Join me on March 13th, 2023 at the free online Small Church Rising Summit. It will be a day filled with encouragement and equipping for small church pastors. I will be presenting on the “Why” of Online Ministry, communicating a hopeful and doable vision for sustainable digital ministry in the small church. See you there!
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.
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).
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.
With the increased conversation around Fake News, I thought it would post a short section on discerning truth in a Fake News era from my book “Age of Kings: Pursuing God’s Heart in a Social Media World.” Buy it Amazon.
As we get more and more of our news and information online and through social media, it is vital that we discern between truth and falsehood in the information we are consuming and filter it accordingly.
Just as food critics spend years developing their palates in an effort to distinguish gourmet food made with high-quality ingredients from foods made with artificial ingredients, we need to develop our palates for truth in a world that’s saturated with information. As we train our information-palates to discern correctly, it is vital to identify the six things that aid us to discern truth in an era of fake news.
First, smell it. Smell has a distinct connection to our sense of taste and can help us in our initial assessment. When you see a post, article, video, or meme, ask yourself some initial questions. Is it satire (a surprising number of people have experienced instant outrage at a post, posing as news, when it was really satire)? Does it sound too good to be true (is it playing off your confirmation bias)? Does the headline sound overly provocative (a technique used by clickbait to get you to read something)? Does it look like part of a larger story (stories presented out of their full context can be misleading)?
Second, check the ingredients. Any food critic with a discerning palate knows that fresh organic ingredients always create the best food. Thus, when you are faced with news, posts, videos, or memes, ask the following questions. What are the underlying facts that it is based on (are they from a reputable source)? Is there a scientific study referenced to prove the solution presented (choosing your cancer treatment based on something you read on someone’s blog is not the best medical advice)? What statistics are they using?
Third, check the source. Food connoisseurs know that where ingredients come from makes all the difference. As you evaluate the information shared on social media, check its source. First, look at the web address or original social media account it comes from. Is it from a trusted and legitimate source? If you have any concerns or even a suspicion, do a quick check with a factchecking service online (several exist). Check if the source has a known bias or agenda they are propagating, and consider whether this might affect or influence the information they are giving you.
Fourth, taste it. Food critics know to look past the description and presentation and taste the food. Once you’ve smelled it, inspected the ingredients, and looked at the source, read it and think about it. Truth will always stand the test of examination and reflection. Ask, does it align with the other facts that you know to be true? If not, explore why not. If so, do a sober second thought and double-check if your confirmation bias or your intentional information avoidance tendencies might be at work.
Fifth, discuss it. Truth tends to withstand cross-examination by the community, while fake news does not. The multiple perspectives provided by diverse people help us to see things differently, to ask different questions, and to discern more accurately. Therefore, what if instead of using social media to post with confidence, we used it to discern? What if we were to post a meme with a question (Is this true?) rather than a pronouncement (This is true!). Social media could use more question marks and fewer exclamation marks.
Sixth, savor it. If it is true, savor it. Truth should always take time to process. Allow the new information you have gathered to digest slowly, and see whether it challenges your preconceived ideas and perspectives or affirms your convictions. Remember, truth doesn’t cower from critical reflection and examination; rather, truth dances with joy in their presence.
Connecting the dots of culture, technology, faith, ministry, mission and life.