Let’s face it: it’s been hard to predict anything in the last two years. I certainly don’t claim to be a prophet, but I am seeing and learning some emerging trends when it comes to ministry during Coronavirus Year Three. You might be noticing some of these things too.
Digital Ministry is the Church’s New Front Door
You’ve known for a while that people were checking out your church website before they were entering the physical front door. Now, digital ministry has become the church’s new front door. When people show up in-person for the first time, they are no longer “first time guests.” They’ve been watching online for a while. When they show up, they are ready in engage in small groups and serving.
Many pastors are frustrated that people aren’t “back” and are worshipping at home. I believe there are three reasons why people are still worshipping online. First, some are COVID Cautious. They’re just not sure if they’re ready to worship in-person, so they stay away. Second, some are COVID Convenient. (I used to call this “COVID Lazy,” but someone accused me of being judgmental.) They enjoy the convenience of worshipping at home and not having to pile everyone in the car to go to church. The third group is new attenders. They discovered your church during the pandemic. They are watching as regularly or more regularly than your in-person attenders are showing up. A church in Texas recently baptized an online attender who flew in from England. My friends at Community Bible Church, Stockbridge, Georgia, baptized a police officer from New York City who came to Christ while watching online. This is more than a novelty. Digitial Ministry is a mission field.
Insight: Make your online worship service equivalent to your in-person worship service. It’s not the same (not even close). But, expect just as much from your online attenders as you do your in-person attenders when it comes to your growth track, small groups, giving, and serving. Specifically invite them to follow next steps. Give them a digital way to respond. For more on digital ministry, go here.
The Church You Have is the Church You’ve Got
Waiting for your pre-COVID worship attenders to return is like waiting for your old Blockbuster to reopen. It’s not going to happen. The church you have is your church, so lead it. As I wrote a few months ago, “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.” To read the entire post, go here.
People are Choosier in Committing Their Time
During the pandemic your people divested themselves of every type of involvement. They wiped the slate complete clean. And, as you’ve seen, they haven’t immediately brought back everything they were doing before. They will form groups. They will serve. But, the motivation is more aligned with their personal mission than with being told they “ought” to.
When it comes to serving, help people discover their spiritual gifts and see how they align with their personal passions. Use a course like Network by Bruce Bugbee, SHAPE from Saddleback or Find Your Place by Rob Wegner and Brian Phipps. Start new ministries from your people’s passions rather than from the top down.
Give your people permission and opportunity to start small groups on their terms. Let them invite their friends. Let them meet in-person or online with any format that suits them. Small groups can grow if you let people meet anywhere at any time with anyone.
Insight: If your church parking lot is half empty, then encourage your parking team to start small groups. Everybody can find a parking place on their own.
Processes and Programs Should Give Way to Personalization
There has been a growing shift in discipleship for quite some time. Every person is different. They are at different places in their spiritual growth. They came to you from very different circumstances. A process is not the answer. After all, you’re not making widgits! (Read more here).
While there is a part of discipleship that involves content, the vast majority of disciple-making is personal. Churches in general have produced an inordinate amount of content because that’s the easy way to go in indoctrinating people. But, the reality is that just because people “know right” doesn’t mean they “do right.” You know that’s true.
Community is equally as important as content. One definition of “disciple” is the idea of “rubbing off on.” People need to be together in smaller groups to rub off on each other and practice the one anothers of Scripture. While many pastor struggle with getting online attenders to attend in-person, some will join an in-person small group even if they are worshipping online. And, some in-person attenders have discovered that online groups are more convenient for them. Regardless of how they choose to meet, encourage community.
How are your people motivated to change? How are they motivated to grow in the New Year? I’m not going to give you the answer. Ask them. How do you ask dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people? Enlist some help from your small group leaders and other mature church members. Conduct brief interviews, then make an action plan for each person.
When Spring Hits, People Will be Gone
In their fourth quarter forecast for 2021, Gauge Research, a secular research firm in Washington DC, predicts that people are planning now for Spring 2022. They are booking vacation homes and cruises. What this says is that once the weather warms up, people will be gone. With Easter on April 17, 2022, your greatest ministry impact will come before Easter rather than after. Invest in a New Years’ small group launch or a Lenten series like The Crucified Life or All In (scripted to make your own videos), and then take your foot off the gas and plan for a strong fall 2022.
Think About It
Now that you’ve put your Blockbuster card away, what’s next for your church in 2022? As you look out over your congregation (in-person and online), do you see committed, motivated people who are with you? Do you see your faithful givers and servants? What future do you imagine could be achieved with these dedicated souls?
If you’ve been waiting to start something new, 2020 is a great year to experiment. Some might say that 2020 is an experiment gone wrong, but with life so some completely disrupted, you should embrace this as an opportunity to launch new things or end things that need to go away. Blame it on the pandemic! As difficult as this year has been, the healthy crisis, economic crisis, racial crisis, and political crisis are breaking up some very hard ground in the world, in the church, and in the hearts of individuals. There couldn’t be a better time to innovate. What needs to change in your church? Here are a few things that I’m seeing right now.
In my recent Small Group Network huddle, Bill Cleminson from the Church at the Mill (a.k.a. The Mill) in Moore, SC shared an experiment their senior pastor, Dr. D.J. Horton, launched this fall – they launched egroups. An egroup is five people or fewer who commit to meet together for 13 weeks. The group views a 15-minute teaching video from the pastor, then uses a sermon discussion guide for their meetings. In addition, the egroups journal daily based on a reading plan provided by the church or something else they choose. For accountability, the egroup members are asked to share a picture of their journal with their group with the words blurred out. This increases participation.
The Mill intentionally chose a new name for these groups to avoid confusion with their other small groups and discipleship groups. eGroups are a short-term trial run at groups, but more importantly, they give their members an opportunity to connect and process life together. It’s a great combination of both communication and content. After the first 13 weeks, eGroups may have served their purpose at The Mill, but depending on how 2021 looks, they could certainly serve an extended purpose. As with most churches, planning is in pencil and prayer.
Find Your Loopholes.
Some churches have rather rigid leadership requirements for small groups. While the bar for leadership should be high, the issue comes down to two things: (1) How many years will it take for you to connect people into groups? and (2) Do you really need a “leader” to make disciples?
Recently I talked to a pastor whose church leadership was leery of inviting people they didn’t know into small group leadership. I understand that feeling. That’s how my church got stuck at 30% in groups years ago. I understand that every church has an acceptable level of risk. There is a line they are reluctant to cross for a variety of reasons. I can’t force anyone to cross that line, but I can work to convince them.
I asked this pastor, “What’s too small to be a group in your church?” He said that three people was too small to be a group. Then, I challenged him to form some non-groups of three people. He just needed to ask people to invite two friends to discuss the weekly sermon questions. These non-groups won’t be advertised or acknowledged anywhere, but they will do two things for the church: (1) It will prove to the pastor there isn’t as much to worry about as he once thought, and (2) the non-groups will give people confidence to expand their group and eventually become a recognized group in this church.
Level Up Your Online Services.
Most churches did better with online services before anyone regathered in the building for worship. When the house was empty, pastors looked directly at the camera. Pastors got up close and personal with the online audience. Some even created interactive experiences to field questions during the message. But, then people started coming back into the building, things got weird.
When people are in the room, most pastors want to talk to the people in the room. I do! But, there are more people “out there” than there are “in here.” Yet, you can’t look over people’s heads and only look at the cameras. The churches who understand this are producing separate online services and in-person services to meet both needs. It’s more work, but it’s certainly worthwhile since so many unchurched people are looking in on online services. After all, streaming video is NOT church online.
Put Everything Online.
Some aspects of life have permanently changed amid the pandemic. I don’t know that I’m ever going to pile items into a grocery cart again, when we can order everything online for pickup or delivery. Going to the bank has been replaced by an app. I’m reconsidering whether I still need two cars in my driveway. Online group leader training has gone so well, I’m not sure I need to fly to you to train your leaders (but after the pandemic I might consider it).
In a world where people can do a doctor’s appointment online, they could take your membership class online. They could go through your Growth Track online. You no longer have to limit these to a Sunday afternoon. People can participate anytime over 168 hours per week. Potentially, they could become a member of your church at 2 am!
Practice these phrases with me:
We stopped doing [Insert Ministry Name] because of COVID.
We started doing [Insert Ministry Name] because of the pandemic.
Allen White gave us that idea, but now we realize it’s really stupid. LOL
This is a great year to experiment. Don’t waste your time waiting for things to get back to normal. Normal is gone. To quote Jason Caston, “The church was moving slow because they thought the world would stay the same.” Nothing is the same. Get moving!
Tell me how your church is innovating in 2020 in the comments below.
Would you regard 2020 as a year of opportunity? It feels more like a year of loss and disruption. How can we see a blessing in something that feels like a curse?
Children have lost close contact with their classmates. Adults have lost the feeling of getting ready to go to work in the morning. Parents have lost their sanity. Believers have lost their ability to gather in-person in some places. People have lost their jobs and lost income. As a society we’ve lost the sense of safety. We’ve lost the carefree ability to do anything we want whenever we want. We’ve also lost the notion that racism is not our problem. People have experienced a great deal of loss. You’ve lost too. Yet, there is something quite hopeful about 2020.
Back in the 80’s I attended a church growth workshop with Dr. Elmer Towns in Kansas City. The main crux of his talk was that people are open to change in periods of transition. When people graduate from high school, college, or grad school, they are open to change. When people get married, have a baby, change careers, or move to a new city, they are open to change. When people go through a divorce, become widowed, or retire, they are open to change. Dr. Towns encouraged us to figure out ways to connect with people during these times of transition and disruption in their lives. Do you see the gift of 2020? Everyone’s lives have been disrupted in some way.
All of this disruption – as painful and scary as it’s been – has made people ripe for the Gospel. Nothing in their lives is working exactly the way it used to work. Everyone has transitioned from the life they were used to, and the fact of the matter is that they will never see that life again. Some say the effects of Coronavirus on health and the economy will have implications for five years or more. People are ready for a change. You have the answer. But, if people weren’t going to church before COVID-19, why would they risk going now?
Finding the Solution in an Accident
On April 11, 1970, three brave astronauts launched into space aboard Apollo 13. Not long into their mission an accident caused damage to the capsule which compromised the ship’s cabin which began to fill with carbon monoxide. The astronauts wouldn’t make it back to earth. Engineers met in a conference room at mission control. In the movie with Tom Hanks, one of the engineers dramatically spills a box of supplies on the conference table and announces, “This is everything the astronauts have in the capsule. We have to figure out how to build the CO2 filter out of this.” They got to work. Using only what was available to the astronauts, the engineers created a CO2 filter. The astronauts arrived back to earth alive.
You as a pastor don’t have all of your normal resources at your disposal. While the church relied heavily on the weekend worship service to do more than it was capable of doing, quarantine quickly revealed that the church had to be more than a weekend service or a building. What do you have to work with? If you took the resources of your members’ lives and dumped them out on a conference table like those engineers from Apollo 13, what do they have at their disposal?
Most have a computer, a smartphone, social media, email, text messages, phones, pen and paper, and maybe a little time on their hands (maybe not). How can your church reach people whose lives have been disrupted and frankly are more than a little scared? (HINT: It’s not what most Christians are doing on Facebook and Twitter right now).
Reaching Your Community Digitally
How can you and your church staff equip your members to spread hope amid all of this disruption? Here are a few thoughts for you to bat around:
Create social media and email invitations to online services.
Offer Instagram and Pinterest posts with encouraging Bible verses or quotes from the sermon.
Write sermon discussion questions so anyone can invite their Facebook friends into a Facebook group.
Put your membership process or Growth Track online.
Offer online on-demand training to equip people to serve.
Encourage your members to find a need and fill it.
Encourage members to offer their experience from online school or homeschooling to parents who are new at it.
Offer support groups online – Celebrate Recovery, DivorceCare, GriefShare. Substance abuse and pornography use are at an all-time high.
Offer online budgeting classes, marriage seminars, parenting courses, and stress management workshops to invite the community.
Ask your members to record a short version of their testimony. Share these in your church’s social media and website.
Create interactive online experiences – Bible studies that are a discussion rather than a lecture. Use Facebook Live and respond to the comments and questions.
Don’t waste the opportunity of 2020. Don’t sit around waiting for things to get back to normal. Normal is gone. Normal isn’t coming back. Embrace the disruption of 2020. The field is plowed. It’s time to plant.
Click here for a replay of webinar on digital ministry with Phil Cooke. Phil is a PhD in Theology, a filmmaker, author, and media producer. His skill set is unique, and he has much to share with the church on getting the message of the Gospel out and maximizing your influence.
Tell me what your church is using to connect with lost people. Please share your comments below.
“The digital revolution is far more significant than the invention of writing or even of printing.” —Douglas Engelbart
It’s no secret that reaching a congregation, community, or media audience in today’s distracted and disrupted world is a real challenge. Although we have more channels for reaching them than ever before, those very channels slice up the audience, making it more difficult than ever to actually connect.
It all starts with strategy, which is the art of discovering what sets you apart and who would care most about your message, cause, or story. Today it takes more than someone with a video camera, a social media director, or a graphic designer to communicate your message. Before any of those team members start working, it’s critical to find the answer to “why,” and that is a leader’s job.
It’s been said that any soldier can take the hill, but a leader knows which hill to take and why it needs to be taken in the first place. Far too many churches allow the big picture decision making to be made by other members of the staff. In a large church or ministry with an experienced, high level communication or media team, that can be a good thing, but with less experienced members it could be a disaster. And in either case, it should never happen without the input and insight from the pastor or ministry leader.
The Big Picture Matters
Whatever you do in media—build a website, produce a video, launch a marketing campaign, publish a book, or whatever—understand that each of those elements are part of a much bigger story and strategy. In today’s distracted world, where people are being overwhelmed with communication and media messages, anything you create has to be part of a bigger, multi-platform strategy to maximize those opportunities.
Talented video, social media, and communication teams with brilliant ideas are a great start, but until they understand the bigger strategy of how to reach your audience, you’ll never make an impact. It’s been said that if you want to know which road to take, it helps to first know where you’re going.
Think Before You Produce.
Ask the “why” before you explore the “how.”
Then, once we define your why, we bring that to life with messaging— clarifying exactly what your message or story should be at this moment. Oddly enough, most of our clients try to communicate too much—largely because they’re thinking of themselves, and not the audience they want to reach.
In a cluttered world, simplicity and clarity are what get people’s attention.
Certainly many organizations and visionary leaders have much to share, but in today’s hypercompetitive world, most people respond to too much information by shutting down and turning off. So it’s essential that we streamline the message and focus on what matters from the audience’s perspective.
Speaking of clutter, identity development is a key step in our process since “perception” is so important in a distracted world. We’ll discuss branding and positioning in a later section, but it’s important to know how sensitive perceptions are in a distracted world. Positioning is essential to help your message rise above the noise because it focuses on what your audience thinks, what they need, and how you fit into their lives. This goes beyond your brand and is often overlooked by many organizations.
Finally, deciding how to share your ministry or organization’s message is vital, via social media, short video production, broadcast radio or TV, movie, live events, blogging, podcasting, live streaming and more.
It’s not how you want to reach them, it’s how they want to reach you.
There’s no point in creating the best podcast ever produced if your audience is somewhere else. That’s why finding the right platforms are so important for connecting with your audience.
These steps aren’t designed to overwhelm you or make you think that engaging media is too complex or difficult. My purpose is to remind you that a high school kid with a video camera isn’t enough. A talented graphic designer isn’t enough. Even a well-intentioned communication director isn’t enough—if you haven’t spent time thinking about the bigger picture.
These days, a great number of leaders and teams recognize the power of media, but don’t understand the best way to leverage that power. There was a time when sharing a message meant standing on a soapbox and talking to people passing by, preaching in a pulpit, or printing a book or newspaper. But today with an almost endless number of media options, making the right decision about the what, when, where, how, and why of your message can be the difference between success and failure.
The stakes are high, and your message matters. Choose carefully.
Phil Cooke has produced TV and film programming in more than 60 countries around the world, and in the process, been shot at, survived two military coups, fallen out of a helicopter, and in Africa, been threatened with prison. And during that time – through his company Cooke Media Group in Los Angeles, California – he’s helped some of the largest Christian and nonprofit organizations in the world use the media to tell their story in a changing, disrupted culture. This post is an excerpt from Maximize Your Influence: How to Make Digital Media Work for Your Church, Your Ministry, and Youby Phil Cooke (Burbank CA: Cooke Media Group, 2020, pages 19-22). All of the proceeds from this book go to The Innovation Lab.