Although many churches struggled with engaging digitally over the last decade, the circumstances of COVID-19 forced a change. What church leaders had been apathetic about, opposed to, or fearful of became a necessity. As a result, the church enthusiastically transitioned to digital.
The church pivoted. Although churches pivoted out of necessity, some did so without critical reflection. Even though we have become very aware of our missiological failures and the colonialism that dominated previous missionary movements, I fear we are in danger of repeating our past mistakes.
The missionary movements of the past often resulted from technological advancements that opened new mission frontiers. In the rush and excitement of these new opportunities, the church often neglected the hard work of learning the language, understanding the culture, and contextualizing the gospel.
We are in danger of making these mistakes with digital ministry!
In the rush to digital engagement, we didn’t consider the fact that digital culture is different from in-person ministry steeped in print culture. Online ministry is cross-cultural. With the same pragmatic excitement that sparked the missionary movements of old, we entered digital culture with an in-person ministry methodology. We moved Bible studies to ZOOM and we live-streamed worship gatherings. As we did, we soon discovered that the transition wasn’t as effective as we expected. We discovered that in-person is different than digital. Instead of seeking to understand and translate ministry to digital culture, adapting our methodologies accordingly, we forced them onto a digital culture. Consequently, they were ineffective and demoralizing. They demonstrated our propensity to repeat our colonial past.
In the transition to digital, some of our churches had to lay off staff. In a sad parallel to the colonial missionary movements of the past that ignored local expertise, most churches laid off their digital locals (younger staff fluent in digital culture) and kept the digital tourists (older staff unaware of digital culture). Consequently, I implore all the senior leaders who will rebuild their staff and leadership teams after the pandemic to rebuild them with digital locals and not just with digital tourists. Do not repeat our colonial past.
As the church digitally went beyond traditional borders (geographic and linguistic), it was blind to context and culture. In the same ethnocentric enthusiasm of our ancestors, many ignored the hard and difficult work of contextualization. The following are two of many examples. First, digital ministry’s strength and potential lie not only in its ability to spread wide but in its ability to go deep. Community is built and experienced differently online. Second, in digital culture, people want to be part of the content they consume. Ignoring this cultural distinctive will lead to poor engagement and a lack of effectiveness.
We need a better digital missiology!
The digital shift is not going away. People will not work, learn, shop, play and worship in the same ways again. Digital has shown its limitations, but it has also shown its capabilities. The digital mission field has opened, and it is ripe for harvest.
We are in danger of repeating our past mistakes. I want to call us, in humility, to slow down and discover a better missiology. I want to call us to learn about digital culture as we enter it on mission. To do otherwise is not simply ineffective, it is counterproductive. Digital is different and your digital ministry must be shaped accordingly.
To learn more about digital culture, Effective Online Ministry and Digital Mission:
Check out my upcoming online workshops with Ambrose University (back by popular demand) – Effective Online Ministry (October 21, November 4, November 18). Register here.
We are currently in an awkward dance with the COVID-19 virus and it’s about to step on our feet. Hard!
In the early stages of the virus, we were introduced to the concept of the Covid-19 hammer and dance. This is the concept used by public health officials to describe the process of controlling a virus with public health measures. In March we experienced the hammer (the lock-down) as a means to control the infection numbers, “flatten the curve,” and bring the spread of the virus under control. By doing this, we were able to enter the dance (the season of gradual reopening that we are now in). The dance is the increasing and decreasing measures of gathering sizes, precautions, restrictions, etc. to keep the numbers at a controllable level by balancing public health with society’s need for the economy, physical community, and education.
As the church, we made the adjustments to the hammer in March by moving exclusively online (with varied success – more on that and why in a future post). We are now adapting to the dance as most churches are cautiously moving to some sort of public in-person gatherings.
As we enter the Fall, we will be faced with the second wave of the virus (historically, the second wave is the most dangerous and deadly). As a result, there is a very strong possibility (even probability) that the hammer will be coming back and, as a result, the church will be moving back exclusively online. I know this is not the news you want to hear, and you will be tempted to ignore it as alarmist. Yet, I would encourage you to not yield to that temptation. Rather, I implore you to make a plan and prepare for the possibility.
In the coming days, I would urge pastors and church leaders to be prepared in two ways. First, have a plan for all your ministries to go back fully online. Whatever you think of online ministry, this is something you can be prepared for. Just as you have a plan to progressively open up, have a plan to move back fully online. Second, begin preparing your staff, leaders, elders, and church members for this possibility. A tenant of change management is to telegraph your moves and if people know you have a plan, they will respond much better when you have to execute it (give a sense of calm and purpose as they do). Preparing people for this is good leadership and will help your church/ministry lean into the challenge ahead rather than scramble in desperation or surrender in defeat.
As you continue to do the Covid-19 dance, are you ready for the possibility of the hammer? Be prepared, have a plan, and when/if it comes, you will be able to pivot with intentionality, confidence, and effectiveness.
Effective Online Ministry: Understanding, Creating and Launching Ministry Online
Wondering how to effectively do ministry online?
Back by popular demand!
Join me online for these three exciting professional development opportunities (hosted by Ambrose University). Classes will run 9am-3pm with a break from 12-1pm each day.
Wednesday, October 21 – Understanding the Digital Culture: Foundational for designing effective online ministry Wednesday, November 4 – Understanding the Nuts and Bolts (Bits and Bytes) of Online Ministry Wednesday, November 18 – Designing an Online Ministry Strategy
The cost for the three workshops is $150. Come as an individual or bring your entire team.
These are also available for a 3 credit class from Ambrose University and Seminary (registration includes the videos of the teaching OnDemand).
One of my first cars had a broken gas gauge. It was extremely frustrating! There was no way to objectively measure how much gas was in the tank at any given time. This was definitely an inconvenience but, in Canadian winters, it was also a major safety consideration. Consequently, I embraced the axiom, “it costs the same to run the car on the full half of the tank as it does on the empty half.” I think there is truth in this for today (especially for pastors).
In these Covid-19 days, your gauges are broken. Your patterns of behaviour, routines, and rhythms have all been disrupted. What you have formally used to judge how you were doing personally (emotionally, physically, and spiritually) are no longer reliable. Consequently, you are probably doing worse than you think in some areas and better than you think in others. Don’t trust your broken gauges and assume your tank is emptier than you think!
Additionally, you need to ignore former gauges you used to judge your perceived pastoral effectiveness. If you don’t, you may show up on Sunday and, as you survey the socially distanced and largely empty room (if you are meeting in person), feel like you are failing. Or, in the absence of physically seeing the sheep that you shepherd, you will falsely believe you have lost them all and panic. Remember, your pastoral effectiveness gauges are broken. Don’t trust them. Instead, look to Jesus and just be faithful. Be faithful and know that is enough. In fact, that has always been enough! Maybe the pandemic will teach us to re-evaluate our perceptions of success and the gauges we use to measure it. Maybe we will recalibrate our gauges and simply focus on being faithful to Jesus and the calling He has placed on our lives.
As you serve with broken gauges, embrace the maxim I learned from my car with the broken gas gauge: drive with your tank half full rather than half empty. Keep your tank full by: Rejecting comparison – this is more important than ever. Giving yourself grace – lots of it. Breathing deeply – repeat regularly. Resting well – more than you think you need. Loving deeply – your family, friends, and church community. Leading boldly – this is the season for it. Loving other pastors – and letting them love you.
Remember: your gauges are broken, and no one knows when the new ones will be in stock.
The Digital Plot Thickens: Important lessons COVID-19 is teaching the Church about the use of technology.
The Exposition: Two worlds colliding.
As someone with a keen interest in both media ecology (the study of technology/media and its effects) and ecclesiology (the study of the church), this season in the life of the church fascinates me. This is a season where these two worlds have collided, creating a storyline few writers could have conceived. In many ways, it has become a narrative case study for the impact, role and place of technology, especially in our churches.
The Set Up and Rising Action: A fast pivot online.
Every good story has a narrative arc (see the graphic above) and uses plot devices to create depth, interest and suspense. The story of the church’s embrace of technology in the COVID-19 crisis is marked by many of these. Two months ago, when public gatherings were suspended, the church made a fast pivot and moved online. This pivot had relative success at first but as anyone who has experienced this knows, that initial embrace soon transitioned to “Zoom gloom” and digital skepticism (as people responded to being thrown into the digital deep end and, consequently, wondering if digital ministry is truly effective long-term) with a side of nostalgia (as people began to crave going back to the way things were).
Everyone has experienced this differently, of course, but it is important to note that this experience isn’t unique to the church. A similar experience is paralleled in education (moving to exclusive online learning) and business (many professions working remotely) with lessons, learnings, successes and failures that will be explored and examined for years.
Plot Twist One: Not only can the church change but the church is quite good at it.
As the fast pivot online occurred, there was a plot twist for churches: the local church discovered it can change when it needs to. In fact, it turns out that the church is quite good at it. Nothing creates change like a crisis and this crisis created change in abundance. Churches re-evaluated priorities, redeployed staff, revised budgets, reworked strategies, etc. This hidden ability (and even gift) for change tells me that the challenge for the church going forward isn’t its ability to change, but rather the motivation for that change to happen. Thus, the church’s lack of change in response to decline, lack of disciple-making, ageing leadership, etc. isn’t because the church is incapable of change, it is because it doesn’t see it as a crisis. Ouch!
Plot Twist Two: Technology will not solve our problems.
Within weeks of making the transition to exclusive online ministry, a second plot twist emerged: the church discovered that the initial promise of online ministry (increased engagement beyond traditional boundaries) was short-lived as online engagement began to drop (personally, I believe there are a number of reasons for this and I don’t believe that it is indicative for the long-term). Just as the church has discovered in recent years that its discipleship crisis wasn’t a content one (we have more content than ever before and yet the disciple-making needle hasn’t budged), it has now discovered it also isn’t a delivery one (moving online wasn’t the magic solution that some had argued).
Don’t get me wrong, your church needs an online ministry! If your church doesn’t have a digital dimension to its ministry, this pandemic has exposed that desperate need. With the mobility of people, the ease of online access, the increasing embrace of digital learning, community and work, the church faces the unprecedented opportunity to missionally enter the arena people are increasingly living in.
That being said, before the pandemic I was in many meetings where people were pitching how the church’s disciple-making problem was its lack of technology. In other words, if the church had better social media, an app or livestream options, its ministry would explode with effectiveness and expanded reach. In many ways, this pandemic has exposed and laid bare the depth of our discipleship and spiritual formation problem, and it is much deeper than we thought. Technology has its place (one we need to expand) but it will not solve our disciple-making problem – that problem is much deeper than a digital content delivery platform can solve.
Climax: Things can’t stay the same.
All of these factors have led the church to a crisis/climax. What is the place of technology in the life of the church and how will we reach more people and disciple them as followers of Jesus in our new post-COVID-19 world? The church needs a plan to build disciples (this isn’t the place for this, but my hypothesis is that it involves/includes a re-embrace of spiritual disciplines within Christian community) and an integrated and fully realized digital plan and strategy to support that plan.
In many ways, this season of life has exposed the depth of our disciple-making deficiency and, sadly, our complacency in it. If we end this season in the same place we entered, still believing the same misdiagnosed realities we once embraced, we will have missed a great opportunity for change. We must re-ignite our passion for disciple-making and see it as the crisis that it is. As a result, we must make the pivots needed to address it (pivots we discovered we are quite good at) and creating the digital infrastructure to support it (seeing digital platforms as a means to support disciple-making rather than save it).
Falling Action and Resolution: A new digital normal emerging.
One of our lessons is that technology is not the solution to our greatest problems, but it can help build our capacity to discover it. Our world is increasingly digital, and people will become acclimatized to a digital environment. Working from home, learning from home and worshipping from home will not fully replace personal physical interaction (this season has proven that), but it has its place and will be key to helping the church connect and fulfil its mission in our emerging world. Thus, your church needs to utilize technology in greater ways for the right reason. Technology won’t make disciples, that is our job (empowered by the Holy Spirit), but it can, like our physical buildings, create the environments for this to happen.
Cliff-hanger: What will we do as a result?
All good serial television shows end its episodes with a narrative cliff-hanger. This is no different. The cliff-hanger for the church is, what will we do now?
We can’t go back! We need to embrace our digital world for the environment it is while embracing our difficult calling to “go make disciples” (not conflating these in an ecclesiastical misdiagnosis).
As we move into the coming days, it is time to create an online strategy for your church or ministry. As we continue in the “COVID-19 Dance,” this may be needed as we move in and out of physical gathering restrictions, but it is also needed for the future, as we enter the digital landscape in the ever-expanding mission of God.
If you are not sure what this can look like or how to do this, I want to invite you to some workshops I am teaching for Ambrose University and Seminary in August. Join me for one, two or all three days as we do this together (it is also available for university or seminary credit). Learn about how technology affects us, how to leverage different digital technologies for your church or ministry and design a fully implementable digital strategy. It will be informative, practical and interactive. Come alone or bring your team.
Effective Online Ministry: Understanding, Creating and Launching Ministry Online (Presented by Ambrose University)
Instructor: Rev. Bryce Ashlin-Mayo, DMin
Description: A theological and methodological exploration of online ministry with particular attention to creating an online ministry strategy. It will examine how the internet and social media is profoundly changing culture and explore how the Church can effectively engage this new medium for the advancement of God’s kingdom and mission.
Details: Join us online for these three exciting professional development opportunities. Classes will run 9am-3pm with a break from 12-1pm each day.
August 12, 2020 – Understanding the Digital World: Bringing Theology and Media Ecology Together
August 19, 2020 – Understanding the Nuts and Bolts (Bits and Bytes) of Online Ministry
August 26, 2020 – Designing an Online Ministry Strategy
Cost: For all 3 workshops is $150. Single registration is available if you only wish to participate in one or two workshops at a cost of $59/workshop.