1. INCREASE CONNECTION. Churches will need to pick up their innovational game for not just helping people to WATCH an online service but to actually CONNECT during an online service. It’s not enough to just live stream. You have to find ways to proactively make personal connections during the experience (i.e., make it easy for your audience to offer prayer requests, to pray with them, deputize an army of Internet Pastors who are skilled with how to communicate meaningfully via a screen, enable chat windows for questions and conversation around key issues or the topic of teaching, utilize real-time polls, enable people to request specific help/assistance or to sign-up to be able to provide help to those in need around them, formulate FaceTime or Zoom small groups where people can connect, go deeper, pray for one another, and study Scripture together, etc.).
Not only is this helping the church be the Church, but it will also help keep people engaged in true community and minimize the risk that they will drift away from the church to the point where they may not even return once it is again safe to do so.
Churches would also do well to not simply do services as usual for an online audience, but instead to give consideration to how to customize or tailor the experience to the unique situation. Shooting an online service should have different rules and style than producing an on-sight service. For example, I noticed that in the very beginning of the lockdown reality, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon and Anderson Cooper all broadcast from their own homes. It created an interesting intrigue to see these familiar faces in unfamiliar environments. It was endearing to see them in their living room or on their back porch. Why not have service hosts (those that do the Welcome or Prayer or Intro the message or even the Preacher) do what they do from their own homes? Everyone else who is viewing the service is in their homes, why shouldn’t you be? This would be endearing, interesting, engaging, and unpredictable. It would also have a raw and real feel to it that would display refreshing authenticity (and yet care should be given so that production value isn’t so loose that it’s quality level becomes distracting). In-home online recordings of service elements or messages will increase connection.
And TO THE PREACHERS/TEACHERS: please please please realize that you are reaching anxious and fearful individuals and families in their homes (kitchens or living rooms) during a global pandemic. You must directly and specifically and practically address those unique needs with your music, prayers, and teaching! People are hungry for practical hope on the home front. For Christ’s sake, feed them!
Finally, I just read a great high-connection idea in an article by Steve Carter about a church staff that decided to have each team member call 3 different congregants every day to check in on them, discover what needs they may have, give ideas of how to meet the needs of others in their family or neighborhood, and pray with them. Even in a church of a few thousand, this would mean that every church member would receive a personal connection from a staff member in just a few weeks! Friends, this crisis offers the church the gift of an opportunity of increased connection. Go for it.
2. REDEFINE SERVICE. Churches need to invest more time considering not so much how to get people TO their service but how to be OF service. This is all about being incarnational—being like Jesus in how we see the need in the world around us, overflow with compassion, and move to meet the need. Look; Love; Live it out. How can those who claim to belong to and follow Jesus love our neighbors as ourselves in this season? How can we show a greater love that is even willing to lay down our lives for the benefit and welfare of others? History has many beautifully powerful examples of the Church being the Church during times of plagues and pandemics–caring for the sick, championing hope in times of fear, displaying loving courage in the face of real personal danger. In other words, we need to continue to incarnate the loving Person of Jesus Christ now more than ever (1 Co 12:27; Jn 1:14; Jn 20:21; Jn 13:35; Mk 12:30-31; Lk 10:25-37).
IDEAS: Offer to pick up and deliver groceries for an elderly neighbor or young family down the street. See if your local school has food distribution hours where you could volunteer. If you have extra imperishable supplies (water, TP, beans, tuna, hand sanitizer, etc.), make little gift bags to drop off at your neighbors’ doorstep. Start a text chain with your neighborhood or friends and check in on one another to see who has what needs or simply to encourage them with a funny story, great movie idea, fun game, or hope-inspiring verse. Ask your pastor if you can coordinate a Call Team where a dozen or more volunteers can reach out and connect with each family in your church. When leaders get creative about brainstorming and then experimenting with the most impactful ideas of serving others, the love of Jesus will be made manifest–and the Church will BE the Church.
Strictly attractional churches will struggle in a “Shelter-In-Place” season because they have over-emphasized the gathering mode of the church and under-emphasized the scattering mode of the church. A global pandemic crisis is an incredible time for the Church to not just “Come and See” (i.e., gather for a church service), but also to “Go and Be” (scatter to live a life of selfless service, wherever the Church—God’s people—are distributed between gatherings). Brainstorming creative and simple ways to experiment with helping Jesus’ people lovingly serve others in their neighborhood could be a fantastic outcome of incarnational living in a time of societal crisis.
And the more intentionality a church brings to an incarnational strategy that helps its people live like Jesus in their homes and neighborhoods now, the more that will stick and create a more effective and harmonized expression of the church once the crisis is over (where the church strikes the right harmony between being both gathered and scattered). In this sense, COVID-19 presents the Church with an enormous opportunity (even gift!) for learning and recalibration that could bring Her closer to God’s design.
In a similar vein, I predict that learning this forced lesson well will “whoops” the Church into realizing that micro-movements (where the focus is on individuals or families living with/for Jesus to impact a small area—i.e., home or neighborhood) is the only real way to build a macro-movement (where a whole group of people impact a whole community—i.e., a city or region). The Western Church has become far too reliant upon programs, buildings, and attractional events or services for the masses. But we’re seeing that transformation rarely happens this way. The only way to build a macro-movement is through micro-movements where the scope of focus is on individuals and families much more than on large groups of people (i.e., Mt 28:18-20–disciple-making demands disciple-makers). In other words, the best way to accomplish a big vision is by making it as small as possible—make it personal to make it powerful (i.e., Jn 20:21).
3. THINK NOW ABOUT LATER. Churches will need to think now about how they will need to up their innovational game for physical services (on-sight weekend gatherings) later to help people to actually want to gather in person again–especially after seeing how hyper-easy and uber-convenient it is to gather online during this season.
For churches that do online ministry very well, many people who have not yet experienced that medium may now grow to like it. Like really like it–even prefer it.
And with the obvious convenience of watching a service at home on your couch in your PJ’s with your favorite coffee in your favorite mug, many people may grow to like this new reality so much that the online experience will make them more likely to want to continue using that medium rather than return to attending a physical service in a church building when it’s safe to do so.
Why? Let’s face it, it’s not terribly easy or convenient for folks, especially families, to have to get up early, take a shower, get dressed, get the kids ready, get in the car, drive to a location, find a parking spot, check-in the kids, find a seat, etc. and do this all before the service starts. And this isn’t to play toward the obvious cultural virus of Consumerism that is truly a pandemic in the Western Church (much due to how we ourselves have designed the Western church gathering experience!); instead, it’s to simply acknowledge the reality that experiencing an online service is way way way easier than experiencing an on-sight service. Wise churches/leaders will realize this dynamic and begin planning now to experiment with new ways to inspire people to once again join the on-sight physical gathering when the time is right.
Years ago, I studied how the Early Church behaved as the Church from the Book of Acts (especially Acts 2:42-47). What I discovered was that it is indeed possible to fulfill the vital (meaning in-person) functions of the Church (i.e., Worship, Instruction, Community, Prayer, Evangelism, Generosity, Transformation, etc.) in a virtual context (meaning using technology as the sole delivery mechanism/medium). Now, let me be quick to say that it is not ideal for someone to have a solely virtual experience. I believe we, as brothers and sisters in Christ, were created to thrive in vital (face-to-face) interaction. But there are obviously times when a virtual experience is all that is available to us–for example, when the federal government enacts a nationwide “lockdown” or when your local government gives a “Shelter-In-Place” order while trying to stem the infection rate of a global pandemic. In such times, virtual-over-vital is not just wiser, it’s necessary. But, for the good of the Church and our individual and collective spiritual growth and transformation, this dynamic must only be temporary.
Therefore, churches that foresee the current drift toward a virtual-over-vital dynamic will give very careful thought NOW to how they help congregants realize and again desire to experience the deeper benefits of the in-person, physical, vital gathering when we are again safe and allowed to do so.
What do you think this should look like? And what can we specifically do to encourage or inspire people to want to return to a physical gathering without unintentionally over-emphasizing attractional ministry again and undoing all the gains we will hopefully enjoy in a more (albeit forced) incarnational season? What can the convenience of an online experience teach us about how to make an on-sight experience more desirable–even while balancing the tension not to cater to a consumeristic mindset?
Friends, there are lots of great learnings and wonderful opportunities in a difficult season like this. May the Lord give us His heart and wisdom to use this global crisis in a way that allows us to–most of all–reflect His love and peace to a world so desperate to experience Him. May we see the gift in the crisis and let His person, power, and presence flow through us in ways that are undeniably supernatural and transformative.