Five Things Pastors Will Keep Doing When Their Church Reopens

Nobody really wanted to go online for church before Covid-19 hit. Now with five months of experience under their belts, pastors have moved beyond using online as a way to survive. They have begun to see lots of new opportunities. As they return, they are thinking of online as a powerful new dimension to their ministries.

Ben Stapley consults for churches and speaks at conferences about leadership, communication and creativity. He recently spoke via Zoom with more than two dozen pastors from churches around the country to hear what they’ve learned while online, and what they plan to do differently with online as they reopen their doors. Ben has made the nearly three hours of video available on his website. Below are some highlights.

1. Everyone is saying Yes to online

There was great surprise among the participants about how well online has worked for their community. Even those who had explicitly said there were some things that should never, ever be conducted online found themselves stunned at how well online worked.

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Greg Curtis,
Eastside Christian Church

“We had driven a stake in the ground several months before Covid saying we will never do our Next Steps process online,” said Greg Curtis, Central Director of Assimilation & Guest Services at Eastside Christian Church in Anaheim, CA. “We believe it is a highly engaged, communal kind of thing. I guess God heard that conversation… So we rolled out Next Steps online, and 131 people who had never taken Next Steps showed up. We had 23 first-time decisions to follow Jesus — we only had 2 in the services! What we learned: this is here to stay. This is going to be part of who we are.”

Other pastors were taken aback by the willingness of their flock to take to online. Steven Smith, Multisite Pastor at Houston’s First Baptist Church, said “I underestimated my people. I would have never thought in a million years that we would have some of our Sunday school classes, some of our live Bible study classes, want to be able to gather online like they’ve been doing. I would never have thought that our 70- and 80-year old adults would say, ‘sign me up, I’m here, on Zoom, whatever it is, I can learn it.’ I’d always thought, in the back of my mind, short of a pandemic, they’re never going to do this. Well, we’ve had that. I wish that I would have given my people more credit to learn something new, and engaging like the way we’ve been doing the last couple weeks.”

2. The Welcome Team is part of the online production

Before Covid, each team had their own zone, and knew where and how to interface with other teams. The Welcome Team has a somewhat narrow intersection with the Tech Team. Sometimes there is a slide on a screen up front urging newcomers to fill out a contact card. Greeters stand outside the doors of the church welcoming folks, seating people, and helping newcomers and latecomers get situated. They serve a key function, but they are just not an integral part of the worship or message.

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Phil Bowdle,
West Ridge Church

Phil Bowdle, Creative Arts Pastor, West Ridge Church in Atlanta, made this observation: “A lot of our people on the front lines found themselves on the sidelines, saying, ‘Hey, we’re not in the game as much.’ How do we help mobilize them, to get more in the game and join with us? This way it’s not just all on the creative team or the tech team. Because front line people want to step up now more than ever. I’m talking to the Guest Services director to say, ‘How do you mobilize your team? You’re the best at making people feel welcome, loved and engaged. We need every single person that was serving with you before on our livestream, on our chat.’”

Treat the online audience like its own campus. Just like a multi-site church that has a location-specific setup to meet the particular needs of that building and the community that meets there, online has its own look and feel, its own constraints. Preaching into a camera with an empty or sparsely populated church has been unsettling at times.

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Jason Mitchell,
LCBC Church

Every pastor in Ben Stapley’s confab acknowledged that they have dramatically cut the length of their sermons, with almost everyone aiming for 20–25 minutes as the sweet spot — with most of them struggling to get that succinct. Those using a teleprompter have found it helpful on this score. “A 3,000-word message before Covid would have been 35 minutes,” said Jason Mitchell, Ministry Team Leader and Teaching Pastor at LCBC Church in Pennsylvania. “We’re using a teleprompter, and now that same 3,000-word message comes in at 23 minutes.”

This has led to understanding better the unique needs of the online attendees, and has convinced Jason that in the future, one of the services on a Sunday will be designed specifically for online. “We’re not going to just show what we did in a room and hope you make sense of it online.” They will have a space that is open to in-person attendees, but treats them almost like a studio audience. The pastor will preach to the camera, not to the people in the pews. The in-person audience might appear in cameo shots here and there, and their audible responses can be heard. But other than that, the service is conducted principally for the online audience.

Pastors also looked for ways to make speaking into a camera more natural. Some picture in their mind someone in the congregation who is going through a particularly difficult stretch, or for whom they believe the message will have particular relevance, or for someone who is far from the heart of God. Some actually tape a photo of someone underneath the camera lens itself.

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Jeanne Stevens,
Soul City Church

Jeanne Stevens, lead pastor at Soul City Church in Chicago, discovered a simple technique that works well — just saying someone’s name into the camera. “One thing I have learned from our children’s pastor — she calls out individual children’s names. At first I thought, why are you doing that? And then I had all these parents say ‘It was so great that Courtney called out my child’s name! He thought he was so special!’ I stole this idea from Courtney, and I started calling out people’s names in my message, just randomly. And it meant the world to people. They felt seen, they felt like they were sitting there in church. In a small kind of way, they felt pastored. That’s the desire of the human heart, to be seen. If we can figure out how to do that virtually, it’s a whole new methodology of how we are going to advance the Kingdom of God.”

3. The countdown timer counts for more than keeping time

Online comes with metrics, which can uncover all sorts of blind spots and expose opportunities. One gem Phil Bowdle discovered in the numbers was how valuable the time is just five minutes before the service starts. “We have learned how to use the countdown time. That has become one of our most strategic times — our most bought-in audience is tuning in, they’ve got it on their TV, they’ve got it on their phone. They’re engaging with us just as much during that 5–10 minutes before the service actually starts. We are using that to engage people with what’s going on, how they can connect, as a way to create 1-to-1 conversations offline or through direct messages or by text.”

4. Low-production quick hits can be highly effective

The Sunday service is a high-production affair. On the other hand, West Ridge Church found that a short 5–10 minute Monday morning devotional with about 15 minutes of prep time, captured on location on a pastor’s iPhone, is highly effective. “That 20–25 minutes of investment is scaling leadership and scaling influence in so many different ways to reach so many more people than ever before. It actually helps that it is low production, people feel like they are connecting with him in a way they are not going to experience in a livestream.”

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Trey Van Camp,
Heart Cry Church

Trey Van Camp discovered the same thing at Heart Cry Church, a newly planted church in Phoenix. “Tuesday mornings I go live on YouTube. We pick a passage of scripture and we pray together for 30 minutes. I have a timer on my desk. ‘Okay, pray for this truth for a minute and a half; the music goes on. Then I go back to the text and explain a little bit more, and pray for this truth for a minute and a half. People say this has been so life-giving for them. When we go back to normal, we’ll make that a consistent channel for us.”

5. Everything In Its Season

Anthony Miller, Pastor of Communications at Saddleback Church employs a useful framework. With a campus in Hong Kong, Saddleback had a bit of a heads up on what to expect and how to prepare for how to do church in the midst of the pandemic. They looked at their services and programs and asked:

  • What is core and is never going to change?
  • What is temporary? Some adjustments have been good and useful during quarantine but will go away as soon as this thing is over.
  • What do we need to lose? We have discovered that some things we’ve always done have had their day, and when we went into quarantine nobody missed them. Maybe it doesn’t need to come back.
  • What did we find that we want to keep? Things we are doing now that we see as an advantage.
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Anthony Miller,
Saddleback Church

One thing Saddleback is looking to keep is the concept of house churches. “We can do house churches. We can do smaller gatherings. We talk about doing ‘Saddleback Somewheres’, popups all over. How do we leverage this community that is watching online, and create these little pockets of communities that can gather in smaller settings of 10–20 people, and do church together? That’s the church, right? It’s the gathering of the body.”

What things has your church found during quarantine that can bring new life and energy to your communities?