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?
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!
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?
During the Coronavirus pandemic, pastors have become online content machines. Pastors have always been content machines, we’re just seeing more of it. Phil Cooke said that the church is currently producing more media than Hollywood. How about that?
Our faith is multifaceted. God gave us a book and a brain, so there is no coincidence there. We are people of the Book, the Bible. After all, we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. But, that transformation involves a few other things like our experiences and our relationships, our attitudes and our actions. While nothing supersedes what the Bible gives us, transformation is not merely a knowledge-based enterprise. As pastors continue to pump out content, we must also realize that people don’t grow by content alone.
People are Inundated with Content.
From newsfeeds to blogs to everyone starting a podcast right now, there is content for days. For a society that was already on information overload, quarantine has caused the overload to level up several times over. In addition to content, people need a place to process all of this content and do life together, even while they’re apart.
New Facebook devotionals and midweek services are great, but how can your people talk back? Actually they can. People can join in Watch Parties and message each other. People can communicate with the presenter. Give people time to interact with you and with the content. Offer a question time, or give a question for the group to discuss. Using these simple tools you can turn your content into a conversation. I watched one group of pastors online last Sunday night reading and answering their congregations questions from the chat. Your people need conversation, not just content.
Smaller Churches have the Advantage.
If you pastor a smaller church, you can actually call every one of your members on a regular basis. You can have an actual conversation with them. While you still have the deadline of the Sunday sermon and Zoom meetings, the schedule has shifted. A pastor serving a regular sized church of 90 people could actually have a personal conversation with every member over a 30 day period by just calling three people per day. Pastors with 1,000 or 10,000 can’t do that. While online services are a necessity these days, personal touches count more than ever.
In larger churches, staff and church leaders should be enlisted to make similar contacts. Call all of your leaders. Call all of your regular givers, if you aren’t already. While you should have started this 60 days ago, you can still start now. There are lots of ways to reach out to folks and even practice the “one anothers” amid social distancing.
Small Group Churches have an Advantage.
Online worship services only go so far. While worship and the Word is vitally important during these days of isolation and fear, the reality is that once people go online, they will find a better online worship service out there. That’s okay. These are unusual times.
Small groups, however, are the glue that holds the church together. Many churches are starting significant numbers of new online groups. Remember, people need conversation and not just content. The format of groups is changing. I’ve done online coaching groups with pastors from across North America for years. My online coaching has changed. Rather than just diving into the topic, we take a little time to debrief our current situation. The pastor in Washington talks about quarantine life and ministry over the last two months. The pastor in Nebraska is just now getting into the thick of it. There is a need to talk about what we’re going through.
There is also much to learn as churches are innovating ministry right now. One church developed an online small group study called Cabin Fever to help people deal with living, working, and schooling in quarantine. Another church developed an online resource for members of their community to post practical needs. They are then matched up with a church member or a group who can meet that need. Another very large church has tasked their staff to call 160 church members per week. They are also making N95 masks for medical personnel. If pastors ever wanted to experiment, this is the time. No one is looking for perfection these days.
New Online Groups are Adding up to 50% More Groups in Some Churches.
Sure there are excuses about Zoom fatigue, but there used to be excuses about not having enough time for a group. Some people will always have reasons why they can’t join a group or just don’t want to. That’s okay. Move with the movers. If you make the offer, there are folks who would love to connect with others. Read more on starting online groups.
What is not working right now is assigning people to groups. Let’s face it this has never worked very well. When starting new groups online or offline, the leaders should start by making a list of people they know. They can invite a couple of people, then ask their new members to invite a few people they know. Before they know it, they have a group.
Now, there may be people who want to be in a group but aren’t invited. Normally, I would recommend creating an environment where prospective members can meet group leaders in person, then decide whose group to join. While you can’t do this at a physical location, you could do this online. Host an online meeting where leaders can introduce themselves and talk a little about their groups. Prospective members can listen, then indicate which group they want to become a part of. Everyone knows what they’re getting into.
Content is great. The Word of God is powerful. But, the reality is that people need each other in addition to needing your teaching. Try different ways to help them connect online and offline during this time. Get on the phone and give your people a call. Send them a handwritten note in the mail. Create new online groups. We don’t know when restrictions will end. Every state has a different opinion. We also don’t know if and when another outbreak may occur. If you learn what to do during this crisis, you will be better prepared for the next one.
How is your church innovating during the COVID-19 pandemic?
This post starts with a question rather than a statement because everything seems to be a question amidst the Coronavirus outbreak. Our lives have been defined by phrases like “in an abundance of caution,” “reopening,” and “Zoom fatigue.” I wonder if that last one is just the updated version of “I don’t have time for a group,” but I digress.
Sometime in the future, which hopefully means in year 2020, things will go back to “normal” whatever that may mean. For some normal simply means pre-shelter-in-place life and ministry. But, for others, it’s embracing a new normal of on-campus and online ministry. Some churches have witnessed an online worship attendance that’s 20 times as large as normal on-campus worship. Other churches have increased their small groups by 50% during quarantine. What’s next for those groups? How will they continue, if they continue?
Online to Offline is Awkward
In another post I mentioned my online small group on CompuServe in 1994. You can read it here. Great things happened in that group. Greg got saved. Tricia met her future husband. Allen got married, but not to Tricia. While we knew each other well online, until we converged on Greg’s house in southern California, we had never met face-to-face.
The date was set. I was going to baptize Greg in his Jacuzzi. (It’s the California way). Our online group that met only by message board and chat was going to meet in person. Our joke was that we would all have to sit in a circle with our backs to each other and communicate through our laptops. It’s one thing to take an offline group online, but moving an online group offline is another thing. It was a little awkward at first, but we had some big enough personalities in that group that our online friendship easily transferred. I don’t think that every online group can accomplish this, so don’t expect every online group to become an offline group. Our CompuServe group continued to meet as an online group for one practical reason: We lived in four different states!
Online and Out of State
On a coaching call with a pastor the other day, he mentioned that his new online group was made up of members from Washington, California, and New York. They had agreed to meet temporarily for the Cabin Fever study, but they were unsure of what they would do after that. A lot depended on what the group members needed.
With the church staying at home, ministry has gone from normal office hours to ministry 168 hours per week. (Pastors were already serving on evenings and weekends). Boundaries for small groups expanded from counties to countries and cities to states. As long as the group could figure out the time zone formula, they could meet. Now what? Groups are no longer limited to one locale, so what does the group do after the restrictions are lifted?
Possible Next Steps
There are several options for groups to choose from as they move forward. (1) Groups could move completely offline. Once groups no longer have to stay-at-home, (and provided members live within reasonable driving distance of each other), they could endure that first awkward in-person meeting and meet offline permanently. (2) Groups could stay online. If group members live long distances from each other, then an online group would be the only option. But, some groups might appreciate the convenience of meeting online. They could just put their children to bed and meet online. They’ll have to bake their own brownies, but their meetings could continue. (3) Groups could meet mostly online but also meet in-person occasionally. Groups could gather socially or to serve together on a regular basis, but continue to meet for Bible study online.
What’s the best option for online groups? Whether groups meet online or offline, the bottom line is to let the new groups decide for themselves. They should receive the same coaching and training as any other small group leaders. The only difference is the format. Welcome to the 21st century and your new online small group ministry. You certainly have better tools now than we had in 1994. Use those tools to expand the reach of disciple-making in your church. While online groups may not be your personal preference, they will work for some of your people. Not only did our CompuServe group work, we are still friends today.
Unless they offer an essential service, suddenly everybody has time for a small group. The #1 excuse people give for not joining a group is that they are too busy or they don’t have enough time. Small Group Pastors know what they are really saying is, “Small group is just not a priority.” I get that. But, now the “I don’t have time” excuse has been erased, and small groups should become a greater priority — even if they can’t meet in person.
Why do you need to start new groups during a pandemic?
Whether by choice or by mandate, people are staying away from other people right now. Church services have gone online. School has gone online in many places. While people are making their best attempts to curtail the spread of a disease, isolation and loneliness coupled with a steady intake of cable news and social media is a breeding ground for fear. Isolation and fear come straight from a page in the enemy’s playbook. The devil is having a heyday with this.
People have spiritual and emotional needs. With all of the conflicting information and no one to discuss this with, the monsters in our people’s heads just become bigger and bigger. Last week I wrote about practicing the “one anothers” of the Bible while in quarantine. People need more than worship and a sermon to reassure them and help them deal with what’s going on. Beyond that some people have practical, physical needs. How is your church keeping up with older people or people with medical conditions. We must find a strategic way to care for our members. Here’s a tough thought — your people can find a better online service. How you help them right now will determine where they go and where they give after this is all over. This is fertile ground for the enemy to do his work. This is a tremendous opportunity for the church to do its work.
As a church staff, you are working hard to transition worship and sermons to online services, but what about the social time people spent in the lobby or even in the parking lot. How are you meeting your members’ need for connection? This is the time to launch new groups. Groups could meet on a video platform. Groups could meet on a free conference call line. While many are forced to be apart, there are ways to be together.
How to Start New Groups
Starting new groups online is not so different than starting groups offline, except you have one advantage. People need connection more than ever. Now is the time to get all hands on deck and start as many groups as possible. Churches must mobilize the most people they can for ministry right now. Your people need personal care like never before. You can do this. Here’s what you need to get started:
A willing, caring person to initiate.
If there was ever a time to bypass bulky requirements for group leaders and get all hands on deck, the time is now. Invite every person who will willing and caring to start a group right now. If you are insecure about that method, then review a copy of your church’s membership roster. Who would you feel good about? Call them and invite them right now. Who is willing and caring? Remember, they suddenly have time for a group.
A system to connect.
Once you have invited people to lead these groups, then ask them who they know who would be interested in a group. Take a week and have them invite everyone they know inside the church or outside the church to join their group. Then, invite the rest of your congregation to sign up online or even give out some names for leaders to call and invite to their group. The idea is that everyone in the congregation would have someone to connect with personally every week.
A platform to meet on.
Some localities are still allowing meetings of groups less than 10 people. If people are comfortable meeting in person, then they can. Personally, I would recommend an online option like a teleconference or a conference call. This will prohibit any unnecessary contact and potential spread of disease. Teleconference services such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, and other services offer a stable platform and an easy way to connect online with video. Most services offer a call-in number for those who might be less tech savvy. For a comparison of video platforms, click here. If video is not a good solution because of the internet service in your area, then a free conference line could work as well. Several services are available.
For families with children, encourage them to meet later in the evening when their kids have gone to bed. Wear headphones to eliminate background noise. Mute yourself when you’re not talking. And, do not take your device into the bathroom with you!
Curriculum to guide.
Your groups could start with just a weekly check in to see how everybody is doing. Start the meetings by allowing people to debrief what’s going on in their lives and in their minds. Another great way to start a new group is to ask people to tell their stories or at least the part of the stories that they’re willing to tell. This is an important way for the group to begin to understand each other and have context for what they share in the group.
For new leaders I have discovered that it’s best to use some sort of video-based curriculum that contains the teaching on the video. This makes things safe for both the new leader as well as the pastors. The new leader doesn’t have to be the Bible expert, and the pastors don’t want the new leader to teach or be the Bible expert anyway. By giving them a curriculum that you’ve created or a curriculum that you trust, you could assure that the group will follow the topic that you’ve given them and have a great meeting to encourage each other, build up their faith, and grow spiritually in an unusual time.
Just-in-time training and coaching. Don’t skip this step!
There won’t be a lot of time to train these leaders at first. I have discovered that if you recruit an established leader to follow up with new leaders, you create a win-win situation. The new leaders get help and support right when they need it, and the experience leader gets a trial run at being a coach. Once the trial is over, you can determine whether the new leaders will want to continue and whether the coaches should continue.
Just like groups can meet over a teleconference or conference call, training can also happen in the same way. In the last church I served we had an immediate need for coaches. I knew it would be difficult to add another meeting to an already busy schedule which included all of the coaches leading their own small group, so we met together on a conference line at about 8:30 at night for 30 minutes and did this for about six weeks in a row. Why did we meet so late? Well everybody was home from work, finished with dinner, and their kids were hopefully in bed. With all of these distractions removed, I was able to conduct the training and get these new coaches started. The same can be true for leader training, but I would recommend letting the coaches do the work for at least the first six weeks, then offer more formal training when the leaders are ready to move forward and when the leaders feel like they actually need the training.
Follow up and feedback.
Leading a small group and coaching is important work so you must inspect what you expect. If you’ve asked your coaches to call the new leaders every week, then you need to call the coaches every week and hear what’s going on with the groups. As a pastor, you want to know what’s going on with your people especially during a crisis. Your coaches can give you the needs that you need to address that maybe they cannot. You also get an accurate picture of what’s going on in your small group ministry. If you wait for a report, you are already in the weeds.
Do for your coaches what you expect them to do for your leaders. Just like your people need the care of a leader and your leaders need the care of a coach, your coaches need care from you. Now that your schedule has changed, it shouldn’t be too hard to pick up the phone and give each of your coaches a call.
Supervision and accountability.
While you have successfully given away the ministry to new leaders and new coaches, the only thing that you cannot give away is the responsibility for the ministry. The buck still stops with you. I don’t say this to make you nervous, but I do say this so you will avoid an entirely hands off approach. The coaching structure is effective, but it cannot run on auto pilot. While you are not in the day-to-day care of leaders, you cannot be completely out of it either. This is still your baby.
The End Result
In this climate, everything you do is essentially a startup. You cannot call a meeting and gather people on campus. You cannot do on-site training. You can’t even visit your people in their homes. But you can start online groups that will accomplish all of this. This may go against your personality. This may go against everything that you’ve done before. But the message is the same — We are better together even if we are apart.
By starting new small groups right now, your people will feel less lonely, less isolated, and less fearful. These groups can help your people build their faith and experience the care that they deserve. And the hard truth is that you cannot create that with an email.
My hope for you is that the end result of starting online groups will be at the beginning of something new for your ministry and your church. Pastors and staff cannot possibly meet all of the needs of any congregation. And they shouldn’t. Now more than ever, you need to get your people to engage their gifts and serve others in groups like never before. Don’t waste this moment. Suddenly, everybody has time for a small group!
If you’re ready to start groups, I want to share this webinar with you: