By Eddie Pipkin
Three weeks ago, on February 27th, I wrote a speculative blog about the potential effects of a COVID-19 outbreak. That seems like a lifetime ago. What I wrote then felt a little over the top – preparing for lockdowns and long-term disruption – but proved disturbingly prescient. Local churches have never faced anything like this. But in the ways that good people rise up in times of crisis, this is also going to be an unprecedented season of creativity and ingenuity as we all think of ways to keep ministry going – at a moment when human connection and the hope of the Gospel has never been more essential.
Within seven days we went from regular schedules to many churches being completely closed. Already in places like Italy, which is about three weeks ahead of us in terms of intensity of the outbreak, life had come to a standstill and Catholic churches had been directed not to hold public mass. Local Catholic churches there had not historically been as gung-ho for technology like livestreaming as we are here in the U.S., but they adapted very quickly (one of the reasons being that it really is very easy to do something online, whatever form that something may take – it doesn’t have to be an Academy Award winning production to be meaningful to isolated people). And people got creative and interactive very quickly:
One priest of a small town in Brianza, one of the areas most affected by the new coronavirus, even asked his worshippers to email him selfies or other pictures of themselves, so that he could print them out, stick them on the pews and not feel alone in his church while conducting a mass. He got hundreds of images and ran out of toner for his printer.
For the people on the receiving end of these efforts by their priests to stay connected, the comfort these broadcasts provide has been palpable, as related by parishioner Chiara Canonici:
“Obviously it’s not the same thing and I feel a bit lonely, but on Facebook you can see the names of those who join in… Simone is connected, Letizia is connected,” she says. “It makes me feel a bit like when in the church I turn around and see familiar faces among the pews.”
The readers of this EMC3 blog come from local churches of all different sizes, so some of you were already leveraging social media, livestream technology, and remote meeting options. Some of you have technology people as part of your paid staff; some are lucky to have congregation members who geek out on this stuff; some of you are working in small churches – which, after all, are still the most prevalent churches in America – and have none of this going on and are starting from scratch. So, this blog will consider different issues. Focus on what is most helpful to you:
- Livestreaming and pre-recorded worship.
- Social media ideas.
- Remote connectivity for small groups and larger events.
- Old school technology.
- Outreach and missions in a time of crisis.
- Making good use of this unusual time.
If you were already livestreaming (or quickly got up to speed on livestreaming), good for you! Here are some great resources and ideas related to this topic from Ryan Wakefield from Church Marketing University. I want to share with you a couple of spot-on insights he had, EVEN IF YOU ARE ALREADY LIVESTREAMING:
I’m gonna be encouraging churches to go live in low production environments and make their digital experiences very relational and converse with people. Give people time and permission to chat in the comments. Do acoustic sets that feels like the worship leader is with you in the living room. Have the pastor feel more like a small group leader. Provide a platform for conversation and prayer. Get rid of the production.
The church always adapts our worship to the cultural context and setting. We just need leaders to realize the platform just went through a major shift. Don’t just try and “do church” how you did it, but now online.
If this gets worse people won’t want to watch another show. Avoid just putting on a production. Go authentically live and minister to people. Provide a platform for connection. They’ll want that interaction.
Think about that. The vast majority of current livestreamed worship is back-of-the-room wide angle point of view. Normally, we are trying to capture the sense of the whole-room experience. But Wakefield makes these excellent points:
- This is an opportunity to make the livestreamed worship experience more intimate and interactive. It’s not just a camera listening and looking in on a worship event, it’s you, up-close-and-personal, leading worship directly for an online audience.
- Orient everything directly to the people on the other side of the camera. If you can, make it interactive with them (by allowing them to comment and reading and responding to those comments, etc. – even by sharing photos or screen sharing).
- In this environment, it does not have to be a perfect, polished production. It is the interactivity that can count the most.
- If you aren’t comfortable or capable or doing a “live,” interactive experience for whatever reason, remember that you are not limited to “live” productions. You can pre-record what you are going to do and have it air whenever you want to share it on many platforms, even scheduling it to be available at a specific time although pre-recorded.
I want to mention one other point that experts like Wakefield make:
DON’T IGNORE THE QUALITY OF YOUR AUDIO.
Although you can throw together a livestream with an iPhone – perhaps you’ve seen the gorgeous music video that Lady Gaga shot with the new iPhone – the accompanying audio can seriously diminish the experience:
- People will put up with subpar video resolution. People will give up on audio that is difficult to hear. (Unless you are a big-budget, large attendance church, chances are you are currently offering a live stream with this issue. It’s a common problem.)
- Moving from a back-of-the-room perspective to a closer-to-the action view (the preacher, a couple of musicians) gives you a great opportunity to upgrade the quality of the sound even with just a phone mic.
- If you are going to invest in one piece of equipment, make it a good microphone or some additional audio mixing hardware or software that allows you to use the feed from your soundboard/microphones.
Most local churches are offering their Sunday morning streams on Facebook Live or a YouTube channel. Here is a great overview on livestreaming from the United Methodist Church. Here’s a quick-start testimonial/tutorial from the Hacking Christianity website. Keep in mind that copyright issues are a factor in when livestreaming. Even if you have a “normal” copyright for music and liturgy for your public worship services, these do not generally cover livestreamed performances. Here is a more detailed discussion of these issues. Some of the copyright holders are making temporary exemptions as a response to the current crisis – it is a fluid situation. A more intimate livestreamed worship does help avoid some of the copyright issues as well (by offering different music options, etc. – keep in mind that even liturgy is copyrighted).
Meanwhile, social media becomes a lifeline for helping people feel connected and engaged. If you haven’t developed a strong social media presence, now is the perfect time. In addition to the enormous value it has to link communities, offer hope, and provide useful info, social media is perfect for interjecting fun – and everybody needs some fun right now. Plus, if your staff and ministry leaders are stuck at home and feeling at loose ends, what better time to do the research and set-up work to get a social media strategy rolling:
- If you haven’t engaged a remote donation strategy for you church, you really need one now!
- Keep your staff members and ministry leaders posting affirmative, encouraging messages.
- Have your talented staff and ministry folk do special things to inspire and promote a sense of normalcy. Those musicians can’t lead music in person? How about a song or a mini-concert posted online?
- Children’s Ministry and Youth Ministry can promote fun. I’ve already seen one example of a Facebook-based scavenger hunt being offered. It was a list of activities/challenges for kids to do and then report back when they had completed them (maybe including a picture or two).
- Give people ways to interact, contribute their own creativity, and be honest about how they’re feeling.
- If you only have one social media platform (for many of you Facebook), use this time to expand your presence!
- If you have upcoming major events/fundraisers, I know the impulse is to reschedule them, but another option is to take them VIRTUAL. Running/race fund raisers have offered this option for a while, and it could be an injection of energy in a time of despondence. They let people sign up and run their race on their own and report back in (with all of the same t-shirts and fund raising and fresh air and team spirit that normally would accompany such an event — with the bonus of no on-the-ground set-up). There are all sorts of events that might loan themselves to this approach. I’m waiting for someone to come up with an online Easter egg hunt!
Keep small groups going and leadership collaborating by using available remote meeting technology. Google Hangouts (known now as Hangouts Meet) is a free and super-easy-to-use technology that can connect people together for existing accountability groups, Bible studies, and prayer groups. Zoom also has a free version that can even host larger groups (up to 100 people) but has a 40-minute time limit. You may already have a subscription to one of these services. You can contact existing small group leaders and walk them through how to use this technology to keep their groups going. Online chat groups are also an option for written interchanges and discussion.
Don’t forget the value of old school technology. The phone is a great way to stay in touch, connect with, and check up on people. If you do not already have a master list of older congregation members that you can use for reaching out to that particularly vulnerable group, you should already have been doing that before this crisis. Use this opportunity to do it now. They will need direct support in this crisis in which they are liable to feel especially isolated.
Be thinking about how you can respond missionally:
- Perhaps some of those isolated seniors need help with shopping. Figure out a way to safely drop off supplies or just a gift that lets them know they are being thought of.
- Perhaps they need help being coached on how to use online ordering services for food and supplies.
- Many churches are setting up special benevolence funds to help congregation members weather the developing financial storm (and people are eager to help if they can).
- If you have a food pantry, you are dealing with keeping it supplied in a time of critical need and figuring out how to safely manage food distribution.
- Some people in your congregation — particularly if they are health care professionals — may need help figuring out the incredibly difficult issue of child care.
- Counseling and mental health assistance is about to be very in-demand.
Your staff can be working creatively on all these issues (collaborating fiercely by means of all the technology we’ve mentioned). It would be an easy time to sit back in a confused stupor, since all of our in-person activities have been cancelled, but we can instead take inspiration from the Holy Spirit and seize the moment to be relevant and to develop new ideas that will serve in this crisis and beyond. Don’t think of this as time off. Think of it as time to ramp up, and keep your staffs accountable to digging in. It’s also an excellent time to work on some of those long-term planning and development projects that you have been putting off and putting off.
We’ll be exploring all of these ideas in more detail in coming weeks.
We want this site to be a clearinghouse of ideas to help you through. Share what your church is doing to stay engaged and connected with ministry and your congregation. How are you using technology? How are you offering your people ways to serve and support one another? What are the best ideas and best resources you have seen?
Please share any questions or unique challenges you have in the comments section. If you are struggling to solve a problem, we will respond to help you figure it out, so don’t be shy about asking for help. This is our pledge to you from the Excellence in Ministry Coaching staff. Stay safe, God bless, and keep doing the amazing things that you do each and every day.