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.
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?
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.
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.
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).
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.