Adaption Adoption – The Church’s COVID Response

Adaption Adoption – The Church’s COVID Response

The church has recently gone through the most significant adaptions in its history. The church’s rhythms have been fundamentally unchanged for way too long, and now, having made a ton of adaptions, what new behaviors ought we to keep?

The Cynical

In Western Church, we tweak the name of our lobby coffee shops, add and then remove fields to our connect cards, roll out new systems, rebrand our new members material, change our “info center” to “connect center” and if we have had a really good year, remodel our sanctuary. Despite these” changes” being made by many churches, only a few take the ground and grow in the way we all imagine we will when we make these “momentous” changes.

We have, for the most part, lost the kind of imagination and entrepreneurial approach on which the first century Church was built. The kind of approach that despite incredible difficulties, persecution and changing political backdrops moved the church from twelve to radical in just a few months. 

And then there was COVID. For the church and as an online pastor I initially celebrated. Finally leaders and church goers alike began to realize that they did not have to go to a church, to be the Church. There was an inkling of a radical change that we all began to call the “new normal”.  Leaders began thinking differently. There was a genuine desire to meet communities needs, reach people that were locked in at home and be the Church wherever COVID found us. But despite the first short period of this digital revolution unfolding in the church, there has been a recent lull in momentum. So I decided to visit a bunch of churches online and see what they had begun doing that they had not perhaps done before. I wanted to see results of this change in thinking? I was hunting for evidence of this radical shift. For the most part however, all that churches had begun doing was digitizing what they had always been doing. Pastor after pastor proudly introduced online streams to demonstrate that they were keeping up with the revolution induced by COVID. They stood back proudly and looked at online attendance becoming either acceptable or greater than what they had experienced before. Platforms, camera suppliers and streaming companies were smiling as the Church emerged onto the digital landscape.

And we all held our breath. Was this the radical shift that we had all been longing for? Was this the moment that the Divine Bride takes her place at the back of the chapel just before she would make her final walk down the aisle towards her Heavenly Husband?

Sadly it seems like the wedding has been postponed!

The revolution the church needed wasn’t only a COVID induced digital one. Perhaps that revolution was to become more nimble and far less stayed in our activities and approach.

The Practical

After the first few weeks of COVID, the church generally saw a flurry of creativity, community service, resolve to the teaching of the Gospel, and excitement of faith over fear.

When could churches meet again? Would this online growth be permanent and sustainable? Would this radical adoption and excitement to BE the church become our new normal? What would sanctuaries look like when we got back to normal? Wait – was the getting back to normal the new normal or the old normal?  Would we stay the course in using whatever channel possible to BE the church? Would there be digital fatigue? Would this adaption become permanently adopted or would the desire to return to “old mediocrity” become too great? 

Granted it is much easier to encourage giving, count attendance and fill our sanctuaries than to have to wrestle with views, reach, digital movements, platform releases and social media criticism. But how do we go back without going backwards? Surely a few cameras and a new streaming partner are not the only tools we need to embrace in this new COVID present world. 

I would suggest that the new normal we actually seek, is a rhythm where digital and sanctuary-based church coexist. 

COVID has taught us some bad habits. During lock-down, it was no sanctuary and all digital. Then some relaxation allowed people to decide digital OR sanctuary, and now with the ever-changing numbers, statistic spikes, and Governor-based requests, we see the church becoming schizophrenic. It either has to be digital OR sanctuary.  While it is in digital mode the real-world church is being harmed and while it is all happening in the sanctuary, the digital is seen as a second rate church experience. The “new normal” would see us synthesize the church into being platform-agnostic – simply being the Church wherever the Church can be!

As far a I knew, the Church was way more than just what happens in our sanctuaries and how we can stream those activities to our favorite platforms.

Some Observations 

For the most part:

  • Online attendance has begun to plateau or decline but sanctuary attendance is not returning as quickly.
  • Giving, at first, seemed to be holding or in some cases increasing, but now has begun falling off (up to 50%) of its former levels.
  • Giving is no longer proportional to sanctuary attendance. People gave even when they didn’t attend.
  • There are greater production demands when genuinely seeking cohesion between online and sanctuary that neither you nor your organization expected or are ready for. 
  • Previously, churches held back on certain digital strategies as there were those that lagged in digital usage. COVID has changed peoples perspective in the use of digital and online engagement. Relationship is possible on digital platforms.
  • At the moment of emergency, your church may have responded well digitally but you are now finding it difficult to establish new rhythms that can properly leverage your location/s and digital platforms.
  • You have stepped into an audience or geographic area that your sanctuary based activity could never have reached.
  • There are new members of your church that have never been in your sanctuary.
  • There are people that want to serve in your church that have never been in your sanctuary.
  • You underestimated the existence of skills in your church to navigate COVID.
  • If you were digitally equipped for COVID, you find yourself trying to figure out what to do next to ensure the best use of digital in your church
  • You have begun to realize that there is more to being the church digitally than simply streaming what happens in your sanctuary.
  • There are many elements of your church and its heart that have yet to be digitally exposed. Specific activities and events have been digitized as opposed to the heart of your church.

Some Suggestions

  • Break your vision/mission down into a simple and focussed list of activities and events that genuinely represent who you are. Draw a line down a page and create a digital and sanctuary column. Write down a digital response and a sanctuary response to each activity. Then write down how you will link the two.

Here is an example:

Core value/activity: We love to connect with people who visit us. Digital response: Simple easy to use online form.
Sanctuary response: Simple easy to use connect card (AND PEN)
Link: Train those doing announcements to offer connect experiences that create engagement on all platforms. Have the form responses and sanctuary based connect cards go through the same data entry and response workflows.
  • Be nimble in your strategies. Your sanctuary horizon is as unsettled as the digital platforms that you have added to your church.
  • Create clear workflows that can capture the digital and social media information as effectively as you have always done (?) for traditional connect cards. Your church database is going to become your new sanctuary. Your church is now a collection of people who fellowship on a broad range of platforms and not just in your sanctuary. As a result, your database needs to be able to work with these platforms either manually or automatically (APIs). You will need to see reports, stories, and testimonies from all platforms to help you replace the sanctuary only picture with one that demonstrates who your congregation is now.
  • Consider how you will conduct seemingly sanctuary only activities across all your platforms. Communion, baptism, child dedication, etc need to continue. The congregation is also going to continue having major life moments. Online funerals, distance, and online weddings attendance, etc. are going to become normal.
  • You can use Calendly and Zoom in a very effective way for people to book and have meaningful pastoral time with you and your staff. Prepare for this by simulating an online counseling and pastoral visit with your team.
  • Never before has it been this easy to extract feedback from your congregation. Use this time to solicit as meaningful information that can keep you informed as to what elements of the church the people need to have digitally activated for them to feel like they are still being led and guided by the church. Prioritize these needs and start planning how to deliver them. Is there a need for Kids Church Online? What channels should we use to reach the youth? Is worship online working? Remember these are strategies that are not a knee jerk reaction to COVID but a mechanism of being your church on any platform equally.
  • Digital Discipleship is a theme and a process you will need to consider. How do you move people through their next steps, train them to serve, or mature them spiritually on any platform?
  • Engagement is everything! All audiences must feel that they can respond and have a voice. Everything must have a call to action! No audience should feel left out or second-rate to another platform or environment. Chat rooms and messenger services need to have trained moderators that have been equipped to help engagement, provide resources, and encourage engagement not just viewership. 
  • Watch your language. “Even though we all can’t meet together today… “ – demonstrates that you may not have accepted that even though you have digitized those joining you digitally are not really the real thing or are genuinely engaged.
  • The new horizon is a changing one. It changes with every new feature-release on digital platforms. You need to be attentive to new social media platforms or features and how your organization can leverage these new features quickly and effectively.
  • Tell stories of those meeting in the sanctuary and those meeting online. Share digital testimonies with your team and staff. It gives the camera a face and a story. Every handle has a person behind it. The more stories you can tell the more your organization will settle into being the church on any platform. You may even find that this changes communication styles and make the clinical feel of digital broadcast more personal.
  • Use live broadcasts to answer questions, prayer and speak to individuals by name. Be willing to speak to the camera but also moderate comments and chat rooms live.

As leaders we are charged to lead with diligence (Romans 12:8). 

Keeping attentive to the needs of the people we shepherd is an element of that diligence. We can not simply do the same thing over and over again. COVID has not necessarily changed church but it has awakened some of the most core values that we should be using to lead the church. Relevance is the most important tool we have to leverage influence for Jesus. With an ever changing vista, our approach to being relevant will need to be just as nimble!

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