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Ministry in Digital Culture: This Time It’s Personal

Although Jaws IV is arguably the worst of the Jaws film franchise and worthy of our collective amnesia, its tagline has defied the fate of the film and remained in the cultural ether: “This Time It’s Personal.”  This memorable line has permeated culture more than the scent of chum in water during shark hunting season. 

This phrase also encapsulates the reality of digital technology and the times we are in.  We live in the digital age of personalization where everything we do is customized to us.  We have personalized home screens on our devices, personalized movie suggestions on Netflix, personalized stores on Amazon, personalized Apple/Spotify music channels and personalized newsfeeds.  All of which have algorithms that curate the content we consume.  Separate from the dangers of this (we’ll address them later), people increasingly expect a personalized experience in digital space.  Unlike mass media where things were necessarily impersonal and generic, digital culture is incredibly personal and specific.

The personal nature of digital technology is partially why although people want to participate in the content they consume, they also prefer to wait in digital anonymity deciding if/when to step into digital view.  Digital space is intimate space and deeply personal.  Stepping into view means not just stepping out of anonymity but into intimacy.  For example, when one comments on a video or live feed, it means linking their profile to their comment and exiting the comfort of (perceived) digital anonymity for the spotlight of digital intimacy.  This is why digital space also provides the user with the unique ability to decide when and how known they want to be.  This is a new [digital] cultural norm, and we need to recalibrate our means of engagement to adapt.

In digital culture, pastors and church leaders must provide increased space for people to feel comfortable online before an expectation of engagement.  The challenge is, we are accustomed to impersonal communication and engagement with people in public in-person space that operated under a different social contract and norm.  As a result, our in-person and mass media influenced strategies and methodologies were often depersonalized as a result.  However, digital is different.  It is highly personal and, by the very nature of digital, more intimate.

Therefore, as you consider your ministry, how can you make your preaching, communication, online interactions, etc. as personal as possible?  How can you allow a safe initial engagement online to build trust and allow people a safe way to engage?  How can your preaching become even more proprietary (personal) to your people?  In other words, how can you make it more specific to your congregation as opposed to the generic forms of communication of mass media?  How can your online communications and mailing lists be more personalized (MailChimp and others can do this)?  How can your church advertising become more targeted and personal to the people you are trying to reach (all digital advertising, unlike mass media advertising, is personalized and targeted)?  As we move increasingly into digital culture, we will need to make our ministries and communications more personal as we do.

As you explore this in your ministry, a warning.  As Marshall McLuhan argues in his book Four Laws of Media (Technology), all media (technology) when taken to its extreme reverses on itself.  This too is the danger of personalization.  Taken to the extreme, we become addicted to personalization and it can fester into hyper-individualism and selfishness. 

Unlike what online algorithms tell us, everything is not about us.  One of the inherent dangers with the personalization of information, news, movies, music, etc. is that we begin to lose the skill of empathy and listening to others in the process.  As you pursue increasing ways to personalize your ministry, be aware of this potential and protect against it.  Teach about empathy, avoid ministry silos that can be common, intentionally breach the generational divide, etc.

There is another famous line from the original Jaws that is apt in this discussion, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” 

As we get a bigger boat online, may we be aware of our tendency to fill it with people just like us.  May we be reminded that love suffocates in sameness.  May we, in our desire for personalization, not lose sight of the mission that takes difference to accomplish.

The Digital Mission Course

I am very excited to announce the launch of The Digital Mission Course. It is a condensed and OnDemand version of the material I have taught in my seminars/workshops/classes. I designed it to be used by individuals or teams (ministry, staff, leadership, etc.). It includes four hours of OnDemand teaching, workbooks and resources. My heart is to equip the Church in this season and trust that God will use this material for building His Church in this new digital world.

For more information and to enroll, visit:
www.digitalmissioncourse.com

It is being offered for a limited time at a discounted rate. Don’t miss your opportunity to get the material and use it individually or as a team!

Please share this with your contacts, team or anyone who would find it helpful.

Eight Things to Consider as You Prepare for Easter

Easter is coming (April 4th)!

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As the highpoint of the Christian calendar, it is the most attended Sunday service of the church year. As we approach the second Easter of the pandemic, I believe it is time to lean in hard this Easter. Don’t fall into the temptation to simply accommodate things online this Easter, but intentionally and creatively design things to thrive digitally this year.

The following are eight things to consider as we plan and prepare for Easter 2021:

Be Digital by Default
Depending on where you live, you may be able to have some people in the room for Easter services (in my area that is currently limited to 15%) but the majority of people will join you digitally. This is especially true of anyone who will come for the first time. As a result, don’t dismiss your digital presence and experience. Recognize the uniqueness of digital culture and plan accordingly. Be digital by default and use this Easter to connect with more people than ever before. Boost social media posts (targeting people in your community), encourage your people to share the services with their connections, be creative and embrace the four shifts of digital culture: Experience as Story, Experience as Participation, Relational Authority and Tribalism (I talk about these in my book Digital Mission and the Digital Mission Course).

Be Creative
As we move into the Easter season, this is a season to embrace creativity as you engage online. Reject the temptation to simply do what you would have done in-person and assume it will work online in the same way. It won’t! Find ways to tell the Easter story that are more creative and engaging (especially for digital culture). This doesn’t have to be overly complicated, but this season does provide the unique opportunity to do things you have never done before.

Be Memorable
This will be a unique season in the life of your church. Resist the temptation to just make it through. Have your team(s) ask, “how can we make this year’s Easter one of the most memorable for our people and community?” What are some memory creating moments in the season that will help foster engagement, expectancy and community? To that end, perhaps consider ways you can celebrate baptism, have a Church-wide online party with fun surprises, give creative Easter baskets to families in your church, find a way to creatively share the message of Easter that leads to response, etc. Whatever you do, use this season to increase engagement, make memories and foster community.

Be Missional
Because you will be more intentionally online this Easter, extend your reach. Lead a campaign for your people to share your services online by inviting their neighbours and friends, use Facebook Watch Parties, boost services with paid social media ads and engage with your community. Find ways to serve your community in this season. We discovered that people are itching to serve others and one of our most effective community engagement strategies is to help people serve others. Maybe it is creative Easter baskets for long-term care home residents, a fun and safe Easter-themed social activity for the community, etc. This is the season to reach far and wide into the community that God has strategically placed you in.

Be Social
People are desperate for community. Consider how you can help people get connected in your church and move from connection to community. Community is possible digitally (I argue in Digital Mission that it is just built in reverse). Find ways to connect with people and welcome them into your church community.

Be Hopeful
If there was ever a season to preach about the hope of the resurrection, this is the year. Don’t shy away from hope. People are desperate for it! Whatever your theme, the message of Easter is the message that we are hardwired to hear, and this season people are more attuned to hear this message than ever before. Don’t shy away from preaching the Good News of the resurrection!

Be Personal
This is the time to connect with people in personal ways. Everything online is personal (your newsfeed, the items curated for you on Amazon, your search engine results, etc.). Make your digital relationship with your congregants personal as well. This is easier in smaller church contexts but anything you can do to make Easter more customized for individuals and families will communicate your love and care for them. As people become increasingly expectant of a personal touch, the church can do this in unique and extremely meaningful ways. Take time with your team to discuss how you can make your Easter more customized for each of your community’s individuals and families (for example, if you are doing a gift bag, basket or box, customize with a handwritten note, with items curated for their unique family make up, and if you include pre-packaged food of some kind recognize those who are celiac, diabetics, etc.). This will communicate care and concern!

Be Gentle
This has been an extremely hard season. Be gentle with yourself! This has all been rather overwhelming and you are learning things that are beyond your regular areas of competency. Avoid comparing with others and simply and importantly love the people in your care. Be creative in your context. Don’t be tempted to look at the church down the block or online. Find ways to be digital, creative, memorable, missional, social, hopeful and personal in your context and avoid the comparison game. Whatever God is calling you to, do that!

As I have repeatedly said to pastors in this season, you are doing better than you think you are in terms of ministry effectiveness (it is just that all of your conditioned gauges of effectiveness are no longer working because they are all conditioned to in-person metrics and feedback). Additionally, pay attention and care for yourself with lots of understanding and grace (this has been the most difficult season to lead in our generation and don’t under-estimate the impact on you).

Be gentle with yourself!

Pastoral Leadership, Covid-19, and the Stages of Grief

Change is Hard!

As a pastoral leader, this has been a difficult season on many fronts. You have led your community of faith through an unprecedented health crisis, managed relentless pivots, made difficult decisions, and dramatically changed the models of ministry you were not just comfortable with but were competent in.

People like change until you change what they love (or are good at). And let’s face it, we were not just competent at our old methodologies, systems, and structures, we mastered them. This is why (pre-pandemic), even in the face of rapidly declining baptisms, disciple-making, attendance, and giving, we were so adverse and reluctant to change our methodologies.  Our competency and comfort kept us on a trajectory of complacency.

Covid-19 changed that!

Covid-19 has forced us to change the way we do things and pushed us out of our comfortable ineffective ruts. I believe God will use this to drive us closer to Him in intimacy (trusting more in Him than our methods) and toward greater innovation as we seek to discover what ministry will look like in a post-Covid-19 world.

With all major change, we need to grieve what was in order to accept what is and dream of what could be. All grief has commonalities, and the five stages of grief is a helpful tool to understand that journey. It can help you gain awareness empathy for what you, your church, and your team are experiencing.

As a leader, you are journeying these stages personally. You are grieving a way of doing things that you were very competent at and stepping into a new methodology and a different culture (digital is different) where you aren’t as comfortable or fluent. It is a loss and one that can be disorientating and discouraging.

Second, consider the stages as a team leader. Journeying the stages together doesn’t always mean you will journey it faster or healthier. Sometimes people can experience an arrested development in the grief journey. Therefore, be cautious that your team isn’t getting stuck together in one of the stages. Also, stay on the lookout for misunderstandings with each other as everyone processes grief at different speeds and in different orders.  

The Five Stages of Grief

The following are the stages of grief that I think pastors and church leaders are currently processing and journeying. As you read through them, consider where are you and your team are in that process.

Shock and Denial

Overnight, the comfortable way of doing things changed. We went into crisis-mode. We moved online with pragmatic naivety, believing that we could just do everything digitally in the same way we did it in-person. We were mistaken. We were in denial.

I think some are stuck here, hoping things will get better or get back to “normal,” unaware or unwilling to admit that 2019’s version of normal is not coming back. The way we did ministry pre-Covid-19 is not returning just like the way people shopped, exercised, watched movies, and learned will not. This is not a bad thing! In fact, it holds many opportunities for those willing to embrace them. If nothing else, it has pulled us out of our complacent slumber of apathetic ineffectiveness.

Anger

After the initial shock and denial comes anger. This emotion and feeling can be quite substantial. Your family and staff have probably felt this from you. You have probably sensed this in your team. We get frustrated, feel out of control, feel overwhelmed, and start blaming when we grieve the loss of what/who we love. Don’t underestimate this and the impact of this stage on your life and ministry.

Bargaining

The next stage is bargaining. This is the stage where we try to bargain our way out of our loss. Instead of moving to acceptance, we try and find another means to bring back what we love. This may manifest as a false hope that everything will be over soon, that things will just go back to “normal,” or when we try and justify that things are working when all indicators tell us they are not (for instance counting 3-sec views as equivalent to a person in physical attendance).

Depression

After bargaining comes depression. Once we realize we can’t bargain what we lost back into existence, we begin to accept the reality of the loss and the change at hand. As a result, there is often a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness. The future is unknown. You are unsure of what to do. You question your competency and can feel overwhelmed by the situation. This stage can grab people and hold them tightly. Be aware of this in your life and in your team. Although hope exists (on a spiritual level (Jesus will lead us) and practical level (there are methodologies and new approaches that are and will be effective)) it can be hard to see them at first.

Acceptance

The final stage is acceptance. This is where we begin to accept the loss of what was and start to see the hope of what could be. In terms of the church, this where we begin to acknowledge that our old methodologies of preaching, community-building, evangelism, disciple-making, leading, and interacting won’t work anymore but something new can. Acceptance begins to dream, have hope, and move forward with faith and innovation.

Where Are You?

Where are you in these stages? Where are your teammates? Where is your team as a whole? Maybe this framework helps you understand how you are feeling and what you are experiencing. Perhaps it gives you something to discuss as a ministry/staff team as you work through the stages together.

Don’t rush through the grieving process! People journey grief at different speeds and the stages aren’t always linear.

Remember: You need to grieve! Grief is healthy! You need to grieve the loss of what was so you can embrace what can and will be. 

Lean into grief but don’t get stuck in it!

Four Leadership Postures for 2021

As we leave 2020 behind and press into 2021, I want to consider four leadership postures for the year ahead…

Self-Care (Healthy Rhythms and Intentional Rest)

The temptation of entering into 2021 is to turn the page on 2020 and enter the coming year ignorant of the long-term effects of leading through a pandemic.  Turning a calendar page might feel good but it doesn’t erase the impact of a difficult situation, season or year.  We know this to be true in other people’s lives, but we are often blind to it in our own.  I want to emphasize this.  In every major catastrophe or event, people often weather the storm, only to experience long term impacts.  In extreme situations, this is known as PSTD, but the principle of delayed and long-term impact shouldn’t be ignored.  As we enter 2021, it is vital for any leader to focus on self-care.  To take adequate time off.  To pursue healthy rhythms.  To get help even if you don’t think you need it.  If you are experiencing any symptoms from what I posted here (You are Not Okay), get some help and see a counsellor or a psychologist.  Don’t delay and care for yourself as we enter this new year.  Again, turning the page will not erase the hard words and difficult storyline of the previous chapter.

Preparing for the Long Haul

With the talk of a vaccine, there is a sense that things will go back to “normal” and, therefore, there isn’t a need to make the changes required for the long road ahead.  This is short-sighted and dangerous.  The road ahead will be longer than we hope, and we need to be prepared.  Even if I am wrong, and I hope I am, be prepared mentally and practically for the road ahead.  Good leaders don’t lead with blinders, they lead with clarity and the bravery to look ahead with courage and truth (for more on this, see my previous post).

Normalize Change

As you lead into 2021, it is vital that you normalize change.  After a season that jarred you out of the rut of the past, you will be tempted, even long, to go back.  Ignore the urge to go back to old systems that didn’t work (even if our rose-coloured memories tell us they did) and old structures that were outdated.  The innovation of the last year is the innovation posture needed for the future ahead.  Don’t let your foot off the pedal of change but rather get used to driving at the speed of invention.  This is the posture needed for any effective organization or ministry in the future.  Develop a posture of innovation and embrace the normalcy of change in 2021.

Empowering Young Leaders

In the last year, you may have reduced your reliance on younger leaders and stopped listening to emerging voices.  The desire for a steady and seasoned voice was understandable but the future will demand that we attune our ears to the young voices in our organizations and teams.  Promote young people, give responsibility to younger leaders and take some leadership risks with them in the coming year.  If you are a seasoned and older leader and you (re)build your organization, ministry and team around your desires and your preferences, you have missed the mark and have sacrificed your organization’s future for your present comfort.  The best leaders will empower young leaders in the coming season and give them room to experiment, develop and grow.

The Promise Ahead

2021 holds so much promise but that promise can be easily buried by our short memories and desire for comfort.  If we accept the temptation of comfort, we reject the vital opportunities before it.  Look ahead with realism and walk forward in hope.  God is doing a new thing and asking us to join.