Effective Online Ministry: Understanding, Creating and Launching Ministry Online
Wondering how to effectively do ministry online?
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.
August 12 – Understanding the Digital World: Bringing Theology and Media Ecology Together August 19 – Understanding the Nuts and Bolts (Bits and Bytes) of Online Ministry August 26 – 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. Come as an individual or bring your entire team.
These are also available for a 3 credit class from Ambrose University and Seminary.
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.
As we begin to settle into our new Covid-19 normal, the leadership challenge has evolved. When we entered two months ago the leadership paradigm was an emergency one, defined by decisive action and fast pivots. As we transition into a longer-term Covid-19 reality and consider different stages of re-engaging public gatherings of different sizes, we need to readjust our leadership paradigm.
In pandemic response methodologies there are two phases: the “hammer” and the “dance.” The “hammer” is the lockdown phase designed to stop the virus, restrict transmission and “flatten the curve.” It consists of stopping all public gatherings, ramping up testing and commencing mass contact tracing. Once the “hammer” phase is proven effective, the “dance” phase begins. It consists of watching the numbers and continually adjusting public policy and restrictions until a vaccine or effective treatment is widely available.
As the church responds and adapts to the “dance,” there will be much debate and no shortage of opinions on how and when to release gathering restrictions and protocols. There will be some who will say we need to get back to normal, while others will be extremely cautious. The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle and we need wisdom to navigate the middle well.
Although I don’t want to get into how and when is the right time to transition back to public gatherings (this is different in each jurisdiction, size of church, context, etc.), there are some important leadership principles to keep in mind as you process these important decisions with your leadership team(s) and congregation.
Gather information, seek counsel and ask God for wisdom
During the emergency leadership of the “hammer,” you didn’t need any collaboration in your leadership. It was necessarily fast as the goal was primarily public safety. However, as we begin the “dance,” the leadership posture needs to shift towards collaboration including gathering information from trusted sources, seeking counsel from others (Proverbs 15:22) and humbly asking for God’s wisdom (James 1:5).
In the information age, information is not at a shortage. Discerning between opinion and fact is hard work. It is easier to just listen to someone else’s opinion as opposed to reading government and health authority documents yourself and seeking skilled advice from health care professionals. This is the season to seek and embrace truth, recognizing our own propensity to confirmation bias that accepts the information that “feels” right.
Create a plan
Unlike emergency situations where decisive action is key, this is a situation where careful planning is paramount. As we enter the “dance,” there will be a continual tightening and loosing of restrictions over the next several months with varying degrees of public health protocols to follow. As a result, have a clear plan for what your response to the different possibilities will look like. Having a plan lessens the temptation for knee jerk decisions and increases communication, clarity and trust with your leaders, volunteers and congregants.
What is permissible is not always wise
It is important to note that as the government and health authorities begin to allow for businesses to open and groups to meet, what is permissible is not always wise. In other words, because you are able doesn’t mean you should. This phase is not a rush to the start but a carefully planned re-entry that makes sense and promotes public health and safety. Public Health officials are giving reopening guidelines to reduce risk, but the risk still exists, and it is on us, as leaders, to do our own risk assessments within these guidelines.
The danger at the start was going too slow; the danger now is going too fast
Just as there are numerous stories of organizations and leaders that regret moving too slow at the start of the pandemic, there will be those who will also regret moving too fast on the re-entry. If the danger at the start of the pandemic was going too slow, the danger now Is going too fast.
Face it: leadership is hard
The life of Moses has many leadership lessons. Many would point to his courage in confronting Pharaoh, but I think it lies later in his life. I believe the greatest challenge for Moses was leading the Israelites in the desert. The desert is a difficult place to lead. It doesn’t take long for people to grumble and complain, eventually longing for Egypt again (Exodus 16).
In this Covid-19 season, this is our danger too. It was relatively easy to lead people to flatten the curve (the “hammer”), but it isn’t long before people long to go back and, like the Israelites, grumble and complain that it is taking too long. The leadership challenge now is to lead our people through the long “dance” ahead and safely through the desert.
Be of good courage
This all may seem overwhelming but be of good courage! The leadership road is long and treacherous, but you are not alone. You led well through the “hammer” stage of the pandemic, now it’s time to change your leadership paradigm and lead in the “dance” stage. Join a caravan (or, to employ the later dance metaphor, a conga line) of other leaders and embrace the promise that God is with you and leading the way!
“…in the blind…” is a radio communication phrase made popular by the movie Gravity.
Although made popular by actors George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, it is a bonified aviation and NASA radio communication practice. Often used during emergency situations, it is a way for the transmitter to communicate while acknowledging that, although someone may hear the transmission, the transmitter is not expecting a response.
In many ways, this is what preaching has become in our coronavirus-initiated virtual church experience. Preaching is now exclusively delivered via video to small screens everywhere and recorded or live streamed with few, if any, people in the physical room. This shift has proven to be a very different preaching experience (for both the speaker and the hearer).
I have chatted with several of my colleagues about this and wanted to share what I have learned from those conversations, my experience, and ask for any additional advice (please share these in the comments section).
Five Main Things I’ve Learned So Far About “Preaching in the Blind”
Make it Intimate
As I have scanned different churches and preacher’s approaches to an exclusively online ministry preaching model, I’ve discerned two main approaches.
First is the approach that looks exactly like it did before COVID-19 and public gathering restrictions. By watching the service and the preaching, you would assume that the room was full, and the preacher was communicating to a large gathering. For the most part, those who employ this approach are being strategic in that they want the experience to be the same for their church when public gatherings are allowed again. The risk is, it can come across as odd and, potentially, inauthentic as people know that the room is empty (especially as this social distance season extends).
The other approach is changing the frame, format and style of the preaching moment to fit an exclusively small venue (living room, etc.) video approach and embrace the personal/intimate feel of someone in a living room speaking to people in their living rooms. This is the approach we have taken at Westlife Church. I’m not saying it is the right way, the only way, or the best way. But it has worked for us and we are learning as we go. The risk is, when we eventually shift to a new post-coronavirus normal, we may also have to shift out of this model, and it will be another adjustment for our people who will have become accustomed to a different approach.
This more intimate approach is not new and is reminiscent of the approach taken by Sherri Chessen in the 1980’s with her classic Canadian Romper Room children’s television program. During each show, she would look through her handheld magic mirror and mention all the kids by name that she “saw” through it.
Sherri understood the need to create an intimate feel with her audience who were watching from their living rooms. Thus, as you preach, imagine you are speaking in a coffee shop or living room to someone one-on-one. Be personal and conversational. Be real and appropriately transparent. Be gentle and kind.
Give Lots of Virtual Eye Contact
As you preach in an exclusively online format, preach to the camera(s) just like having coffee with a friend, look into their eyes when you are talking but don’t stare into their souls! Preach to the camera and speak like it is a friend but be natural as you do. If it is helpful, place a facial cue at camera height and imagine a conversation over coffee. Additionally, as much possible, don’t look at your notes as you preach. You would assume that video would give increased ability to use notes, but virtual eye contact is so important that looking down too often can come across as too scripted and impersonal. If you need notes, try a teleprompter as some of my friends have done with great success (there are some great apps that allow for this now).
Keep it Short
From my conversations with other preachers, we have all expressed the phenomena: we are preaching shorter. There are lots of reasons for this, but I do think that a screen attention span is shorter – we are accustomed to a short screen attention span and so exclusive online preaching demands this adjustment accordingly. Some may say that all preaching should be shorter (perhaps they are correct) but exclusive video preaching is definitely different and adjusting our methodology is important.
Use Humour Differently
Instant feedback makes humour more effective and the act of communicating with humour more enjoyable (in my opinion). Unless you use a laugh track (BTW: some of the more seasoned video preachers out there do that), your humour will change. I know it has for me. I probably use it less often and differently than I used to. That doesn’t mean it is less effective, it is just different. There is a reason why talk shows, stand-up comedians and late-night talk show hosts have live studio audiences and why preaching without an audience makes humour different and, frankly, more difficult.
Change Locations – Be Creative
One of the benefits of video (especially if you prerecord) is to alter your venue and make it specific or fitting to your message. This week, we are planning to record outdoors by the Bow River as I preach on Psalm 1. Not being bound to a specific physical space (stage), allows for some creativity in location and atmosphere, and now is the time to use it.
Additionally, be creative. Our video producer on Easter Sunday effectively wove in some B-roll (in this case, stock video footage) and even a musical score during a story I was telling. It was super effective, and, if it is done well, can add to the preaching. There is obviously risk involved here and we need to be sure we don’t “jump the shark” in our creative endeavours. However, may we also not miss an opportunity to try new things in a season that uniquely allows for it and offers inherent permission to try.
Preaching in the Blind
As we go through the prolonged season of preaching in the blind, may we adapt accordingly and learn from our adaption as we move back into whatever new normal will emerge in a post-coronavirus world. Preaching in the blind is a different experience that demands a different approach and a different preaching methodology. Embrace it, try new things, and let God be glorified as you do.
Part Four: Shifting Gears from Crisis Response to Strategic Planning
Today is fifty-some days of social distancing. It is hard to believe that we have been in this stage for so long already. If you are beginning to feel weary, confused, overwhelmed and exhausted as a leader, this totally makes sense. Your feelings are normal and predictable.
Fifty-some days ago, you went into “crisis mode.” As you entered crisis mode, there was a flurry of information to process and a rush of decisions to be made. As my colleague Ryan and I recently discussed, it was the right gear to shift into, but it is also a gear you can’t be in for too long.
As a result, the weariness, lostness, confusion, and even discouragement you may be feeling are not unusual or a sign that there is something abnormal with you. In fact, these feelings are to be expected. They are simply an indicator that you were in the right mode/gear for the road you were on. The challenge is, this road isn’t at its end and there are still many miles ahead. As a result, we need to find a new gear for the long haul (no one knows how long this road will be, but it is months not weeks until we will be able to gather in larger numbers again).
I don’t know what that specifically looks like for you (your role, your church, your ministry, etc.), but I do know that preparing for a short road trip looks different than a long one. You plan different, you prepare different, you have a different mentality and expectations going in. It is time (if you haven’t started already) to repack and prepare for the long road ahead.
It is time to shift gears!
In the coming weeks (if you have not already done so), I would challenge you to begin shifting from crisis mode to strategic planning mode. Take time with your team and begin creating or readjusting for a long-term exclusively online strategy of ministry, pastoral care, community engagement, staffing, budget, etc. to make it through the long journey ahead.
I don’t say any of this to add stress or anxiety in you. Instead, I write with words of hope, that a different and more sustainable gear is possible. And with an encouragement that it is time to press the clutch (slow down, think, pray and rest) and shift gears into the one that strategically plans for the long road ahead, trusting that God will lead you forward.
As I said early on in this crisis, this will most likely be the most difficult season of your leadership life and career but is also holds the possibility to be the most meaningful and fruitful. Consequently, it is time to lead with unprecedented dependence on the Holy Spirit, humility and courage.