As the church begins to regather in person, it is vital that we don’t lose all the digital advancements we made while critically evaluating and reflecting on our digital ministry. Through a series of three workshops, we will seek to understand digital culture, evaluate what worked in the last year, and begin to design a long-term online ministry strategy for the future for either a fully digital ministry or a hybrid approach.
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.
Session #1 (Aug. 5) – Understanding Digital Culture (and how it is different than in-person): Bringing Theology and Media Ecology Together.
Session #2(Aug. 12)– Learning about Evaluating the Nut and Bolts (Bits and Bytes) of Online Ministry: Especially Hybrid (Digital/in-Person) Ministry Strategies and Methodologies.
As Spring approaches and the 2020/21 ministry year comes to an end, it may be tempting to turn the page on this unique Covid ministry year and not look back. Yet, in the midst of this unique year, there are countless important lessons to learn, new competencies to cultivate and fresh opportunities to explore.
Whether the Fall of 2021 will be a post-Covid new normal or whether we will still be under increased restrictions (due to new variants or some unforeseen wrinkle in the vaccine distribution), it is vital to stop, take stock, give thanks and evaluate the past ministry year with both a wide and long lens into the future.
We need to look into the future with a wide lens.
Digital ministry is not just about streaming your weekly in-person worship services! Its implications are much wider and it’s potential much greater (especially for expressions of community and opportunities for outreach). Most churches moved online in the pandemic in a bit of an understandable panic and didn’t really consider the uniqueness of digital culture. As a result, our methodologies and missiologies were not well-formed and effectiveness suffered. As you begin planning forward, recognize the world has forever been reshaped (we took 10 years of inevitable change and crammed it into a year) and we need to adapt accordingly. As you continue to serve your church and community, it is vital that you consider the “why” and the “how” of online ministry rather than simply adding a camera and live streaming your in-person ministry activity.
We need to look at the future with a long lens.
If digital ministry last year was largely motivated by a crisis, its future must be carefully considered for long-term impact and effective implementation. We are in the midst of the digital revolution and although many things we did in-person are going to have an understandable resurgence, it will level out to a new hybrid-normal for most things in society. In the same way that people will learn and work in more hybrid ways, they will also engage that way in church. Thus, it is vital to recognize that digital (online) ministry was not just a pandemic necessity but will become a long-term reality in part or in whole.
Digital (Online) Ministry Evaluation
To aid in this evaluative process, I created the Digital (Online) Ministry Evaluation Guide to help you do just that. It is designed to help you reflect on the effectiveness of your digital ministry, what you need to stop doing, what you need to keep doing and how to make what you continue to do more effective in the future.
To facilitate your evaluation, use the free pdf download as a guide for individual reflection or for an upcoming staff meeting/retreat as a way to spark conversation and ignite change. Don’t let this last year go by in vain but rather use it as a catalyst for ministry/mission advancement.
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.
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.
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).