I have been in full time vocational ministry for over 35 years, the last 15 as Lead Pastor of a multi-campus, multi-ethnic church in Central Florida. I have made developing leadership skills a priority throughout my ministry. I have studied church models, listened to leadership podcasts, read both business and church leadership books, and felt that I had developed into a decent leader and knew what needed to be done to reach people and see them grow in their faith.
All of that changed in March 2020.
As I write this, we are in week 10 of not gathering as a church. Almost overnight most of what I knew about leading a church was no longer possible. And what I came to realize is that most of what I knew about church, dealt with the gathered church. The fact that we could no longer gather meant that I was going to have to learn a lot, really fast, about what a church looks like that is scattered. At age 60, I was back to Church 101 in many ways. As hard as it has been to not be able to gather weekly with my church family, God is teaching me several things that I believe will help direct our church in future.
We were pretty good with gathered worship services, but our online wasn’t as good as we thought.
Before the shutdown we would spend hours each week preparing 11 gathered worship services in three languages. We thought carefully through every experience a guest and a member might have when they came onto one of our campuses. We were very intentional about the words we used and the experience we were trying to create. We planned the services down to the minute and knew what we wanted to accomplish each week.
As we did that, we would spend a few minutes talking about streaming the service and even had an online pastor to moderate the chat online. We thought we were providing a decent experience, but, the truth is, we weren’t. We learned that not everything we did in a service translated well online, and if we were going to keep the online audience we were going to have to make adjustments.
Some of our changes included:
- Offering – We already offered online giving, but most of our people chose to give during a gathered worship service. We had to make giving online easy and be very clear about how to give. When we start to gather again, we will no longer take up an offering during a service, but will continue to promote online giving and encourage those in the house to give in the collection bins on their way out.
- Communion – When we observed communion, we expected those watching online to view but not participate in communion. This wasn’t driven by a theological conviction, but by not thinking through the lens of an online viewer. Moving forward, we will prepare the online viewers and encourage them to join us in taking communion.
- Announcements – We will make our announcements shorter and more engaging.
- Tech Crew – We took our tech crew for granted – after all, that wasn’t a spiritual position. Today, we view our tech crew as an essential part of our staff, as they help us stream the gospel to thousands of homes.
The scattered church has greater potential than the gathered church.
Pre-pandemic we would say that we were one church with four campuses in three languages. We have come to understand that we are one church with potentially thousands of campuses in many different languages.
When people understand that they are the church and church isn’t a place you go to, it opens up the possibility for a movement that no building could hold. I have always prayed for my neighbors and even invited them to church. During this time of not going to church, I have been much more focused on being the church to my neighbors. I am hearing stories of members who are going grocery shopping, mowing lawns, and running errands for neighbors. We have members who are organizing drive-by birthday and graduation celebrations in their neighborhood. This has led to some great gospel conversations and people turning to Christ.
I think we have only scratched the surface of what can happen when the church moves away from being building centered to being the church in their communities.
“Online is here to stay” presents great potential, but we have a lot to learn.
There is much debate about what online numbers we should count. We have determined that by any metric we use, our viewership is up and more people are taking advantage of online options. Almost all of our small groups are meeting on Zoom each week and we are seeing those groups grow. We have taken discipleship classes and membership classes online and are seeing attendance as great or greater than when we did them in person.
What we still haven’t figured out is, how do we determine engagement? Online attendance isn’t nearly as important to us than online engagement. Is the experience making a difference? We are still in the early stages of trying to determine that. Do we count online givers only? How about those who interact on chat or leave a prayer request? Do they need to fill out an online connect card to count? We are still in the process of determining which is best for us, but it is an important question.
Our staff can be highly creative if we empower them.
What do you do with Kids Ministry and Student Ministry when you are unable to meet in person? I have learned that both paid staff and volunteers are far more creative when we give them permission to try something new.
Our Kids Ministry developed an online worship experience that plays immediately following our Sunday morning services along with an online Zoom call for fellowship and discipleship. Our Kids Ministry also set up a drive-by Mother’s Day event on each campus where kids got a craft to do for their mothers and a carnation was given to each mom, while Kids Ministry staff and volunteers cheered the moms on.
Our Student Ministry was most prepared for this and provided several online experiences for students, including their own graduation ceremony with students walking the stage online for all of their family to see around the world!
Worship Ministry has been able to do everything from create a larger Sunday morning band experience to smaller unplugged experiences.
You can teach an old dog new tricks.
After I got over the initial shock of knowing that this was going to be a quick learning curve if we were going to make the transition to online church, I became energized to learn a new way of doing church and the possibilities it holds. I know that I am still on the front end of the curve, but I am praying that this season will lead to greater passion and innovation in bringing the gospel to the world and raising up disciples.
There is great uncertainty of what the new reality will be when we are able to gather again as a church, but it doesn’t frighten me. I believe that we are in a position to see the church thrive in ways that weren’t possible before we were forced to shut down.
I am praying for an awakening in America as the church boldly presents the gospel in new and innovative ways.
“Look, I am about to do something new, even now it is coming. Do you not see it?” – Isaiah 43:19