What We Learned Building CHRCH Online
COVID-19 shutdowns changed everything. They changed the way we shop, work and, yes, the way we think about church. For a pastor like me, the biggest impact was the way I view community, connection and the way I think about outreach. Starting as a traditional church, we went online like most, but unlike most, I’m staying online. We’re experiencing a dynamic growing church, and we’ve learned things that can help any church use the technology better to extend their reach farther.
A little background to my story might clarify things. I first came to faith in Christ while I was serving in the sound room, and working full-time in television production. That was decades ago, and video production has been my tentmaking all along. I surrendered to the ministry and was working on my Bible college coursework in the break room at the local PBS station. You could say that broadcasting is in my blood. I think it’s just how God has been shaping me for “such a time as this.”
I’ve served as a youth pastor, associate pastor and rescue-mission pastor, and was called into a small church in 2016. To be honest, the church had plateaued, like so many other churches today, and I was at a loss about how to move us forward. Then the shutdowns started. We were meeting in a local junior high theater, and were one of the first groups to have to find an alternative meeting space. So, we moved into a private home. Then our governor called for the total shutdown.
In an amazing act of provision, God had already prepared our way to go online. Years before, my wife and I started a nonprofit video production service, Grace Pictures Inc., and invested in equipment. It was just a matter of figuring out how to make it all work for livestreaming. In a matter of days, we were live on YouTube and Facebook. We talked with our church members and helped them get online with us. We added a couple of Zoom Bible studies. We were off and running.
We were not the flashiest church online, but we had something that people were looking for—community and interaction. I talk directly to the camera and elicit responses in the chat box. To my amazement, we saw results online that we never saw in the junior high theater. In the first few weeks, dozens of new people became regular attenders. We even had a young mother from New England rededicate her life to Christ. That was enough to convince me that online community is the future—specifically my future in ministry.
Fast-forward a few months and we made the ultimate decision. It was clear to our leadership, and my family, that online is where God was leading me. So we stepped away from our physical church, and stepped into a new vision. We started CHRCH Online (ChrchOnline.com) as a completely stand-alone ministry. God provided everything we needed to make the shift, including a structure though our nonprofit video production ministry. We lost very little in the process, and regularly see new people online each week who come from all over the world. Our old church is now moving forward as well.
So what have we learned about reaching people online? I can boil it down to a few specifics that anyone can apply:
- Become More Interactive
I’ve said from the beginning, “We’re on social media. Let’s become more social.” That begins with imagining the process differently. If we met physically, we would greet everyone who comes in the door. Digitally we start every livestream with “check in.” People are encouraged to tell us where they’re from and who they’re with. This is a great way get to know who’s watching, but this also builds that mindset of social interaction. We also encourage people to invite their fiends to join by tagging them in the chat.
To take community to the next level, we use Zoom. We have two Bible studies that are fully interactive. Zoom allows for that face-to-face time, and deepens the connections. It’s also completely portable. For example, we have a long-haul trucker in our community who is digitally present for almost every Zoom study. We can see the countryside flying by behind him. We’ve had people with us from work, from the bus, from home, on a hike in the mountains, and one man was in the waiting area of the DMV with earbuds on. Yes, he did participate in the discussion—talking about Jesus in the crowded DMV.
- View Online Attenders as a Real Community
From our very first livestream, I knew that community was the key. People had become isolated and they needed to feel connected. We have kept that community mindset by helping people connect with each other. On our Friday night Bible study, for example, we end with the “Prayer Exchange.” I encourage people to give us their prayer requests, and take someone else’s. We regularly see people comment, “I’m praying for this person.”
We also encourage our group to get involved with other projects, as you would in a traditional setting. We support a ministry that puts shoes on kids’ feet in third-world countries, so we did a sock drive with our online group. We had no idea if it would work. To our amazement, we received more than 700 pairs of kids’ socks in a six-week period. Some people gave money, others had socks sent to our PO Box, and some who know us well dropped socks off at our house. This has helped people think of our online group as a community involved in something bigger.
- Take the Church With You
My father passed away from liver cancer at the age of 92, just a few months ago, and we learned about portability. If I had been in a traditional setting, I might have taken a leave of absence and traveled to be with him. In our case, we took our online community with us 300 miles from home. My father lived in a retirement community, and they occasionally watched our livestreams. We were able to go live on Sunday from their courtyard with a dozen or so residents on hand.
As the cancer progressed, we stayed in a hotel and visited with him during the day. We continued most of the regularly scheduled events. I shared our real-life struggle. One of our regular attenders sent me an email and thanked me for allowing him to watch how I handled my father’s passing. His father doesn’t have too much time left. We are truly doing life together.
- Keep Innovating
We are constantly looking for new ways to connect with people and improve our stream. This means adding technical pieces as we have the budget. It also includes thinking about how to improve each element of the stream. For example, we start with a countdown leading to the top of the hour. My wife, who’s a great editor, thought this could be a great opportunity to create a digital “bulletin board.” She produces a countdown that includes slides with upcoming events and videos that are evangelistic or highlight the message.
We’re also building on some of the tools we already have. When we started our sock drive, for example, we talked to the director of the ministry we’re supporting on FaceTime live during our church livestream. He was in Alaska at the time. We’re planning to add more live callers in future streams. And since we discovered how to go live remotely, we’re planning to go live from some of our regulars’ homes. We are discovering how to get church to where people are.
The shutdowns put to rest the discussion of whether or not the church can reach people online. It is happening. However, some churches may still be debating what their approach should be, and whether it’s viable. I can assure you, we’ve found that online church is not for everyone, but it is for some. The technology has given us the ability to reach far beyond the church walls and, as in our case, create a community that has no walls and no boundaries. Our only limitation is our creativity.