For the last few days there's been an interesting infograph being shared online that gives a snapshot of some research done by the folks at Barna. It's eye opening. While we've been under the COVID restrictions, most churches have worked hard to preserve some sense of normalcy with digital services and Bible studies. A lot of those churches, without notice or preparation, have made the most of this crisis by creatively engaging their congregation and community through video-based services.
But when it started, I don't think any of us had any idea how long it would last. I know for us we spent time talking about this on a week-to-week basis. We had no idea it would be 84 days between in-person gatherings, or that for Easter we'd be staring at stage lights pre-recording a service instead of shouting "Jesus is alive!" in person. Once we got past the initial learning curve of shifting from a service mindset to a broadcast mindset, we grinded our way through week after week, hour after hour of editing and uploading.
Until we all got fatigued about it. At the core, that's the heart of the Barna snapshot. We've all hit digital fatigue. Even for us as pastors and leaders, I think I can speak for all of us where I say "I'm tired of this." It's exhausting. It's even harder to preach in an empty room than a crowded arena. And as we've observed from our YouTube channel, the views each week have been on a decline since Easter.
Why? We're over it.
Barna's work has shown that for many Christians, there's a fatigue to watching services online. And for good reason. We weren't meant or made to worship and engage apart from one another. We were made for fellowship, for corporate worship, for taking the Lord's Supper together, and we are missing something when we don't have that.
Whether your church has already resumed in-person, is planning to soon, or isn't sure when that will happen, you'll still have people who aren't able to attend those services and will need to continue to fight through the digital fatigue. However you respond, make sure you pastorally help those on the other side of a screen engage so they can fight through the digital fatigue.
1) Take time to acknowledge, speak to, and recognize the digital audience. Whether it's in the announcements or during the message, look at the camera and talk directly to that person on the other side of the screen. Engage them. Love them. Tell them they're missed.
2) Encourage in-service engagement through comments and discussion. All our streaming capabilities have the ability to post, reply to, and engage with comments. So put those out. Share polls. Ask people to give specific feedback. Let them do more than passively watch. Help them actively engage.
3) Mix up the format of your service. We like to say we're not liturgical in the low-church movement, but good luck getting the offering moved out of its normal place! Changing up your worship service format and order is a good thing to do regularly. Don't just plug and play the same thing every week in your digital services.
4) Stay positive. It can be really easy to be sour during this season. But as leaders, we have to be lead optimists. We have to stay positive, communicate hope, and push back against the sadness that so many are experiencing. It's not denying those hard times, it's overshadowing their tears with the risen Christ and the hope we have in Him.
5) Make it count in-person. Don't just resume in-person gatherings and pretend nothing happened. Make it count. Celebrate. Sing. Clap. Share testimonies. Tell stories of how God worked. Preach the Gospel powerfully. Even if your auditorium is a third full, blow the roof off the place.
If you're tired of hearing "unprecedented times," "out of an abundance of caution," "new normal" or any of the other buzz phrases thrown out during COVID-19, join the club. We're all ready to reenter what we can as soon as we can. Pastors, you feel this a lot. You want to be back in church. Your church wants to be back together. Your email or text messages might be filling up with suggestions, ideas, or pressures. Compound that with the reality that the playbook for the reentry is being written as we're reentering, and it's a really hard time to be making decisions that affect dozens, if not hundreds, of people.
Sound like your Monday too?
Leading pastorally through a global pandemic is something that absolutely none of us were prepared for. Unfortunately, leading out of a global pandemic is something none of us are prepared for. We're used to people disagreeing with us or offering criticism, that's part of the territory. But when it's in the middle of something we've never experienced, it can feel like an added weight or a heavier burden to have people impatient about returning to regular scheduling.
Since we're learning this on the fly, here's what I've learned in the last couple months:
1. Don't make decisions in a vacuum - Making decisions like this shouldn't rest entirely on your shoulders. Bring in stakeholders, lay leaders, staff, and if you have one a leadership team into the decision making process. They will bring a different perspective than you have, and if it's a volunteer team they don't have the vocational pressure you do.
2. Make sure we is heard instead of me - Along with the first point, this is huge in helping explain to people the decisions made and the process taken. We is plural. We isn't a vacuum. We is a group. We are stakeholders. Me is you alone. Leadership in the church as a pastor happens only when our trust reserves are built up. By making sure we is what people are hearing you're leaning on the trust reserves of others instead of your own.
3. Be prayerfully patient - There's something in the tyranny of the urgent that causes us to react. The squeaky wheel gets the oil. The badgering person gets placated so they leave you alone. The impatient people give us a fire under our seat. But if we're going to work through this, we must be prayerfully patient as we seek out the best for our congregations. We cannot embark on this without significant prayer as we look for wisdom to move. My friend Sam Rainer has a great post on pastoral prayer during this season.
4. Stay positive - It's been a hard season. Some churches have suffered financially. Some pastors have been affected deeply by the crisis. Churches have had to endure grief and hardship without the reassurance of fellowship. But negativity in how we communicate and how we approach the reentry will only serve to spark the toxicity and impatience. Stay positive. Things will get better. We have a sure hope, not a wish, that Jesus will finish what He started.
5. Be kind - Kindness never ages. And for most people, their impatience isn't because they want to be a pain, they just want to have some normalcy in their lives. We can't blow that genuine desire off as troublemaking or divisive. Be kind. People are hurting. Kindness helps them, and us, see that we can still find measures of joy even when things are upside down. In our kindness, and even through our annoyance, affirm the desire of the impatient that they desire to be back with church family.
6. Stay the course flexibly - It's hard when we don't know what the next week, much less the next day, holds as we look to reenter normalcy. That's why it's crucial when you're making the decisions with key leaders that you commit to stay the course, as much as you can. We've adopted the words used by Florida's governor: safe and smart. Those are the two words we're keeping in mind as we make decisions. Another church in our area is using "do the next right thing" to make their decisions. However you do it, stay the course. But be flexible enough that you can adapt to the latest news and guidance from the government and CDC.
How are you doing with your church's reentry plans pastor? How can I pray for you?
Around much of the country, churches are beginning (or have already finished) making their plans for what their reentry to in-person gatherings will look like. As we see restrictions lifted and the encouragement to return to a socially distant sense of "normal" it's worth our time as pastors and ministry leaders to look at the reentry as more than a restart.
At Emmanuel, our target date for reentry is June 7. It's a bit later than what Florida has allowed, and we chose to delay our reentry so we could make sure we have enough supplies, protective equipment, and are able to set ourselves up for what worship will look like in the reentry phase. That means converting our Fellowship Hall into overflow seating, removing Bibles, hymnals, and other things from the pew racks, doing a thorough cleaning, and stocking up on supplies (do you have any idea how hard it is to find things!).
Throughout this quarantine season, my refrain to our church has been "When we get back together in-person, we're blowing the roof off the place." I still want to see that. We're not sure what kind of crowd we'll have on the 7th, but we're going to be loud. We're going to sing, we're going to clap, we're going to cheer, we're going to scream "Amen!" It's going to be a time of joy, of fellowship restored, and of a hope reminded. For us, it will have been 84 days since we last gathered.
Pastors, don't just treat your first Sunday back like it's another normal Sunday. Your church has been through a difficult season. People have been discouraged, many have been personally affected by COVID-19, some may not be back to work yet, and all of us have come through this profoundly changed. It's not just another Sunday. Every Sunday is a refreshing of the good news of the Resurrection, but some Sundays are different. This will be one of them.
Take time to celebrate. It's a good thing to cheer for what God has done. In every tragedy, there are always reminders of grace and goodness. Find those. Celebrate them. Recognize and share the good things that have come over these last weeks.
Take time to pray. We know when we reenter in-person worship, we won't have everyone there. There will be a number of our folks, including some key leaders, who won't feel comfortable being in a public space like that yet. We know names and faces of people in our communities who have been affected by this crisis, whether it be their health or employment or family hardship. We know thousands will be grieving. We know that we aren't out of the woods yet. So take time to pray on that first Sunday.
Recalibrate around a healthy doctrine of the church. The church only exists when it is assembled. That means we are made for fellowship and togetherness with one another. We cannot function, much less exist, without being together. Seasons may preclude us from meeting, whether it be a global pandemic or you wake up with a sick kid on a Sunday morning, but our natural and general desire should be to gather together on a weekly basis.
Refocus on what the mission is. One of the blessings of this season has been that it has shown us what is and isn't important in our worship lives. Our mission is the Great Commission through the Greatest Commandment. We don't exist for the secondary stuff. That's what was taken from us during COVID. We lost the fellowship dinners and small groups and weekly events. But what wasn't lost was our task to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth as we love God and love Neighbor. That's why we're here. For Emmanuel, God put us at 8305 US Hwy 301 so we'd be a witness to our community.
Love the church. Even though we're not going to be able to interact like we normally could, we still have to look at that first Sunday back as a way to renew our love for the church. As hard as it is, we cannot resume shaking hands, hugs, or taking the hand of a widow to tell her you've missed her. That shouldn't stop us from loving one another. We've spent time praying for/with one another, we've met needs by providing food and resources, and we've shared grief and joy over the phone and Zoom.
Having everyone's worship services broadcast across the web and through social media is certainly a double edged sword. It's awesome because we get to participate in other churches' experiences. For us it's been good because we can hear from friends of ours and especially my in-laws. The multiplicity of services, messages, and songs are truly a glimpse of glory. But with that comes the inevitable: someone is going to do or say something that doesn't jive with us.
It's an unfortunate but apparent reality that Christian Twitter hasn't lost its outrage edge. Whether it's churches hosting drive in services, at-home Communion, drive-by baptisms, or deciding to not even have anything broadcast until the local church re-gathers, there's no shortage of opinions and hot fire takes.
I'm not saying the way we do church doesn't matter. It does. Our doctrine of the church informs our worship, our fellowship, our practices, our values, our expectations, and our gathered hope. Our doctrine of the church gives us distinct denominational identities shaped and formed by our biblical convictions over secondary matters. Those aren't unimportant. They're part of who we are. But they're not primary issues.
Take your neighborhood, or more particularly your neighbor's house and compare it to your house. Tertiary matters are the interior design. We decorate our homes how we want and how we like it, and it's for those within. Secondary issues are the exterior and landscaping. Sure it's obnoxious to have an eyesore next door, but it's not your house. Primary issues are those that pose a risk to you, your house, or the neighborhood.
What does this have to do with churches doing drive by offerings? A lot. When we criticize, poke at, or otherwise lambast churches whose practices on secondary issues are different than ours, we're like the neighbor who comes over and tells us he doesn't like the color we chose for our shutters or how we've trimmed the hedges.
I think we have to ask ourselves four questions that probe less at the action and more at the heart. The heart of the person/church doing, but more so our own hearts.
1) What are they attempting to do with this? - A lot of these actions are done out of a genuine and sincere desire to maintain some sense of normalcy during an unprecedented trial. They're not trying to act crazy (for the most part), and they're not trying to unseat the meaning of Hebrews 10:24-25. They're trying to live faithfully and obediently according to their conscience and conviction. It may not be what you would do, but it's what they have determined they can do.
2) Is it worth interjecting myself? - Normally my answer to this is a solid no. It's not. In most cases, interjecting yourself into someone else's business means you're meddling. With that said, relational proximity does have a certain margin in this. If you put a lawn decoration in your yard that would make Clark Griswold jealous, and your neighbor who you barely know says something to you, you'll respond differently than if it's the neighbor you have over every Sunday to watch Red Zone. Relational proximity matters. If it's a big enough deal (and there may be times it is), and you've got enough relational proximity, you might be able to ask questions. If not, don't tweet.
3) Am I being humble and gracious? - This was the point Jesus was getting at in Matthew 7. It wasn't that we should never make judgments, but that we do so with balanced scales and a mirror. The balanced scales to be fair, and the mirror so we can look into ourselves. Humility is a virtue missing from most of our social media interaction, even among Christians. Graciousness is its partner. Where you have one, you typically have the other. When we're hot taking churches who do things different than us, are we being humble and gracious?
4) What's the harm? - All of these questions are interconnected. If we give benefit of the doubt to those who practice differently than us, we also have to think about the harm the practice is doing (or more than likely not doing). For example, one prominent church (Capitol Hill Baptist in DC) has decided not to do broadcasted worship services but to show previously recorded sermons. Not how we're doing it, but no harm. They've been extremely kind in how they've taken their position. We saw a drive-by baptism done the other day pop up on our Facebook thread. Again, not how I'd do it, but there's no harm in publicly recognizing the work of Christ in someone's life. Or the at-home Communion services, whether a recipe is provided or people partake using whatever they have at home. Again, not how I'd do it. But there's no harm being done, and the fabric of the Church isn't unraveled (unless you're a transubstantiationist, but that's another story).
No two churches are going to do things the same way. That's true in normal circumstances, but it's magnified in a global crisis like this. We're welcome to disagree with what we see. That's ok. Your way and my way don't have to be the same. But I'd hope at the very least we'd begin to ask these four questions before we start firing off hot takes.
In a text exchange with a friend and former colleague in ministry, we talked about the encouragement we've found in our churches and how they've responded to the COVID-19 crisis. We also agreed that it's "exhausting to completely overhaul and rewrite everything you're doing." It's true. Nothing we're doing now is normal, or fun. I enjoy watching services on TV in my pajamas, but it's not the gathered church. I've enjoyed sitting on the couch with Carrie and the kids while we sing, but it's not the same as hearing our church praise. I've enjoyed finishing the message by Wednesday, but its' nothing like the moment of expectation while our children's minister finishes the prayer while I'm walking up to the podium.
All of us in ministry could write a list like this. We've learned a lot about who we are, what we're capable of, and what kind of stock our churches are made of. EBC, here's what I've learned about you!
1) You're a resilient bunch - Seriously guys, you're tougher than you think. You've embraced the challenge of trying to figure out how we're going to get through this, and you're digging in your heels to make sure we're doing this as best we can. You've survived countless struggles, economic recessions, trials, even for some a World War. But we've never seen a global pandemic. And your mettle is showing!
2) You're more adaptable than you think - Churches have been forced to do something many haven't in a long time, change. Change is hard. It breaks up the routine and rhythm that we've become accustomed to. And it pushes us, as Queen Elsa says, into the unknown. But you've handled this one well, and you've shown you're more adept at change and more flexible than you thought! Sunday School classes are using Zoom, our prayer meetings have gone virtual and you did the work to set up a Zoom so we can virtually gather together, you've used online giving, you've gotten prayer emails, and you've adjusted to a normal where our lives are interrupted.
3) You're more loving - Absence really does make the heart grow fonder. It's not just romantic, it's koinonia! Because we've been apart for so long (today is our 5th Sunday meeting virtual), we've realized how much we genuinely love one another and long for the fellowship that's been missing since we're not in the same physical place. You're checking in on people. You're praying. You're helping your neighbors. You're sending encouragement. And you're itching to get back to 8305 US Highway 301 North.
4) You're being made more like Christ - We haven't had our physical gatherings. We haven't had fellowship meals or activities or events. We aren't doing programming like we did before. What's been stripped away has shown us what matters most of all: Jesus. And when our eyes are fixed on Him, we're made more like Him. Whatever is chiseled or stripped away from us is the stuff that doesn't matter. We are made for community, and we are made to fellowship embodied. That's why we look forward to getting back together. But this season has shown us that it is by the Word we are made more like Jesus.
5) You've kept your joy - Whether it's picking on me for a wardrobe change during a service (I forgot to wear the same shirt for the two days of filming that week), stopping by to drop off stuff at the office and doing the six foot distance hug, getting annoyed when Zoom puts the picture right up your nose, or you talk about the sweetness of Christian fellowship, COVID-19 hasn't robbed you of your joy. Sure it's annoying. Sure it's frustrating. We're all there. Yes the service feed drops every now and then. But you've kept your joy in the midst of crisis.
Hang in there guys. We'll get through this together. #TeamEBC
I don't want things to go back to normal when the COVID-19 crisis passes us. Don't get me wrong, I need a haircut, I'm dying to get back to our regular routine, I've missed our church family, and Louisville is preseason Top 25 in football. There's a lot that we want to see again. And a lot of people we want to see again. But I don't want things back to normal.
Here's why. We've seen sparks of wonder during this crisis, and I fear that normalcy means the end of the wonder.
Stop and think about it. Companies are putting aside profits to take care of their employees. Factories are giving away product for a medical crisis. Opposite sides of the political debate are working on solutions. We're seeing a flourish of creativity in how people are meeting basic needs. The internet has become a happier place with a strong meme game. Our families are spending more time together, we're unplugging from the rat race, and we're recapturing what's most important. In my SBC tribe, we're not talking about CRT-I, we're talking about prayer and Gospel.
Do I want to see shops open and businesses thriving and churches filled again? Absolutely. Goodness yes. That's why I'm willing to endure the agony of distancing for a time. So we can hurry that back.
But as for normal, I'll pass.
I'll pass on a church culture that values preferences over mission. In this crisis, none of us are thrilled with what's happening. But we're pushing through. We're going through with a measure of joy as we videotape services in segments, as we sit in our living rooms and watch, and on the other side of the camera pastors are forcing smiles and eye direction to a camera instead of real faces. But we're on the same mission. We're all on the same page. I don't want to go back to the church culture of complaining over music style or pew color or Bible translation or whatever petty foolishness that doesn't matter we find ourselves arguing over.
I'll pass on lazy pastors and ministry leaders who skate by. Crisis has a way of separating cream from milk. Cream rises to the top. This crisis has pushed ministry leaders and pastors. It's made us uncomfortable. And it's exposed a problem I think far too common in churches: laziness. You can't be lazy and lead people through a crisis. You have to be willing to work hard, grind, and put in time.
I'll pass on joylessness. I was almost brought to tears a couple weeks ago by a Zoom meeting where I watched people join in, enter the "room," and light up when they saw familiar faces. They saw people they hadn't in weeks. And there was raw joy in that. I don't want to go back to normal where our church gatherings feel like funerals and dirges. I want to remember the joy that comes from authentic fellowship. I don't want to go back to the normal of joyless meetings, joyless classes, joyless services, and joyless activities.
I'll pass on fear of change. In this crisis, we've had nothing but change. Even before the CDC's recommendations shuttered the majority of churches nationwide, we were seeing the trajectory change on a 24/48 hour basis. What we knew as "accepted" was subject to changing as the situation evolved. Churches, for good or bad, have long been a bastion of steadfastness, an anchor to change. Seriously, step in some. It's like a time machine, except it's no DeLorean. You'll be taken back to the 1980s, 70s, or earlier. I don't want to go back to normal where change is something to be afraid of, or the answer to innovation is "we've never done it that way before." I want to keep this going, where innovation and ideas are churning out new ways to accomplish an ancient mission. Let's not lose this.
For pastors, much of our time is spent around people. While we have a priority on our preparation, study, and research for our preaching/teaching, we operate mostly around people. Well... that's not so easy anymore. Hospitals are closed to visitors, even family. Nursing homes don't allow you to stop in anymore. Most people don't want home visits. We're not able to have Bible studies or gatherings like we're used to.
So what do we do with our extra time? It's easy to fall in to the trappings of the moment and find yourself surfing the web, scouring Facebook for the latest articles or news, pounding the last of the snack reserves, fighting the crowds to get the last roll of toilet paper, or wasting your time. The alternative is to capitalize on this season and make the most of your time (Ephesians 5:15) for your personal and professional development.
1. Read More - You know that stack of books on your shelf that you stare at and then walk away from? Now is the time to start working through it! My encouragement is to read widely. Don't just read theology. Grab a biography, and interesting non-fiction, look at the NY Times bestseller list, see what's available on Kindle Unlimited. There's no NCAA Tournament, no NBA games, and no MLB. You can only binge watch Tiger King so long guys. And as a personal plug, my book on preaching and my book on pace in ministry are available for free on Kindle right now!
2. Exercise! - True story. You can grab so many web-based workouts and do-it-at-home options without having to use "well, the gym is closed" as an excuse. I know it's been easy to eat all your snack reserves, but take some of the extra time you have to go for a walk, do an online workout, or tackle that DIY project that's sure to get your heart rate, and blood pressure, up.
3. Worship - For so many of us in leadership, worship is something we take for granted. We take it for granted because it's a built in rhythm to our lives, and we take it for granted because when we have the responsibility of leadership we so many times fail to care for our own souls. Again, with the overload of churches broadcasting their services, Bible studies, and the YouTube library, there are no shortages of ways to worship and feed your soul. I've gotten fed digitally by friends and colleagues in ministry who I wouldn't otherwise.
1. Free Classes - It's easy to think of learning as something we did when we were in seminary or Bible college, but this provides us an incredible opportunity to sharpen our skills and grow in our learning. Best of all, many places are already offering these! Southeastern Seminary has a large selection of online classes you can take for free. Other options include Dallas Seminary, Denver Seminary, Gospel Coalition, RTS, and Zondervan.
2. Webinars - There are a number of great webinars that are available to help us grow significantly in our ministry, especially during the COVID-19 crisis. Your email box is likely full of them. I'm typing this while I'm listening to one from Church Answers, I've got another in the queue from Barna, and another scheduled for Friday.
3. Network - You know the feeling you've got as a pastor where you don't know what you're supposed to do? Guess what, you're not alone. Before the CDC's recommendations hit hard enough that churches across the country shut down physical operations, I spent time at a pastor's roundtable. None of us could remember the "Global Pandemic" class in seminary, so we were working through some issues together. Grab your phone and call/text some other pastors and ministry leaders. Be an encouragement. Be a prayer partner. Pick their brain of how they're doing ministry now.
This past week has been a whirlwind for all of us. One of the redeeming qualities of a global pandemic is it disrupts our normal routines. For me, it's disrupted the routine of "I don't have time to read that right now." So last week I cranked out four books that had been sitting in the pile to read.
Since I'm a big believer in the idea that "leaders are readers" I want to pass on each of these four books as a commended resource for you. They're helpful. Challenging. Engaging. And I think you'll be blessed by each of them in unique ways.
For me, each of these books was one that I read to enjoy, not to mine for every nugget of content or salient point. I did that for over 12 years of postsecondary education. I like reading and enjoying/appreciating what's written. So these reviews will be more surface or skimmed.
Devoted by Tim Challies is a walk through the lives of some of the most prominent Christian figures in both recent and far off history. But the lens by which their lives are explored is unique in that it looks through their mother's influence. For moms, life can be an unending cycle of laundry and tasks and work and responsibility before putting kids to bed and starting all over the next morning. In the lives of each of these people many would call "heroes" stand (or kneel) women whose impact is being felt across continents and generations. Mom, take heart. God is working in your exhaustion, stress, and worry. And the imprints of Christ you leave on your children will be felt for generations.
Why Should I Trust The Bible by Timothy Jones is an attempt at exploring the case for the Bible through an evidentiary approach. Jones, an accomplished apologist, pastor, professor, writer, and my wife's PhD supervisor, does an incredible job of working through the issues behind the reliability of the Bible and how it is shaped by contemporary debate. What I appreciated most from Jones' work was that he didn't try to skip or end around the difficult passages and parts of the Bible, but recognizes that if we're completely comfortable then we're not reading deep enough. In many ways his faith journey shows up in the book, from a fundamentalist upbringing to an embrace of classic theological liberalism to a return home to historic confessional orthodoxy. That faith hinges on the Resurrection, and is recorded in Scripture, which speaks through the ages to us.
I Am A Leader by Angie Ward is written specifically for women who may sense a call to ministry and want to understand their responsibility in following that call. I expected this to have a much more decidedly egalitarian leaning than it did. One of the things I have always appreciated about Angie is that the gap in our theological conviction has never been an issue for our friendship, joy, community, and our mutual disdain for Duke. She loves Jesus. She loves the church. And she wants nothing more than for Jesus to be glorified in her and her family's life. As a pastor, I appreciated so much of what Angie had to say in this. So many times, at least in my complementarian tribe, we focus on building walls around what women can't do. In doing so, to "stay faithful to the Word," we have created a climate that stifles the areas of ministry, leadership, and responsibility that are found in a flourishing and vital way. So much of what I've read on calling (and even written!) has been centered around the pastoral office and function. But what about those who aren't called to pastoral ministry by qualification or by perception? How can they thrive in leadership in the church? Through influence. Positional leadership ≠ influence. Influence = influence. To the sisters in the room, we need you. We need your influence.
Walking With Giants by Harry Bush is a powerful personal memoir of a missionary couple and the relationships they made along the way. For many of us who are home-side pastors and church leaders, we hold the rope for the real heroes in Christianity: our missionaries. They are the ones who sacrifice the comforts and familiarity of home to chase after God's call among the nations. Not all of them live in a hut (although I think a few times Harry and Barbara would have preferred a hut to their accommodations!) but all of them know they have received a shouting call from God. For those on the field, their heroes are the national believers. And we don't hear much from them, if ever anything. That's what I've told Harry repeatedly since he shared about his dream for this book, that by publishing this he has ensured the names, stories, adventures, and testimonies of these national believers are preserved. I cannot wait to meet these giants, and hear more from them about God's work.
If you've been meeting as a church virtually for the last few weeks, you know the feeling of trying to put together a service and a sermon and record everything without the key dynamic to our personal ministry: people. We do ministry with people, among people, for people, before people. Everything about our lives is centered around people. Even in our study and preparation, it's always in the dynamic of people.
So when we find ourselves preaching with a limited support crew or ourselves with an iPhone, it can be really difficult to push through. After two Sundays preaching virtually, I can say that it is twice as tiring to preach to an empty room than it is a full room. At least in a full room you have synergy, feedback, a few "Amen!" comments. When it's just you, all you've got is the red dot on your camera or whoever is helping you tape. Then what?
Our reality is that for the next several weeks we'll be doing this virtual thing. It's going to be after Easter at least before things return to any sense of normal. Maybe longer. So what can we do to preach with effectiveness in an empty room?
1. Look at the camera. Easy to say, harder to do. But it's part of training our eyes to look at the camera, not at ourselves on the screen. We want to make eye contact, which is natural. So when the eyes are the selfie camera, that's where we go. But it creates disconnect with the camera. If it helps, put a sticker or something above (not on) your camera on the phone or whatever you're using the record as a visual reminder.
3. Engage and smile. Warm expressions on your face go a long way to show you're connecting with your audience on camera. Watch your local news tonight and see what kind of face they have. They're warm. They're engaging. They use their eyes to communicate empathy, concern, listening, and attention. When we're on a stage or a platform, our facial expressions are less important because there's a physical distance from us and the pews or chairs. But on camera, where we're a foot away from the lens, it's a lot harder to hide our facial expressions!
4. Treat it like a broadcast, not a service. I get it. We want to try to keep everything normal so we try to just do what we'd normally do on a Sunday, throw a camera or two in the room, and pretend like everything is usual. But it's not. Churches that typically share their in-person services may have some people who are used to the experience, but the reality for almost all of us is that we're all in the same boat. So everyone knows we're preaching to an empty or sparse room. And our routines and rhythms are so off kilter anyway that we should treat our virtual services as a broadcast first. So we don't look around the room like a normal service, and I'd even argue we should pull out from taping in our main worship areas.
5. Ask around. Find out what other people are doing and pick their brains for their ideas. Since none of us took the elective in seminary of pastoring through a global pandemic, we need to look at each other as helps and resources. Text, call, email, and ask around of your pastor friends to see what they're doing to connect and how they're preaching in an empty room.
6. Keep trying. The important thing, more than anything else, is to keep trying. Whatever you do is better than nothing. And however you do what you're doing is pushing the plow. Keep it up. Don't get discouraged. Don't compare to the megachurch pastor who's used to being on camera or the church with slick production. And don't demean the little church with poor quality who is trying their best to connect with their congregation. We're all on the same team. And we're all in this together.
Trigger Warning - If you like Pepsi you're going to want to check your heart and take a deep breath before continuing.
Full Disclosure - I grew up with a mom who only liked Pepsi, so that was all we had in the house. While I have a sentimental memory of caffeine-free Pepsi cans in the kitchen, I'm all for Coke.
"I'm sorry we have Pepsi"
If you've ever been out to eat and been told that when you were asking for a Coke (or for me a Coke Zero) you immediately know the feeling of disappointment. You looked forward to that refreshing cold carbonated taste of Pemberton's secret recipe, only to find out your only option was the over-sugared and slightly different taste of their top competitor.
But because you're thirsty you shrug and say "That'll be fine." Even though it isn't.
We're in a Pepsi time right now as churches. In suspending our worship gatherings, we're seeking to be wise in how we navigate uncharted waters with an invisible virus that has ground the world to a halt. We've been reduced to taping our worship experience (or for some churches not doing anything) with our only audience to hear our preaching is our AV team or ourselves. We're hosting prayer meetings over Zoom and spending more time on our phones calling and texting people we'd otherwise go visit in their homes or the hospital.
The Zoom meetings are nice, and it's good to still worship with our music and messages broadcast, and phone calls are still helpful, it's just not the same. It's Pepsi. It'll do for now. But what we really want is a Coke.
Pastors, hang in there. Churches, stay together. Believers, continue to engage and minister and serve. We can't see each other in person or be physically gathered together, but we can still take full advantage of the incredible opportunities put before us. Serve. Run errands. Call. Text. Check in. Pray. Write letters. All of these are ways we can still function as the church.
It's Pepsi, but hopefully soon we'll all be able to drink a Coke.
Side note - Pastors, if you're reading this, I want you to be planning for the first Sunday of "normalcy" whenever that happens. That shouldn't just be "business as usual" for you. I've already told our church that first Sunday back we're blowing the roof off the place. We'll be so glad and excited to be back together it'll be incredible. Whatever day that is for us, it'll be our Easter.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.