By Eddie Pipkin

Greetings, brave new pioneers in the age of creative adaptation.  You are responding with creativity to the perplexing paradox of this pandemic, to wit: Right when circumstances banish us from physical proximity to one another, people need us now, more than ever.  Not only do we find ourselves solving for a way to continue all the things we were doing before this catastrophe unfolded, but we’re also challenged to find solutions to entirely new categories of problems.  Yet, you are rising to the challenge, fearless leaders.  In this week’s blog, I share with you some of the best, most interesting, and most unexpected ideas you’ve generated, inspired by the Holy Spirit and emboldened by a good ol’ can-do attitude.  Bravo!

First of all, practically everybody’s streaming worship services at this point.  Many churches already had livestreams of one form or another, but even those who thought they were too small or too unsophisticated technically to put something online have realized how simple (and yet filled with impact) such efforts can be.  The greater culture has commented on the eerie phenomenon of preachers preaching to empty pews.  You are all finding your way, whether it’s full-on productions or simple from-home sermons.  Don’t forget that worship does not have to be a live broadcast.  You have more options and less chance for technical catastrophes if you pre-record.  We have, however, heard great stories of viewers interacting with those live feeds, via online comments and stories of families gathered around the laptop.  Keep a few things in mind for enhanced congregational engagement:

  • Give people a preview of the online worship experience. You can provide them with info and pre-worship activities to prime them for what’s ahead.  You can even suggest a “worship challenge” in which people can participate and then make that participation part of the worship service itself (say, for instance, you give them a challenge to take a picture of the whole family striking a pose relevant to the worship topic, like helping others, then share some of those pictures during the live service).
  • Make worship interactive as much as possible. If you have a way to respond to people’s comments, prayer requests and praises, etc. while you are live, on air, this greatly enhances the sense of interactive participation and connection.
  • Give people tips (practical and technical) for how to enhance their worship participation (like turning off other alerts from their devices during worship, having a Bible on hand, how to “cast” the service onto the big TV in the family room, etc.). It’s a great ministry right now to turn those superhero nerds in your congregation loose (virtually) for providing remote technical support to those struggling with figuring out all those gadgets and apps. Have them on standby for those who need guidance.

Virtual gatherings have become de riguer.  From virtual happy hours to virtual family game nights, people are figuring out how to connect with each other in online groups, and churches are part of the excitement.  Encourage your existing groups to get together virtually, and resource them to figure out how to get it done.  If you don’t already have an umbrella license for your church to use Zoom, Google Hangouts Meet, or that old standby, Skype, get one and have a team ready to walk people through how to set up and manage a virtual gathering of their Bible study, accountability group, support group, and youth and children’s programming.  People are really taking great comfort in these virtual groups, and they are evolving in exotic directions.  There were reports of at least one virtual wedding taking place on the gaming platform, Animal Crossing.  Funerals are another subject altogether – we have had a few inquiries about how families will be saying farewell in this social distancing environment – and news outlets have been reporting the heartbreak of grieving families.  One funeral home has offered drive-through viewing and recordable condolences:

The family-owned business is providing drive-through visitations at all of its facilities, an accommodation it’s providing at no additional charge during the national emergency.

Mourners can drive up to a window, view the departed’s casket or urn, then leave a spoken message for the grieving family. An attendant will record their words. Those leaving condolences don’t even have to roll down their car windows.

For every kind of customary human gathering and connection that has been suspended for the foreseeable future, someone is creating a virtual alternative.  Your staff and volunteers can extend this philosophy to just about any kind of ministry that you regularly undertake, from dance parties to craft sessions and story times for kids, to virtual game nights, sing-alongs, scavenger hunts, and more.  Already, there is such a thing as a virtual Easter egg hunt.

Get people together and engaged:

  • Here’s an article from Thrillist with a list of some great phone apps for virtual game parties.
  • Host an online photo scavenger hunt by listing items/photos that people have to collect and then send to you.  Share the results.  Offer prizes.
  • Host contests for “best costume,” “best toilet paper roll sculpture,” “best poem for the quarantined,” “best family reenactment of a Bible story,” “best spring photo from your yard,” etc.  You could do a different one every day!
  • Did you know Netflix has a party watch option?  You can use it to watch movies together remotely and comment on them while you’re doing it.
  • Offer suggestions to your folks about movies to watch and books to read (and then discuss together).  This is one of those things churches should be doing already but rarely do — offering reading and viewing lists for those who want to be spiritually and intellectually engaged.
  • Have an online talent show!
  • Give people forums to share their stories and experiences, even as you share yours!

In-person worship, of a sort, still exists in some places, too.  Multiple churches have resorted to drive-in worship, in which families stay safely separated in their cars, sometimes listening by virtue of powerful outdoor speakers and sometimes by short range FM transmitters that they tune in on their car stereos.

In the case of outreach and missions in a world in which we are not allowed to team up together in physical spaces, here are some ideas that have popped up:

  • At-home sewing projects for making face masks.
  • Virtual food drives, providing people with a safe and organized option for getting food directly to people in their community who have lost jobs and need help.
  • Drive-through food pantries.  For churches that already are engaged in food pantry ministries, it’s now time for creative ways to distribute what you have collected and get food people to people who really need it.  Two approaches to this have been most common: drive-through food pickup that happens in the parking lot as families pick up pre-loaded bags and boxes of groceries and home delivery of food pantry items by volunteers.  Grocery gift cards are a big help right now as well.
  • Virtual counseling sessions (which can be by teleconference or telephone), so that struggling people can have one-on-one time with pastoral staff.
  • Shopping and errand angels for those who are confined to their homes (particularly the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions who are at increased risk). Many churches have designated on online registration process or designated phone number which people can access if they need help.
  • The resurgence of the old-fashioned telephone call. In a throwback to yesteryear, churches are organizing “phone trees” to check on all congregational members to keep them connected.
  • Very public pronouncements (via signs on property and online outlets) to let the community know that you are there for them in this challenging time, whether they’ve ever had anything to do with your congregation or not.
  • Making care packages and thank-you cards and gifts for medical professionals and first responders to support them as they are on the front lines of this crisis.
  • Driving, walking, or biking around our neighborhoods, displaying signs of hope and encouragement.
  • Dropping off “care packages” of homemade goodies and cards of encouragement and concern to our neighbors OR “neighbor caroling” at a safe distance or on the safe side of the sliding glass door.
  • ENCOURAGE YOUR PEOPLE WHO ARE ABLE TO DONATE BLOOD!  And encourage them to post a picture doing it, so they can inspire others to do the same.
  • Start a special benevolence fund to help the financially impacted in your congregation and community.

People are looking for ways to get involved and make a difference during a crisis that seems impervious to the usual ways we volunteer and help out.

Don’t try to think up everything yourself!  Now is the perfect time to cut people loose in a great Petri dish of experimentation (apologies for a currently awkward biological metaphor) as people generate their own ideas and invite their brothers and sisters to participate.  One of the awesome groundswell activities we have seen replicating itself in neighborhoods around the world is sidewalk and driveway chalk art shows.  They give people an excuse to safely get outside in the fresh air, express themselves, and inspire all who pass by.

And definitely do lean on the free resources that are available to support you in this challenging time.  Many ministry outlets that customarily levy subscription fees are making free resources available  For instance, The Work of the People is offering free access to some of their terrific videos right now.

How is your congregation getting creative and fighting cabin fever?  What are some of the best, funniest, and sunniest ideas you have heard for giving people hope and helping them connect?  Let’s share what we know and power through this together!

God bless you and stay safe!