with this, interact with your online congregation. Ask a staff member or church member to host the online service and chat with your online congregation before, after, and even during the service. How can you make this an active experience? If folks are consistently watching online, they are with you. Lead the people you have.
People who show up are ready to take next steps — baptism, growth track, small groups, serving, outreach, and more. Direct your online worship host or even the senior pastor to address the online congregation and lead them into next steps. Offer serving roles and small groups. (Check out: Leading Online Small Groups: Embracing the Church’s Digital Future). Your online congregation needs your leadership. Lead the people you have.
A Final Challenge
The good news about this season is that the culture of your church has already shifted. You don’t have to convince people to show up for in-person worship services. They’re there if they want to be. You don’t have people fighting against online worship. They’re already there.
The question is are you trying to pastor a megachurch from the 1990’s or are you leading a hybrid church in 2021 and moving forward? Are you making your online congregation an equal experience to your in-person worship service? Do you expect as much from those gathered online as you do those gathered in-person? Are you realigning your congregations’ time, talent, and treasure to move your church forward or are you attempting to regain what you had in 2019 (or before)?
In a recent interview with Bill Willits from North Point, he shared that in-person worship and small groups are at 50 percent of their pre-Covid numbers. This is the church at the top of Outreach magazine’s Largest Churches list. But, North Point is innovating. The house analogy is out the window. Listen to what they’re doing now.
God has uniquely positioned you and your church for this season. It is different. It is way different than how you’ve done ministry before. Choose to lead forward and not backward. God is with you. Keep in step with His Spirit.
What has your church changed in the last 20 months? What results are you seeing? Reply in the comments.
Bill Willits is the Executive Director of Adult Ministry Environments for North Point Ministries. One of the founding staff members of North Point, Bill is a graduate of Florida State University and Dallas Theological Seminary. He is also the co-author of the book, Creating Community with Andy Stanley, which was recently re-released in an updated and expanded edition. Bill and his team have helped connect thousands of adults into the benefits of group life.
When Carey Nieuwhof told the world that just when pastors thought we were ending the marathon of 2020, then 2021 handed us a swimsuit and a bike making this a triathlon. He wasn’t wrong. Clearly things have not snapped back, and it appears that things may never resume 2019 standards and strategies. And, that’s okay.
While many pastors are hyperventilating or quitting these days, you don’t need to. Disciples still need to be made. People still need community. The climate around you has changed, but the mission remains the same. Are you ready to try some things that are working this fall?
Flexible Group Formation
All of your groups won’t look the same this fall. That’s okay. Your groups probably shouldn’t have looked the same in the first place. Depending on the impact of Covid on your community, your people will not all feel comfortable doing groups exactly the same way. That’s okay. Offer your people the flexibility to meet in-person, online, or a hybrid of that. They should do what feels comfortable to them with whoever they want, wherever they want, and however they want. Whether they are maskites or anti-maskites, they can find their people and do something intentional about their spiritual growth. Flexibility is the key. For more on starting flexible groups, go here.
Inviting leads to thriving in 2021. Leaders who take the initiative to invite people they know who in turn invite people they know are making their groups happen. Leaders who are depending on passive recruitment methods like sign up cards, websites, or group directories are feeling a little like the kid standing along at the junior high dance. (That wasn’t me. Our church forbade dancing).
Going along with the flexible format, leaders can invite their people. Who do they know who would enjoy or benefit from the study? Who do they want to spend time with anyway? This doesn’t need to be complicated. They just need to invite their friends. Who wouldn’t want to spend more time with their friends?
Prayer is a key part of successfully starting a group. Leaders should pray and ask God who He wants to join their group. Then, they should pay attention to who crosses their path. If they run into someone at the grocery store who they haven’t seen for six months, God is answering their prayer. If someone calls “out of the blue,” it’s not a coincidence. If group leaders truly want to start a group, they will take the initiative. Like Home Depot says, “You can do it. We can help.” You don’t need to fill anyone’s group.
If you want people to pay attention to an invitation to start a small group, your pastor should make that announcement. Your pastor will get 3 times the result compared to you standing on the stage saying the exact same words. By virtue of your pastor’s leadership role in the church, you will get the best result. The pastor will do better than you, the campus pastor, the worship pastor, the service host, and the communication director combined. All you need to do is give your pastor a few bullet points, then be prepared to collect the response (HINT: Keep the response close to the invitation) and train your new recruits! This works. I have not personally recruited a small group leader since 2004, and I’ve served three different churches since then!
Adding a Strategy
If you’ve been at small group ministry for a while, your winning strategy has probably starting running out of steam, especially in 2020-2021. Your strategy isn’t broken. It’s just done all that it can do. One size simply doesn’t fit all. But, there’s no rule that you are limited to using just one strategy to connect people into groups.
By simply adding another strategy to what you are currently offering, your church can attract more people into groups than ever before. What does that look like? Well, if it ain’t broke, don’t break it. Offer your established groups to your congregation, then offer a second option like groups following a sermon discussion guide or sermon-aligned study. Many churches are using Rooted. While I’m a big fan of Rooted, it’s only 10 weeks. What do people do who aren’t ready for Rooted or who have already done Rooted (Yes, I know about Life in Rhythm)? Just offer another option. But, isn’t this confusing? (See the next section).
Blended Connection Events
When you have multiple offerings, the key is to promote “groups.” Don’t promote Rooted groups, and D-Groups, and support groups, and sermon-based groups, and, and, and… Just promote groups. When your people come to your connection event, then you can ask what type of group they are interested in. This way you can keep your current groups going and start new groups.
Emphasis on Connection Over Meetings
As you’ve seen not everyone can meet in-person and some groups don’t want to meet online. How do you have groups? Well, we can go back to the philosophical discussion of whether a group is a meeting or is more like a family. (I think “family” wins). Well, what do you do when the whole family can’t show up for a meal? Do you kick the absent members out? Of course not! They’re family.
If group members can’t attend meetings, you’ve got to keep the family together. Your leaders should “own” their group rosters. If someone is on their group roster, even if they rarely attend, they are the leader’s responsibility. Give them a call. Send them a text. Let them know that you care. The group may be the person’s only connection to the church or even to another human right now. These connections are significant. Encourage your leaders to reach out to everybody on their lists.
Think About This
Fall 2021 is a challenging ministry season. Some states are practically under lockdown again. Other states are enjoying their freedom. No matter what type of environment you are ministering in, God is using groups to accomplish His purposes. The numbers may not be what you had before. That’s when you need to count what matters.
This is a tough season, but it’s not the toughest ministry season of all time. Don’t lose heart. Keep making connections. Keep inviting people into community. Keep recruiting new leaders to gather their friends. Move with the movers especially now that so much seems stuck.
What’s working for you and your groups in fall 2021?
We are living in anxious times. In fact, the #1 selling small group studies at Zondervan right now all center on the topic of anxiety. Counselors schedules are booked. Small group launches aren’t back to where they were. The world has changed. Church ministry is changing. This is all cause for much anxiety. But, God has given us a use for anxiety that will produce peace as Allen explains in this video.
Numbers are important. You want to know if you are succeeding, failing, or holding steady. These hard metrics can be encouraging or even exciting. They can also be motivating. If your small groups are lagging in some way, then you can kick it into high gear, recruit more leaders, and get more groups started. Everybody likes numbers that climb up and to the right. But, when numbers start falling, you might feel all of your efforts don’t count. The good news is that numbers are only part of the equation.
Hard Metrics aren’t the Only Factor
Numbers are hard metrics: names on rosters, number of groups, meetings attended, verses memorized. Hard numbers don’t paint the entire picture. You also need to look at soft metrics: stories being told, how God is working through groups, lives being changed, problems overcome, next steps achieved, and so on.
In a recent episode of the Church Pulse Weekly podcast, Bill Willits reflected on this ministry season at North Point, “We’ve been averaging 35-40 percent of what we would typically connect in our short-term and long-term groups. I think that’s [because of] Covid. It’s been a challenging, challenging season.” Bill continued, “[Weekend] attendance is running between 40-50 percent compared to pre-Covid at North Point. We are looking at about a third of the typically connections we would see in a fall season.” Clearly, those are disappointing results for North Point and for your church as well.
In this challenging season like in every church, the North Point team has to navigate the emotions surrounding the ministry. Bill adds, “One of the biggest things is just reminding our team, ‘Let’s make sure that the people taking the step are finding a great experience. Let’s make sure that we are helping to onboard new groups, new group leaders and their members well.’ We are putting in a lot of touch points in the first 90 days of a new group just to make sure…that this experience in really unique times is still a good one. It’s taking a lot more effort.” Are you feeling that in your fall launch right now?
“For a staff going into a connection season when you’re used to having a [high] level of engagement, it can be a major bummer to have a [much lower] level of engagement. We keep reminding staff that in this unique time, we are dialing down the euphoria about numbers and let’s dial up stories about people who are having meaningful group experiences.”
Things You Might Have Overlooked
When your numbers are strong, things are usually moving pretty fast. You probably don’t slow down to look at what’s happening with your coaches, your leaders, and your groups because too much is happening. But, when things aren’t moving fast enough, you can follow one of two approaches: frustration or evaluation.
If you expect things to work the way they always have, you will live in a lot of frustration. The world has changed. The culture has changed. New approaches are necessary in a new culture. Longing for the good old days of 2019 isn’t going to propel you forward. In fact, it will discourage you to the point of giving up. You and I both know pastors who have left the ministry in the last 18 months. When things aren’t happening fast enough for you, it’s time to slow down.
If you choose evaluation, then you ask yourself if what you’re doing is still effectively fulfilling the Great Commission. Be willing to strip away all of the plans and programs down to their core. What should you keep? What should you end? What new thing should you try? What does this make possible?
Another big question is: What is your current system producing? Are you seeing leaders developed? Are you seeing people become more like Christ? Do you see an increase in selflessness and a decrease in selfishness?
What you’ve been doing is not wrong. But, it’s not working at the level it once did. Riding this season out is not the answer. It’s time to take the thing apart – strip it down all of the way, evaluate each piece, and decide what to invest in.
Think About This
Counting your groups and leaders is important. After all, you count your money, why wouldn’t you count your people? People are far more important than money. Counting is important, but it’s not all important. The metrics that matter the most are difficult to measure. How are you creating environments where disciple-making can take place? How are you multiplying yourself? Are people coming to Christ? How are people becoming more like Christ? Who has surprised you by stepping forward to lead a group for the first time? What is God doing in your groups?
Be encouraged. You matter. Your work matters. God is using you. There’s much to do. There’s much to celebrate.