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Growing your church without walls

Child at laptop engaging with church without walls.

Ten months ago, each church in The Michigan Conference seemed to change overnight. Dirk Elliott, Director of Congregational Vibrancy, shares best practices for continuing multi-site ministry once COVID restrictions lift.


DIRK ELLIOTT

Director of Congregational Vibrancy

Ten months ago, beginning with the governor’s “Stay-at-Home” order, most churches in the Michigan Conference became multi-site campuses. Churches moved from Sunday morning, face-to-face, or in-person worship to hosting services virtually, either using Facebook, You-Tube, Zoom, or another digital platform. For many churches, worship seemed to change overnight.

Since March 2020, churches have alternated between worship on-line only to a mixture of on-line and in-person worship. A few churches already had on-line services, but most did not. Most churches have learned and applied new technology, purchased equipment, opened a YouTube channel, and trained a host of people to provide quality worship experience in an entirely new way.  Almost all churches report that attendance at in-person worship services is a fraction of what it was before. Nevertheless, churches, pastors, and worship teams have risen to the challenge of a steep learning curve. 

After navigating technology and establishing new virtual campuses for worship as well as for small groups, meetings, and fellowship, what are some best practices as churches move forward? 

  1. Don’t stop on-line worship and small groups when COVID restrictions are lifted. Some people may have discovered they prefer at-home worship rather than in-person and will continue to worship on-line, even after people finally feel safe being in larger crowds. Churches should not consider the on-line option as a stopgap until the pandemic is over and everyone comes back to church to worship. That is very unlikely to happen. Consider your on-line worship here to stay. 
  2. Transition to an ongoing multi-campus ministry. View on-line worship and small groups as another campus, as multiple congregations, including an in-person congregation and an on-line congregation. Continue to provide ways people in both congregations can connect to the church and grow in discipleship and service. See this helpful blog: Learn How Your Church Can Worship Both Online and In-Person in Innovative Ways.
  3. Find ways to develop relationships with your on-line campus. On-line worship can provide worship, gathering, and education, but what about the relational aspect of a worshipping community? Relationships are an important part of spiritual life. Many churches have initiated a “house church” model. The “house church” provides an opportunity to build relationships.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

    Wikipedia defines a house church as: “a label used to describe a group of Christians who regularly gather for worship in private homes. The group may be part of a larger Christian body, such as a parish, but some have been independent groups that see the house church as the primary form of Christian community.”                                                                                                     

    One church I am familiar with hosts seven “house churches,” with one meeting remotely in India. One young member moved away from home to college this past September. She worshipped with the online campus the first week she was away, then thought of the “house church” option. By the next Sunday, she gathered with eight other students and worshipped with the online service. Afterward, they discussed the questions about the message provided by the pastor and followed their discussion with prayer. For more information on House Churches, read the blog by Ed Stetzer or contact Fresh Expressions US.                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

    Relational connections with the online congregation might be more difficult, but that connection is crucial for people to remain active in worship and grow in faith and service. The church planting organization ABWE posted a blog discussing ways that churches can create multiple touchpoints.                                                                                                                                                 

    The Indiana Conference UMC published an article titled, Tips for Discipleship and Social Distancing.

  1. Follow-up on first-time and repeat guests. Many churches use a digital connection card. Develop a connection card, and every week invite your online congregation to complete the card. Here is a sample from Valley UMC in Allendale and First UMC, Northville.                                                                                                                                                                                         

    Monitor attendance of your online congregation. Just as you might notice when someone misses your in-person worship, take the time to notice who is missing your online worship. Check the connection cards, as well as Facebook or YouTube likes.

  1. Quality counts, even more virtually than in-person. If the only camera is in the back of the sanctuary, making the pastor or other worship leaders look very small, find a way to install another camera closer to the front. Check the sound to avoid muffled speech and determine the correct volume. Make sure there is adequate lighting to provide clear viewing. These are relatively inexpensive investments but will provide a much better experience for the online congregation. Watch these two videos about on-line worship, the first by Jason Moore, titled Telling the Old Story in a New Time, and Ready to Launch (R2L), by Cathy Townley.
  2. Make the on-line campus worship service shorter. Studies show that a 45-50 minute worship service is ideal. It works best if you do not simply record your in-person service. Tailor your service to a greater audience. Jason Moore, a leading voice in equipping the church for creative worship, writes, “Consider that some visitors won’t be familiar with United Methodism or Christianity. Explain the parts of worship as you go, and assume not everyone knows words like doxology, prelude, and sacrament.”                                                                                       

    Moore also urges churches to adapt. “Find ways to make the service more interactive and participatory. For example, the pastor or worship leader can respond out loud in real-time to comments in the live chat. Or people can text their prayer requests, and the pastor can pray for those requests right away. You have the opportunity to make people feel even more cared for and heard during the live stream service than when meeting in-person.”

  1. Offer on-line Bible studies and small group experiences to draw the on-line congregation into the life of your church. A significant part of our spiritual growth comes through a clearly thought-out discipleship process. Determine ways your church includes options for discipleship growth or training for the on-line congregation.

The United Methodist Church, through the Discipleship Ministries, offers some small group resources, as well as help with developing a discipleship system. 

  1. Treat your on-line campus with as much intentionality as you treat your in-person campus. The on-line campus is not an afterthought. In preparing for worship, think through the entire service to determine what parts need to be communicated differently. Pastors and worship leaders should regularly watch their posted worship services. Watch with an eye to how parts of worship actually translate to this new campus and ask for feedback. 

Most people are disappointed that we are not able, or do not feel comfortable, to continue worshipping in-person. However, providing the online opportunity helps your church reach out to more people than you otherwise would be able to reach. 

Chris, a pastor I know, said he was shopping at the local grocery store, and a man came up to him and said, “You are my new pastor. I’ve been worshipping at your church on-line for the past eight weeks. I saw it on Facebook once, watched it, and now attend every week.”

Develop a strong campus, a campus without walls, to reach more people with the love of God through Jesus Christ. On-line ministry is one more way to reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people.