With the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve had to contend with a new normal. Phrases like ‘social distancing’ and ‘contact tracing’ weren’t familiar terms until a few weeks ago. Large gatherings aren’t safe anymore, so we’re all turning to online forms of meetings and communication. This, of course, includes weekly church services. With state governors ordering people to shelter in place, church leaders were left scrambling in recent weeks. Out of nowhere, they were required to ramp up or start from scratch with online streaming services and more.
Hopefully, the need to stay home will come to an end in the coming weeks. As that occurs, will church leaders carry forward any of the practices developed during this time of social distancing?
It certainly seems that practices such as online giving and lessons learned from various online communication methods could work far into the future.
The COVID-19 crisis is causing churches to rapidly adopt digital engagement tools,” said Bob Pritchett, founder and CEO of Faithlife. “Online giving, live streaming, digital curriculum, and online community are being embraced by churches of every size. Once the crisis is over, and we’re able to meet again in person, these tools will still be in place, and churches will be able to use them to stay better-engaged with their congregation every day of the week, and not just when meeting.”
To explore the idea of what might continue beyond social distancing, let’s consider what technology churches are starting to use given these unusual circumstances that many hadn’t adopted beforehand:
#1 – Online Giving
With churches not able to pass the offering plate during a Sunday service, church leaders are putting a renewed emphasis on the ability to give online. Churches who didn’t already have online giving as an option quickly looked to make that available for their congregations. David Rogers of Ministry Brands commented that they’d seen an 840% growth in the number of online givers over the same Sunday from last year.
Once a church implements online giving, they’re not likely to take that off the table even after they’re able to meet in person again. Online giving is convenient for the giver, and it can create cash flow stability for churches through recurring giving.
#2 – Streaming Services
Streaming church services isn’t a new concept. The technology has been readily available for years, and many churches consider “online” to be another campus for their ministry. However, streaming services wasn’t absolutely necessary before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. Churches who didn’t already have streaming in place had to scramble to get the technology up and running. While many streaming vendors have provided free assistance, church leaders continue to face challenges with streaming services. According to the “How Church Leaders Are Responding to the Challenges of COVID-19” survey, the two biggest obstacles cited by churches under 100 were “technology” and “convening people to join for the live stream.”
Beyond the technical difficulties in establishing a streaming service and teaching a congregation how to use it, there are also ministry challenges involved. In the same survey, 59% of respondents said they could use help with “how to create engaging online conversations and gatherings.” The experience of an online service is different from an in-person service. The same format, service order, and message delivery approach may not work in both settings. In addition, David Rogers of Ministry Brands mentioned that churches may need to have staff and volunteers serve as online moderators, receive prayer requests, and host these online services.
Once in-person gatherings are safe again, streaming may reduce somewhat. However, there are advantages to continuing streaming Sunday services. Feedback David Rogers has received is that many church leaders find they like the two-way engagement that comes with streaming services. Pastors often receive questions, prayer requests, and comments from their online congregation. That feedback can help pastors adjust their messages to anticipate potential questions.
#3 – Communication
As the country began to see more COVID-19 cases, companies began flooding our email inboxes with messages of how they were responding. Churches have also sought to communicate changes in services, provide information on how to request assistance, and what the church is doing to respond to community needs. If the default has been to send mass emails with all these announcements, church leaders may be inadvertently overwhelming their recipients.
Sending a mass email to the entire congregation about special Facebook Live videos your children’s ministry team will host throughout the week is too broad of a communication method. Sending that information out via text message to those in the church database who have children or to those who’ve checked-in kids sometime within the last twelve months might be more effective. Some churches are combining ChMS technology with “old-school” phone trees by pulling lists of senior citizens and assigning staff members to call and check on them. As announcements from the stage or a traditional bulletin aren’t viable options right now, churches will need to leverage a variety of communication tools during this time. This may lead to lessons learned in which methods work best for various audiences within a congregation that will extend beyond the pandemic.
#4 – Online Discipleship
When we think of discipleship, we tend to picture small groups, discipleship classes, or even Q&A sessions with pastors. All of these are typically conducted in-person, so trying to translate these into an online format is another challenge. However, churches are starting to leverage technology such as Zoom or Skype for online sessions. Once we’re able to stop social distancing, we might still see churches use online tools to help people participate in small groups or other sessions. Work schedules or a lack of available childcare can easily derail even the most dedicated church member from attending a discipleship class. However, if online is an option, they could still participate and even interact via video chat.
If you’re using social media, messaging apps, or video chat for children’s ministry, you may need to ramp up your volunteer screening practices. Most churches perform criminal background checks on those seeking to volunteer in children’s or youth ministry. However, David Rogers pointed out that social media screening of potential volunteers might be necessary moving forward.
We’re all making somewhat educated guesses on the long-term impacts of this situation. For now, pastors are focused on leading their churches through the pandemic and serving their communities. As we begin to emerge from our homes and back into church buildings, hopefully, we’ll carry forward any tools and lessons learned into our new “new normal.”
Articles on how churches will change after COVID-19 from around the web:
The Church After the Coronavirus, Church Leaders
Will Covid-19 Lead To A Long-term Shift In Church Attendance?, Christianity Today