Note: Friends in ministry sometimes inquire into the best practices we are discovering as we offer ministry in this COVID-19 environment. I offer these thoughts as a glimpse into our team’s journey to connect during this time is disconnection.

by Chris Ritter

Nothing drives innovation like necessity. Churches are currently experiencing the most concentrated season of experimentation that anyone can remember. While it is a shame it took COVID-19 to do it, I believe ministry leaders will stumble on some incredibly effective new ways to offer ministry. For every story of success there will be countless flops, missteps, and deflated trial balloons. That’s okay. I cheer all those who are making the effort and not just marking the days until we return to normal. After all, normal has not been getting the job done in North America for some time. We needed a kick in the pants.

I have a lot of things on my mind about the changing landscape of ministry, but today let’s talk about online worship. The U.S. Church is now three or four weeks into worship via the internet and most have figured out the mechanics of putting something out there. The challenge now is to make it effective. For the church I serve, the litmus test is whether it fulfills our mission: Does it “Draw people to Jesus, develop people in Jesus, and deploy people for Jesus?”

Mega-churches have operated online campuses for years and we have a ton to learn from these trailblazers. But I think the current challenge is unique. We are not adding an online experience to a larger menu of options. For the time being virtual connection is our entire playbook. We are either going to learn to facilitate genuine spiritual connection during this season or miss the boat. We want to build capacities now that will still be useful once COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror.

Continued engagement will be an increasing struggle. An audience of captives is not the same thing as a captive audience. The novelty of online worship is already wearing thin. The race now is to make it really work.

This is Us

People are watching whatever you broadcast because of relationships. They could hear a better song, sermon, or prayer somewhere else. In fact, it really isn’t much about the leader . It is about an “us.” People are tuning in to be part of an “us.” There is great relief in realizing this. We aren’t competing with Brother Wonderful and his production team. We are just being us.

But merely recording a facsimile of your pre-COVID worship service is not enough. The experience of church was more that songs and a sermon. It was the chance to volunteer our gifts, see friends, share a cup of coffee in the foyer, and see others in ministry. We need to somehow bake these missing connections back into our online experience.

I see a lot of “pastors offering comfort to the congregation” stuff these days. There is nothing wrong with that. The Word of God is powerful and preachers have always been a conduit for the Holy Spirit to work. But the experience should not be limited to receiving ministry from the pastor. Leaders not only speak to us but for us. They reinforce our identity, celebrate our efforts, and re-state our mission. The technology highlights the leader, but the leader should be quick to give that spotlight away to the larger work of God among us.

We want to tell stories of how the people in the church are making a difference. Name the nurses, doctors, and EMT’s who are helping people in crisis. Highlight acts of sharing. People will replicate what we celebrate. Leaders help people see they are part of a dispersed yet powerful team.

Crack the Screen

Worship is an interactive experience. We lift up our voices together. We give together. We listen together. The preacher can tell if she is on the right track just by the look on everyone’s faces. If we are not careful, the screen can flatten our worship to a one-way experience. We have to find a way to crack the screen.

The church I serve opts for a Livestream format because of the experience of being together at the same time. We have started taking a minute for a “Question of the Day” where folks can comment with an answer. Our worship director started Palm Sunday worship with a pre-made video of families in their homes shouting “Hosanna!” All age groups were represented. This peak behind the screens reminded the congregation that this is who we are. This is the church family with whom we are worshipping today.

We are experimenting with “virtual coffee hour” before or after worship as a chance for people to mingle. This also gives people a chance to try out Zoom so they will be less intimidated by the technology and perhaps be more likely to join an online small group.

Playing the Cards We are Dealt

Online worship has its limitations, but there are some real advantages. By hitting “Share” someone can invite their friends to worship in real time. When we pray for someone, I notice people “tagging” them to let them know. We live-stream via Facebook for the very purpose of these interactive possibilities.

As I stated above, the church I serve is using a combination of livestream with pre-recorded elements. This take some equipment, but it also opens up a world of possibilities. For Easter we will have a surprise guest or two popping in. These are folks well known to the congregation. The talent pool from which a a church can draw has grown exponentially. That singer that did a concert at your church last summer is not busy touring right now. I bet they would be more than happy to shoot a video just for your congregation, along with an encouraging word or two. Shut-ins can bring a scripture reading or prayer. Those who have moved away can suddenly pop in and share a testimony about the difference the people at church have made in their lives. Missionaries can bring a word of thanks for the support they receive.

Try Hard and Evaluate Intensely

When you are experimenting (and I hope you are) you need to redouble the amount of time you invest in analysis. Some things that have always worked well for you will do so long longer. Find people that can help you evaluate rigorously. Leaning back on nostalgia instead of leaning forward into the new reality will cause us to waste time and energy that could be spent on research and development.

We find ourselves signing up for new tools. We jumped on board with Right Now Media to offer on-demand Bible Studies and children’s resources to our congregation. We just signed up for “Text in Church” to give us some new communication tools. Many of these companies are offering free trial periods. Let’s use them.

These are challenging days. The Good News is that we have the most relevant message imaginable. My prayer is that God will use the COVID-19 Crisis to shake the Church from our slumber and teach us afresh how to connect. Romans 8:28 always applies and….People need Jesus!

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