Planning in Pencil and Prayer

Planning in Pencil and Prayer

The phrase “planning in pencil and prayer” is borrowed from a pastor who serves in of all places, Corona, California. The sentiment rings true. It’s hard to know how or what to plan at this point.

Back in March when our church, NewSpring, announced that worship services, KidSpring, and Fuse (student ministries) would be opened in mid-July, I felt they were operating out of abundance of caution and wisely chose to regather once the pandemic was well behind us. Well, that’s next weekend, and the fact that they are persisting makes we question their wisdom at this point. But, it’s not just my church.

Photo by rawpixel via 123rf.com

Considering the uptick in Coronavirus cases since Memorial Day, I can’t imagine the number of cases that will appear in the 14 days following the Independence Day weekend. Someone online questioned the validity of all of this precaution. He asked his followers, “Have you seen anything different this year than during a normal flu season?” I have. I know of more people in the hospital and more people who have died than during a typical flu season. These aren’t statistics: a friend’s 35-year-old healthy co-worker and others have died.

So, how do you plan during a pandemic? Are we looking at online Christmas services? (Honestly, I was surprised by the idea of online Easter services at one point). It seems nearly impossible to plan during such a continuously ambivalent period. What does planning in pencil and prayer look like?

Your people will be worshipping somewhere.

Imagine your congregation was forced to meet at a different physical location. What would you do? Would you wait for them to return to your building before ministry could resume? Of course not! You would follow them to the new location and conduct services in the building that is currently housing them. Well, your congregation moved.

They moved online. They may or may not be able to regather in the remainder of 2020. Either way, they need a place to worship. The good news is that more people will participate in your online services than will ever join your on-campus services. When your congregation eventually regathers will you slam the door on your online followers?

The future will be a hybrid off online and on-campus services — but hear this — these are two different kinds of services. Streaming a regular worship service doesn’t work, but ignoring the people in the room to speak directly to the camera doesn’t work either. Two services are necessary just like you might have a traditional worship service and a contemporary service. The message is the same but the method is different.

The only true loser in all of this is the multisite campus. If people can watch the service online at home or even with friends, why would they need to watch online at a building the church rents? Streaming is streaming, right

Small groups are essential for your church’s continuity.

Again, in the vein of planning in pencil and prayer, we don’t know if small groups will be online, offline, on-campus, or off-campus. Groups are important for a variety of reasons as you can review in the Senior Pastor’s Guide to Groups. Groups are normally important because it’s a great format for disciples to make disciples.

During the pandemic, groups are especially important because in addition to content people also need conversation. They need a place to process what they’re dealing with. They need to discuss what was presented in the weekend service. Groups have always been a great means of taking your weekend into your week, but this is more important now than ever.

In order to start as many groups as you possibly can, you need to recruit as many people to start them as you possibly can. I don’t say “leader” here because I do not believe you need a leader in order to start a group. I do believe that if you give people permission and opportunity they will they will gather a group. To get you started with online small groups: Leading Online Small Groups: Embracing the Church’s Digital Future.

Unleash your people to serve.

Since churches have been unable to gather, many of the entry-level service roles such as ushers, greeters, parking lot attendants, guest services, coffee station workers, and so forth have disappeared. For churches who are depending on serving opportunities to assimilate their guests, that strategy just went out the window. But just because the church isn’t meeting in the building doesn’t mean the church has closed.

Again by giving your people permission and opportunity, you can empower them to do something about the needs that they are discovering. How can they love their neighbor when they have to social distance? What needs are they seeing in the community, what can they do about it? The more you get people engaged in ministry instead of arguing on Facebook, the better off everyone will be.

Personalized your ministry.

Closing church buildings resulted in the shift from centralized to decentralized ministry. You are well aware by now that people will only tolerate a certain number of zoom meetings in a day. But there are a lot of other ways to connect with people and help them other than more online videos and more zoom meetings.

With your smart phone, you can connect with more people in a more personal way than at any other time in history. You can call them, text them, message them, sing them a TikTok song (Maybe not that last one). In a previous post, I showed how you can accomplish all of the one another’s of the Bible with a smart phone. You just can’t greet one another with a holy kiss.

When the church doors closed, ministries got smaller and larger at the same time. We’ve already talked about the larger part with online services. But the smaller part is focusing on a select group to disciple personally. The smaller part is connecting regularly with the top 25% of your givers. The smaller part is focusing on the committed core of your church, serving for the crowd through online worship services, and caring for them through small groups. Your ministry priority should be clearer now and than ever been.

Concluding Thoughts

Many pastors have greatly overestimated what the weekend service could accomplish. Buildings closed and the church marched on. The church’s mission was never dependent on a building anyway.

On-campus worship services got a bunch of people in the room, but they were deceiving in two ways. First, sermons don’t make disciples, and second, the shoe was limiting the size of the foot. There are far more people to serve “out there” than could ever fit “in here” (or would even darken the door of a church).

In your planning, plan for necessities, but also plan for opportunities. The normal you are longing to see return won’t be the normal you remember. That’s okay. As long as your open to learn new things, you’re future is brighter than it might seem.

This is a season to try new things. This is the time to hit play while the rest of the world is hitting pause. What opportunities do you see? What are you doing to make the most of those opportunities? I’d like to hear what you’re thinking. Respond in the comments.

The 2021 Small Group Ministry Coaching Group is now forming. For more information, click here.

Entering the Church’s Digital Future

Entering the Church’s Digital Future

About 90 days ago the church made a pivot to online services. Regular worship services were prohibited in most areas of the country due to COVID-19 and efforts to flatten the curve. Suddenly, worship services appeared online. Churches who had never recorded or live streamed their services scrambled to get online. But, some other things began to happen.

Many churches discovered that just streaming the weekend service was not sufficient to engage participation at home. It was open season for experimentation in worship. Worship teams went from social distancing on stage to leading from their homes and looking like the Brady Bunch online.

The biggest learning in all of this was that people actually showed up. Some churches quickly saw twice the number of people online as they typically had on the weekend. One church with a normal weekend attendance of 10,000 had 200,000 people tune in at Easter. People from out-of-town, out-of-state, and even out of the country began to join in. This presented a new challenge — when things got back to normal, nothing would be normal. How could you abandon your new online congregation? You can’t and you shouldn’t.

Digital ministry is significant. It’s a moment not unlike the printing press 500 years ago. While we might not call it a digital reformation, online ministry is showing signs of creating a new category of ministry for the church going forward. The message hasn’t changed, but the method certainly has. How do you lead a digital congregation?

Interactive Online Services

The churches that are making it without an on-campus weekend service are offering a direct-to-camera, interactive worship service. It’s not merely streaming a typical weekend service. That’s passive. They are connecting with an online audience.

The method has shifted from standing on a stage behind a pulpit and preaching to the crowd to sitting in the living room talking to your members and many others through their televisions. In some cases, pastors are actually taking questions through Facebook Live or some other means and providing answers during their messages or Bible studies. The world is tuning in. What are you giving them?

When this is over, online services shouldn’t be gone. In fact, in churches that are regathering for worship, pastors should remember to speak to the cameras, because there is far more of the congregation “out there,” than there is “in here.” While pastors don’t want to feel like they’re ignoring those in the building, they must either speak directly to the camera (otherwise you creative a passive experience for your online audience), or record an entirely different format for the online folks. Same message, but different method.

Meaningful Connections and Online Groups

When the pandemic began, I broke down all of the “one anothers” and showed how the church could still practice all of them except greeting with a holy kiss. We’ve always said that the church is not the building, and the church is not the worship service, but were we telling the truth? I agree with those who said that the church isn’t reopening because it never closed. The church — the ekklesia, the assembly – is the people of God. The gates of hell cannot defeat us, let alone Coronavirus.

The churches who are succeeding right now are meeting their members’ needs in personal ways. Whether people are required or choose to social distance, the pastors that are getting it right are forming new online small groups, sending personal notes in the mail, and making personal phone calls. That may seem a bit daunting, but start somewhere. One church immediately upon the shutdown tasked their staff with calling the top 20% of givers in their church – not to ask for money, but to see how they were doing. Again, go back to the digital one anothers: text encouragement, send a note of appreciation, recruit new online group leaders. We are 100+ days in, but it’s not too late to get started.

Meeting Practical Needs in the Community

Government stimulus checks went pretty fast. Now what? Folks are looking for jobs. In many places states of emergency have ended, so foreclosures have begun. People are trying to keep a roof over their heads and feed their families. For some, these are desperate times. How can your church help?

Food producers are throwing food away, yet people are going without food. How can your church redirect discarded food and get it to the people who need it? Can you assist a local food bank? My wife and son support a local free pantry down the street in front of the fire station. Someone built it. I’m not sure who. But, neighbors provide some food and necessities, then post a picture on their Facebook group. Those in need are informed of what’s available. Those who help can see when supplies need to be restocked. How can your church help the least of these?

Giving Spiritual Next Steps

Some people watching your online service will never show up at your church. It may not be practical with their work schedule. They might live out-of-state. How do you disciple your online following?

How would you guide these folks if they came to church on Sunday? You would probably have them fill out a communication card. Are you getting their information? Maybe you would offer a meeting with the pastor or some sort of “Welcome to the Church” class. You can do this online.

Some churches have a membership class, a Growth Track, CLASS 101-401, or something else. If you put these online, they could help in two ways. First, you can offer next steps to your online congregation who may never darken the door of the church. Second, you can provide a way for people who do attend locally, but have never taken the next steps classes. Instead of offering these classes once a month, they could be available 168 hours a week. You could gain new members in the middle of the night!

Concluding Thoughts

Whether people are quarantined by themselves or with their families, there is a sense of isolation. We need each other! Digital ministry involves getting people connected into groups and creating intentional opportunities for people to meet online at first.

Giving is almost 100% online in these days. And, giving should be tied to meeting practical needs in the community. By linking generosity with reaching people and helping them in a crisis, members will be more generous than ever.

Digital ministry is not going away, nor should it. Many churches are attempting to hire a digital ministries pastor at this point. (I say “attempting” because there aren’t a lot of people with the technical, pastoral, and creative skills to fit the bill.) You might need several staff (paid or volunteer) for this role. How will your church engage the community in this digital reformation?

When Should Groups Meet in Person?

When Should Groups Meet in Person?

When churches should regather for worship is one question, but an equally challenging question is when groups should meet in person. The issue of COVID-19 has not been solved. In fact, several states are now reporting more cases of Coronavirus than ever before. Just when you thought it was safe for groups to meet in person, the pandemic seems to be flaring up again in many places.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

As people are becoming weary of quarantine and some despair of another online meeting, directing groups to meet too soon could only add to the problem. But, eventually groups will meet. When they do, how should you guide them? Here are some things to consider as you direct your groups:

1. What are the restrictions or recommendations of your local government?

State and local governments all have common, yet unique challenges. The Coronavirus pandemic seems to have no rhyme or reason. At first, the pandemic seemed more of a big city problem, but over time it has shown up in more rural areas. It’s hard to predict. While guidance and restrictions related to COVID-19 have unfortunately become politicized in some areas, this is a time to heed the counsel of government in directing your groups and especially observe restrictions on meetings and meeting sizes.

2. What are the recommendations from medical authorities?

While opinions vary among medical experts (and I’m not talking about your Facebook friends), there is some common agreement regarding the spread of disease. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, so breathing it out while talking, singing, shouting, coughing, sneezing, or breathing spreads the disease. It seems to enter the body through the eyes, nose, or mouth. It would make sense to cover the body parts that spread the disease as well as those that serve in contracting the disease. Here is a description of how viruses spread from an immunologist.

There is debate over other issues. Can the virus be spread on surfaces? Clean them. Can the virus be spread through food? Avoid refreshments for now. Can the virus be spread through human contact? Maybe go “touchless” for a while in the group, even though group members will be desperate to give and receive hugs. Here are the guidelines from the CDC.

3. What should groups do over the summer?

Summer tends to be a challenge for groups anyway. People plan vacations or weekends at the lake. The rhythm of the public school calendar comes into play. Even though people are still working (hopefully), alarm clocks don’t ring. Longer evenings lead to more leisure. Warmer weather calls people outdoors. For places with long winters and/or long quarantines, once people can get out, my sense is that they will be gone. Don’t fight that.

In a normal year, I usually advise groups to meet as often as they would like, but at least once per month. They can meet socially. They could serve together. Some might want to meet for a Bible study. The bottom line here is that a group is not just a meeting just like a family is not just dinner. Groups also need group life together.

Summer is not the time to launch a new study or a new series. Churches that do a big push in the summer usually lose momentum when it comes to the fall launch. It’s better to embrace the typical rhythm of summer and gear up for a big fall. Even if the fall may bring a resurgence of Coronavirus and a second quarantine, people need a break in the summer. We will talk about fall planning in another post.

4. What do the groups want to do?

Even if the church gives groups the blessing to meet in person again, some people will be reluctant to meet for fear of exposure to COVID-19. Others will differ on what precautions to take. I’ve already heard of churches dealing with mask wearers and non-mask wearers. It hasn’t quite taken on the proportions of the circumcised and the uncircumcised in the book of Galatians, but the spirit is there.

With any small group dilemma, groups need to form their own group agreements going into this next season of meeting (or not meeting). A discussion of the group agreement will help everyone to feel heard and hopefully will lead to agreement on how the group will proceed in the summer or fall semester. For more information on forming a group agreement, click here.

While the church can offer some overall guidelines for groups, it’s really the decision of each group. Encourage your coaches to engage with the group leaders to help them navigate this issue. If you don’t have coaches, first, you need to think about starting your coaching structure. Second, if you don’t have coaches, then you need to talk to your leaders individually and help them.

5. Create Some Group Guidelines.

Groups will need some overall guidance from the church. These should be general guidelines based on the best medical and governmental information you can access with the understanding that groups and their members will have different opinions and feelings about this. Personally, I would avoid making the guidelines too directive, in that, you don’t want to put the church in a place where they might be liable for a group’s actions.

Eastside Christian Church in Anaheim, CA published guidelines for groups at one of their campuses in Minnesota. Bear in mind as you read their guidelines that to date this county in Minnesota has had no reported cases of Coronavirus.

Group Grand Opening Guidelines by Will Johnston and Cheri Liefeld

We recognize that some of you may be nervous about meeting at all—and that’s okay, you don’t have to—and others of you may feel like any sort of meeting restrictions are unnecessary. We’ve adopted these guidelines because we want to preserve our witness for Jesus to our communities by following our local, state, and national leaders, and because we don’t want to be responsible for an outbreak that could devastate lives.

Illness – Group members should stay home if they or anyone in their household is sick.

Location – Select a gathering place where you can safely distance. Meeting outside is encouraged when possible.

Masks – We are asking group members to wear masks, especially in the time people are arriving and socializing. Once group members are safely distanced, masks may be removed at the discretion of the leader and participants.

Food – We are big proponents of food at small group gatherings, but during this season we are recommending that groups not eat together. If you do choose to eat, encourage members to bring their own beverage and snack.

Greetings – As much as some will miss hugging or shaking hands with other group members, for now it is wise to avoid physical contact.

Cleaning – The host should be prepared to clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that are frequently touched both before and after group (Door handles, chairs, restrooms, etc.).

Virtual Option – Not everyone will feel comfortable attending in person at first. Consider setting up a computer in your meeting area so group members can join in via video conference.

Childcare – Due to the challenge of having young children practice distancing, at this time we are asking groups not bring children to meetings at this time.

High Risk Individuals – Those who are 65+ or who have serious underlying health conditions are strongly encouraged to join an online small group rather than an in-person one. Groups comprised largely of high risk individuals are encouraged to continue meeting virtually.

Group Size – Groups of more than 10 people that choose to meet in person should divide the group up and meet in different places or at different times.

Concluding Thoughts

Guidance for groups regathering is not a simple cut and paste. While I feel that the guidelines from Eastside are thorough, you need to come up with what’s right for your small groups. And, then encourage each group to determine what’s right for them. Online groups may not feel perfect to some, but they may need to be an option for a while.

In all of this, don’t forget why we’re doing this. Groups are not for the sake of groups, but for the sake of disciples making disciples and practicing the one another’s (which can be done in ways other than meetings). Groups are one method of making disciples. Group meetings are one component of groups. Don’t limit yourself with in-person meetings.

Join a Conversation about Regathering on Thursday, June 11, 2020 at 1 pm Eastern. To register, click here.

The Chocolate Hummus of Ministries Got Left Behind

The Chocolate Hummus of Ministries Got Left Behind

The Coronavirus pandemic has created some interesting times for life and ministry. Back in March 2020 toilet paper disappeared from the store shelves along with hand sanitizer. While the second one made sense in combating a virus, the first one was a bit of a puzzle.

Courtesy of Traderjoes.com

What also seemed curious were the items left behind on store shelves. Items that didn’t appear on anyone’s shopping list included things like chickpea-based linguine, chocolate hummus, dryer sheets, obscure canned veggies like artichokes and asparagus spears, plant-based proteins, and oddly enough, Dasani bottled water. “Chocolate hummus is the canary in the coal mine. If you see it selling out, it’s time to start fleeing into the woods,” according to Aaron Mak in a post on Slate.com.

What are Churches Leaving Behind?

Once stay-at-home orders too place, churches went online. Worship services went online. Small groups went online. Giving went online. But, some things got left behind.

In a recent survey of churches across North America, pastors reported not only what they stopped doing, but also what they’re not bringing back. This included things like the church bulletin, working at the church office, tons of physical meetings, large group speaking events, and too much programming.

One shift is to stop gauging the church’s success on Sunday worship attendance. One pastor wrote, “We need a more unified and thoughtful approach going forward.”

Scarcity brings clarity. What will your church leave behind?

What are Churches Starting and Keeping?

Every church represented in the survey reported a much stronger online worship attendance after March 1, 2020 than their average weekend attendance in February 2020. While some churches just expanded the reach of an existing online campus or streaming service, others have discovered that through online services, they are engaging a larger part of their congregations and attracting people outside of their church (often outside of their state!).

Churches are also engaging in an uptick of personal ministry. Pastors are using text messages, phone calls, personal emails, handwritten notes, and of course, Zoom meetings. The overall tone of ministry has become more informal and more experimental. Restrictions have forced churches to rethink the methods in fulfilling their mission.

This is a time of learning. The church is learning what to do and what not to do. The church is discovering what really matters, what doesn’t seem to matter, and what used to matter. And, of course, the church is waiting. Waiting on the Lord is a good thing.

The church is discovering that it’s much more than a Sunday service in a building. We’ve all said that, but now we’ve lived it. As Alan Hirsch says the church is playing chess without the queen. With the queen of the worship service gone, it’s a chance for the church to see what all of the other chess pieces can do without her. That’s not saying the on-campus worship service shouldn’t come back. But, it is causing everyone to look at what is working during a crisis.

A while back someone said, “Right now everything is a startup.” How is your church a startup? How are you innovating? What have you discovered?

And, most importantly, what is the chocolate hummus in your church? Give your answer in the comments below.

Click here to take the anonymous survey.

Other posts in this series:

Part 1: How Quarantine Changed the Church

Part 2: Conversation Trumps Content Alone

How Quarantine Changed the Church

How Quarantine Changed the Church

This is a three-part series about how the church is changing during the pandemic and discovering new paradigms of ministry. This week we will explore worship services. Next week, we will cover small groups. Then, in the third installment, we will consider the “chocolate hummus” of ministries and what should be left behind.

Part 1: Online Services are Bigger Than Ever

Church went online, and everyone showed up. Churches across the country have reported online attendance that is double their average weekly adult attendance or more. I see a few reasons for this happening. I also see a few opportunities moving forward.

The Easter Phenomena

Easter is typically the highest attended Sunday of the year. While we’d love to think that our congregations have done a great job inviting unbelievers to Easter and that our advertising really paid off, the reality is that Easter is the one Sunday of the year when everybody who is a part of your church shows up (along with some visitors and invited guests). Don Corder in his book, Connect: Grow Your Church in 28 Days – Guaranteed, uses a formula based on his work at The Provisum Group, which demonstrates that an actual congregation is more or less five times the size of the weekend attendance. You can read more here about the True Size of Your Church. Your church database will testify to the fact that you have a lot more people associated with your church than regularly attend.

As online services got rolling everybody showed up, and that’s a good thing. Now, the challenge is to change your thinking from online services as a necessity during quarantine to online services as a necessity to connect more regularly with your congregation and your community. Online services shouldn’t be a temporary stop gap. This is the gateway to a new way to serve your people.

Church Shopping and Hopping (and Other Pastors Lurking)

I have to confess: I haven’t been watching my church’s online services. I’ve been watching Saddleback Church, where I used to be a member. Last Sunday, we “visited” Hillsong California. All of this happened from our living room in South Carolina. Church shopping and hopping has never been easier! I know I’m not the only one.

Now, smart pastors are looking at a lot of online services to pick up tips on improving their own online services. Also, for the first time, pastors are at home on Sunday and have time to relax and watch online services. This is all factoring into online attendance, even in a small way.

New Online Attenders

After 9/11 churches were packed. The United States faced a catastrophic attack unlike anything since Pearl Harbor. It shook people to their cores. They turned to the church. In this pandemic there were no churches to pack.

Churches were closed, but online services were open. People went online to find help and hope during the uncertainty of this latest catastrophic event. Rock Church in San Diego saw their Easter attendance increase from a regular worship attendance of 10,000 to an Easter 2020 attendance of 200,000. They received the largest offering in the history of their church.

For the church, this is an event unlike any other in recent history that will launch new forms of ministry to reach an online audience. Prior to the pandemic, people were jaded and content. Life was pretty comfortable. Everyone was riding high on the S&P 500. Coronavirus has shaken everything. Over 30 million people are out of work. Tens of thousands have died. People are tired of sitting at home, but uncertain about their future. While they can rail against politicians and process the anger stage of grief, the reality is the world has become unstable. The church, however, is built on a rock.

Online Campuses Might Have Replaced Multisite Campuses.

If people will worship and respond in their living rooms, then why go to the trouble of maintaining multisite campuses? Many multisites are essentially hosting online services in a group of hundreds or thousands. Yet, online services during the pandemic have demonstrated that families, small groups, and watch parties have become a much larger audience than all of a church’s multisite campuses combined. Some churches discovered the exponential potential of microsite campuses sometime back. You can read more here.

We understand that an online campus is more than just streaming the video from a weekend service. It’s a campus. There is a service host. There are next steps. And, the coffee is better than it is at the multisite campus I attend! Why go back when multisite campuses are reopened? I’m not saying people shouldn’t. I’m just asking if multisite campuses are still necessary.

The Format of Online Services Matters

With online services there is a vast difference between streaming your regular service and creating an online service format. Why split the hair? Streaming regular services creates online viewers. Offering a unique online format creates participants. A church service shouldn’t be something that people merely watch, but something they engage in. If they are not engaging, it’s not their fault. The format makes the difference.

Online services that work honor the principles of other online content. First, tighten up the shot. Think about how newscasters talk directly into the camera. They’re not standing on a stage in an empty auditorium looking elsewhere. Newscasters look directly into the camera. Their audience is on the other side of that lens. So is yours. Use a low cost teleprompter for your notes or manuscript so you’re looking at the camera and not looking down. Tighten up the shot.

Next, personalize the background. Think of Jimmy Fallon creating the Tonight Show in his home with his kids climbing all over him. It’s personal. It’s warm. Let your people into your home. Sit in your favorite chair like you are sitting with your people in their living rooms. Use multiple cameras to add visual interest from different angles. And, while you’re at it, you could pre-record your service to edit in your main points, Bible verses, and next steps.

Lastly, tighten up the sermon. People are used to watching 30-minute sitcoms and 60-minute dramas. Anything over an hour is a movie, which requires millions of dollars and a captivating plotline to keep people’s attention that long. Think TED Talk. It’s harder to prepare shorter talks, but it’s important to keep people’s attention. Don’t let your pride get the best of you here. Going forward, consider using a format like LifeTogether’s Conversation Service which is built entirely for an online audience.

How Will You Disciple Your New Online Congregation?

Now that you’ve engaged with more of your congregation on a regular basis online and attracted a multitude of people outside of your congregation, how do you help them take next steps in their faith? What should you offer to people who come to Christ through an online service? How can they connect with the church through a small group or a membership class? How are you discipling your online followers?

By streaming your Growth Track, membership class, and other core components of connecting people into your church, you will not only include your new online followers, but you will also create a more convenient format for busy people who can never make it to the classes. The message is the same, but the methods have to change. That’s what we said when we went from traditional services to seeker services 30 years ago. Welcome to a new era of ministry. Quarantine is producing some new ways of doing ministry. It gives the church permission to experiment. It also gives the church an opportunity to launch new initiatives to reach people with the Gospel and disciple them.

What is your church learning about the future of ministry during Quarantine 2020? Leave your comments below.

Part 2: Conversation Trumps Content Alone.

Part 3: The Chocolate Hummus of Ministries Got Left Behind.

Promoting Community While Social Distancing: Moving Your Small Groups Online

Promoting Community While Social Distancing: Moving Your Small Groups Online

Amid the Coronavirus pandemic, people need each other more than ever before, yet they need to avoid each other more than ever. Christians believe faith is more powerful than fear. As the news media and government agencies continue to discuss the critically important topic of the spread and impact of Coronavirus, it’s easy for anyone to give into fear, especially when they are isolated from others.

Courtesy of @kenwmurphy via Instagram

Worship services are forced online as groups of 10 are being discouraged to gather. For smaller numbers, social distancing is encouraged where people should stay six feet away from each other. Whether by mandate or by choice, people are cautious about meeting with any size group. Isolation, though, tends to amplify fear. How can we promote community and social distancing at the same time?

Reframing Life and Ministry

The only thing missing from everyday life amid a pandemic is personal contact. The church may not be meeting within the four walls of the church building for an hour on Sunday, but the church can function as the Body of Christ despite the lack conventional church services.

Paul instructed in 1 Corinthians 12 that every member of the Body is important and that every member has gifts. Rather than meeting in weekend services to check off the church box for the week, members can and should be challenged to embrace their deeper calling. Who can they serve? How can they encourage? How can the church be the church outside of the four walls of a Sunday service? We really should be asking these questions anyway.

When we think of small groups in particular, often we focus on practicing the “one anothers” of the Bible.

“Love one another” (John 13:34; John 15:12).

“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (Romans 12:10).

“Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10).

“Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16).

“Stop passing judgment on one another” (Romans 14:13).

“Serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13).

“Carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).

“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other” (Ephesians 4:32).

“Build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

“Encourage one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13).

“Spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).

“Pray for each other” (James 5:16).

There are 59 of these statements in all. (For a complete list, check out this post on smallgroupchurches.com.

There are only a couple of these statements that should be avoided in a climate of social distancing:

“Wash one another’s feet” (Mark 9:50) and

“Greet one another with a holy kiss” (1 Peter 5:14).

All of the other “one anothers” can be practiced among believers even in isolation, quarantine, and social distancing.

Reframing the Practice of the One Anothers

What is available to believers who are in isolation or self-quarantine? We have computers, tablets, smartphones, messaging, social media, telephones, streaming video services, and televisions. People communicate more while they are apart than when they are actually together it seems! Now take the communications devices available to people and pair them with the one another statements.

With this technology, how do we “encourage one another daily” as stated in Hebrews 3:13. The reality is most people don’t see each other every day. But, given the technology in our hands, we could text or message encouragement to one another daily. Just the other day a friend in Florida came to mind. I texted to see how he was doing. He was discouraged. In a short text, I encouraged him. His response was, “I think that’s just what I needed to hear today. Thank you.” I wasn’t in the same room with him. I wasn’t even in the same state with him, but I was able to encourage him. How can we encourage one another daily when we can’t see them in person? Use what we have!

The same goes for these other “one another” statements as well.

“Love one another” – We can do this anywhere at any time.

“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” – We can call to check on each other.

“Honor one another above yourselves” – We can think of others before we think of ourselves. How is the pandemic affecting those we know? How about our neighbors?

“Live in harmony with one another” – Distancing may promote harmony in some ways. But in light of a global pandemic, we can also put our differences aside.

“Stop passing judgment on one another” – Everyone acts differently in different situations. Be as gracious in social media as you would if you were talking to the person face to face. People are already anxious. We don’t need to feed into this.

“Serve one another in love” – Can you spare a square? If someone is in need and you have the ability to help, then help them. You might need to make a “no contact” delivery and leave some toilet paper on their doorstep, but you can serve.

“Carry each other’s burdens” – When you call to encourage someone, you can listen. You can empathize. You can’t give them a hug, but you can care.

“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other” – Life’s too short. Let it go.

“Build each other up” – When people are isolated, their thoughts and our enemy can get the best of them. Lift them up. Send a text about what you like about them. Post a verse. Leave a voice mail.

“Spur one another on toward love and good deeds” – We need reminders to move forward and not get stuck. While stuck home from work or school, we have time on their hands. How can we help others?

“Pray for each other” – We can pray over the phone. We can even pray on someone’s voice mail.

Meeting with Your Small Group Online

Hebrews 10:25 instructs us “…not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…” Often these instructions are taken for worship services, which today have moved online. The author of Hebrews is more than likely speaking to smaller home gatherings. This is your small group. You could take the risk and meet together in-person. But, let’s face it, we don’t know where the Coronavirus pandemic is going to go. Your group might meet, but some might choose to stay away – either out of caution or out of fear (Remember: “Stop passing judgment on one another”). If we can’t meet in person, we can meet online.

I was part of an online small group on CompuServe in 1994. There was no video or audio. It was basically a chatroom and a message board. It seems like ancient history now, but this was back before most people had ever heard of the internet. On my dialup modem, I connected with Greg in southern California, Trish in Chicagoland, David in California, and a couple in Idaho. Greg wasn’t even a Christian at the time, but he joined our Christian forum because it offered low priced, flat rate service. One day Greg informed the group that he received Christ as his Savior. We all converged on Greg’s house in San Dimas, California for his baptism. Years later, Greg was a groomsman in my wedding. Since moving to the East Coast, we don’t see each other very often, but we still connect.

With online technology today, it’s easier than ever to host groups online. You get to see faces and hear each other’s voices. It’s much better than my CompuServe days! To meet in online groups, you have to pick a platform. I prefer Zoom, which offers both a paid and free service. Group members can connect by video, audio, and/or telephone. I use it every day for staff meetings and coaching groups.

To make group meetings work best, you have to eliminate distractions –close other windows and notifications on your computer, tablet, or phone. Use ear buds or headphones to prevent audio feedback. Make sure there is nothing distracting in the environment where you are sitting. Then, just focus on your group meeting.

Over the years, I’ve heard people object that people who meet online can pretend to be anyone they want and won’t necessarily present their real selves. I’ve discovered this is also true in in-person meetings. It’s up to group members to choose how much they will disclose about themselves and how vulnerable they will be. Remember: speed of the leader, speed of the team.

Ministry doesn’t have to stop because of a pandemic and social distancing. In fact, there are plenty of opportunities for the church to be the church. The persecuted church in Acts 8:1 couldn’t stay with the apostles in Jerusalem, but they did spread the message of the Gospel throughout Judea and Samaria just as Jesus commanded them in Acts 1:8. How can we use this circumstance to fulfill Jesus’ command? We don’t need church buildings. We don’t need “official” ministries. We don’t need church staff to lead the meetings. Now is a time to be the church more than ever. My hope is even when we go back to weekend worship services, we will never go back to “normal.” The church should continue to be the church.

For more information on online small groups:

How to Host an Online Group by Jason DeGraaff (Offers a comparison of teleconference services).

How Online Small Groups Work by Jay Kranda

How Small Groups Achieve Pastor's Goals



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