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Photo by: Austin Distel on Unsplash

During The Pandemic, Churches Can Thrive By Embracing Virtual Offerings

By: Christina Hager
Published Date: May 28th, 2020

In the last few months, issues surrounding Covid-19 have impacted every single business imaginable. Since we began self-isolating, organizations have been forced to create virtual experiences and change offerings for people who can’t set foot in their places of business. One organization hit the hardest?

Churches.

If churches exist to create community, how do they fulfill their mission when it’s dangerous — or even illegal — to have people within their physical walls? They do it with social media, and by exploring new ways to share their message and attract new congregants.

So during this pandemic, how can churches effectively use social media?

  1. Share Your Service

    When it came to streaming services and creating a digital experience for his congregants, TJ Hoffman, Director of Music and Worship at First Cumberland Presbyterian in downtown Houston, used his considerable expertise. Hoffman’s day job is Chief Operating Officer of Sibme, an online video coaching and collaboration platform. Alongside their pastor, Rev. Geoff Knight, he wanted to offer a digital experience that would be seamless and easy. First Cumberland’s worship service had traditionally been very interactive and participatory and Hoffman wanted to replicate that in a digital space. It was a tall order, but Hoffman and his pastor succeeded, thanks to social media.

    To keep congregants from having to download a program or navigate to another website, they created not just a video, but a real-time experience streamed on Facebook and YouTube, where congregants can watch, chat, and talk with one another throughout a live service. With lyrics right on the screen, they even sing together.

    Although Hoffman used Streamyard, you don’t need a fancy streaming service. Start with Facebook Live. It’s a great, easy way to broadcast a live event. An added bonus: Facebook loves when you use this feature. Remember, Facebook ranks content (see my article on this) and using their Live feature is great for your Facebook algorithm.

  2. Distribute Sunday Morning Service

    Unfortunately, you can’t just put your service on the web and assume that your people will find it. They’ll need guidance. When the virus started spreading, Rev. Trista Soendker Nicholson, Senior Pastor at Red Bridge United Methodist (RBUMC) in Kansas City, MO quickly moved to live-stream their services. And I mean quickly, as in they made the decision to stop in-person services and switched instead to 100% live-streaming in 24 hours! While they had already been using Facebook Live for the sermon portion of the service, they made the move to streaming the entire thing after they consulted with several doctors in their congregation.

    There were concerns at first, especially among the older congregants, so early efforts found the church simulcasting everything through Zoom. However, when RBUMC staff learned that using Facebook Live would ease distribution efforts, they changed to that platform.

    “Once we offered to walk people through Facebook Live, or accessing Zoom or a website, and they wrapped their heads around it, it became easy,” says Pastor Trista. “Our staff has been great. If there is someone who is struggling, one of us will call and walk through the process.”

    Remember that your congregants are inundated with digital information: Zoom and WebX meetings for work, Zoom and Google Hangouts for their social life and often that of their kids. Use your social media channels to distribute service information and point people to your live stream. This might come in the form of a weekly email with links to your social media pages, or Facebook messages with links to the latest service, or by asking members to “like” the church page and see your posts first.

  3. Build Connection in Virtual Space

    Hoffman’s goal was to recreate the feeling of a service and build connections in a virtual environment and he has succeeded. For the first couple of weeks, parishioners were very quiet on Facebook, but he says now it’s “sometimes hard to manage because there is so much conversation in the chat on the video during the services — they are excited to participate and to get to ‘see’ each other.” This is a huge win for fostering relationships and building connections across social media.

    For Pastor Trista, pre-pandemic social media was used as a “front door for the church. It was how you were introduced to us.” She says that’s still a focus, but it’s now secondary to building community. Facebook now functions as RBUMC’s fellowship space, and they are very intentional about how they use social media to increase interaction and engagement.

    Pastor Trista says before the coronavirus, people would rarely interact with a Facebook post on the RBUMC page, but now people engage, chat with each other on their Facebook page, and use the service as a way to check in with one another.

  4. Connect Privately

    Maybe you want to keep services open to anyone interested, but want some privacy where only parishioners interact. Do this by creating a Facebook Group where you can adjust the settings about who can see and join the group. It can be open to all or closed, which means you control who can access the group and join it.

    You can choose to keep the Group searchable, so anyone on Facebook can find and see it, but they have to request approval before they can see and share posts. Or you can make it unsearchable so nobody knows about it at all unless they receive an invitation.

    Groups are a great way to really build conversations and get extra engagement. Members can communicate with each other, their pastor, or church staff in a more real way. A Facebook Group allows group members to share pictures, videos, links to resources, and experiences.

  5. Provide Virtual Respite

    Churches currently focus on vulnerable groups who can’t leave their houses, such as seniors, but the “sandwich generation” needs help, too. They take care of children and their own parents. These congregants are stretched thin in the best of times and they need you now!

    You can help this group by taking on a little virtual childcare. Pastor Trista already had something called “Messy Church.” In person, Messy Church used to be an event held on a Monday night where kids fully expressed themselves in worship by singing, doing an art project, and were open to interacting with each other during the service in whatever way felt naturally to them. Now? They do it through Zoom.

    Lead crafts or games that children can do virtually. If you don’t have an expert crafter, something as simple as reading a Bible story or singing songs engages kids and gives parents a much needed break. It also keeps kids connected to church during a time where they may not be in the building.

  6. Be what your Members Need

    I always say to my clients that you should meet your followers “where they are.” For some congregants, like the parents listed above, you might need to offer virtual Bible studies or happy hours long AFTER the kids have gone to bed, because there is just no time for them to have to themself.

    For your teen congregants, use social to connect with them through Instagram Stories, offering interactive polls and questions so they can “participate” in a way that feels authentic, meaningful, and fun to them.

    What about those who miss out on the mission-based aspects of church life? Tarrytown United Methodist has a great answer to the problem. Now, Tarrytown already had active social media channels, but engagement is now way up: congregants join the Facebook Group and share posts. The pastor of Connection and Engagement at Church, Abigail Parker Herrera, says “It’s been about helping our current people connect and stay connected as well as giving them tasks to still be involved in mission life — food drives, encouraging notes and calls to neighbors.”

    Using social media to issue calls to action is a great idea. This is a time when many people feel helpless, but the more you can give them to do, the better.

  7. Gain New Members

    Right now may feel like a crazy time to try and court new members, but Hoffman reports that First Cumberland Presbyterian has seen an uptick in new people worshipping with them since they increased their Facebook presence and started streaming their service. Pastor Trista said she has a couple who decided to join her church based on the Facebook page and streamed service — even though they have never met face to face.

    She also reports their Facebook engagement is up over 55%. Pastor Trista says “in the last two months, this has given us a chance to actually reach new people. When we worship on Sunday we have people join us from around the country.” Hoffman says, “We now have people worshipping all over the country. That audience is growing. And that’s been a really cool kind of happy accident.”

    For both Trista and Hoffman this has led to larger conversations about how they will continue their digital efforts once social distancing restrictions are lifted. Hoffman says, “Our initial conversation was that we were going to do this until we can come back to church. Well, now that conversation has changed to thinking about how we can hold on to some of these things, and what extra considerations we need to talk about.”

    Pastor Trista thinks that even though the pandemic sped along the development of using digital and social media, this was in the works for awhile: “I think this has given the church a unique opportunity to say why we do what we do, what can we let go of that no longer fits who we are, and what can we embrace to be who God is calling us to be right now.”

    Many of us are struggling with the idea that there might not be a point at which things return to how they were. The ways people worship might be permanently changing, and churches need a strong social media and digital strategy to adapt to those changes. Use the coming months to determine what works best for your membership, being purposeful with your church’s goals and what your congregation needs.

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