The opening lines of Charles Dickens’ great novel, A Tale of Two Cities,
are: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.”
That pretty well sums up the situation our nation faces today. In this article I want to focus on the first two phrases in the context of local churches. Some churches will emerge from this storm stronger, so they will look back at this time as a blessing – the “best of times.” Some churches will be weakened, and they will naturally consider these days “the worst of times.” Some churches may even close their doors – forever.
So, pastors, elders, and church leaders: Do you want this emergency to result in a stronger church, a weaker church, or even a “disappeared” church? That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is obvious.
Let’s look at some ways to make that happen.
First some background. For the purpose of this article, there are three kinds of churches:
- Small churches with older congregations and no technical skills among them besides using email.
- Medium sized churches that have some experience with tech, especially with regular or occasional broadcasting of meetings in some form.
- Large churches (including mega-churches) that have large professional tech teams (and budgets) and have been broadcasting their services for years.
Since I am well-known for using webinars of all types for my ministry, and I teach classes on technical matters at ministerial gatherings, I have been getting lots of calls with questions on how to deal with the problem that most churches not being allowed to meet. I have also spoken with pastors who are dealing very successfully with the situation, and learned some of their techniques. As a result, I have become a clearing-house of sorts for ideas to help churches in all three categories.
(If your church has creative ideas that have worked in keeping your members connected, please email them to me so I can share them with my audience. Between Conservative Truth, the www.ChristianFinancialConcepts.com
Monday night Webinars, and my national radio show, I communicate to hundreds of thousands of people each week. Your idea may be a God-send to many other churches.)
Let’s start with the over-arching concept that all of us pastors know, but may not be applying well because we are bogged down with details and problem-solving. Remind your people that their faith walk is not about “going to church.” Tell them over and over (until they really get it): “You ARE the church. In dozens of countries where governments (typically Islamic) have shut down all Christian churches, The Church still thrives. Buildings are handy (and they’re air-conditioned!) but they aren’t the church, and they aren’t essential for the growth of The Church.
Let’s start with the small churches that have the least resources and the most to lose. Some of these may well end up losing members or even going bankrupt as a result of the government basically shutting the nation down. Some of the pastors have just thrown up their hands and said, “We’ll start having church again whenever we can.” Others have been meeting as usual, hoping their small numbers will keep them under the radar.
Neither is a good idea. Many unemployed people are thinking, “When this is over, I’ll go back to work and everything will be fine,” but millions will find that their company has gone bankrupt, or that their former employer has been hit so hard that they can only re-employ a fraction of their former work force. Pastors who just shut down their churches and are waiting for everything to be over, may find that some or all of their people won’t return. Some of them may even go bankrupt while they are closed.
Continuing to meet is certainly your right, but is it right? Do you want to be responsible for some of your congregants getting the flu or the China Virus (both of which can be life-threatening)? You also need to consider that what is normal today may be completely different tomorrow. At least one pastor has been arrested for defying government orders to cease service.
My readers know that I teach the Constitution and have a pretty good handle on the Constitutional arguments you could make in your defense if you continue in-person meetings. At least three major Rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights apply: Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech, and the Right of the People to Peaceably Assemble. So, no problem, right? Wrong.
The Supreme Court has ruled that governments at all levels can create laws, ordinances or orders in cases of emergency – including health emergencies such as the China Virus. Government cannot
make such rules if they single out or discriminate against religious groups. But as long as everyone is treated equally, churches must comply.
Use your common sense. Do churches have to comply with fire codes? Do they have to abide by Life Safety Codes (such as the maximum number of people allowed in a particular space)? Of course. If you don’t understand that God has put governments in place for your good and protection, then at least you consider the safety of your members by obeying such codes.
In Romans 13:1-2, we read, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2
Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
The chapter goes on to say that, “The one in authority is God’s servant for your good.” (Verse 4.) “[Rulers] are God’s servants.” (Verse 4.) “It is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” (Verse 5.)
If you do decide to have services, you should at least seat people in every other row (about 6 feet), and space them 6 feet apart on each pew (unless they are family).
So what can a small church with a small budget and little technical knowledge do to stay connected if they can’t meet in person? There is a service that is very easy to use – and it’s free! www.FreeConferenceCall.com
Your people don’t need a computer or even a smart phone to use it. They can call in from any telephone – even the hand-crank wall phones like the Walton’s used. No technical knowledge required. Go to the website, create a free account, and distribute the phone number and code to your church. Set a time, preach on the call, and then let the members ask questions or comment. It’s that easy.
Another great technology that requires a little more work is www.ZOOM.us
. This allows your members to both see and hear one another (as long as they have a computer, tablet or cell phone that has a microphone, speaker and camera – most do). If they don’t, there is a telephone number with a code (similar to the Free Conference Call above) so they can listen to the service by phone.
ZOOM doesn’t require much technical expertise, and if you have none, the tutorials on their website will get you up and running. You can get a free account, but they are limited to 45 minutes. Paid plans that allow longer meetings are relatively inexpensive.
What about the medium-sized churches? Most of them are already doing something online, but they may need some help to find the best solution. There are two basic ways to go, and many combinations of ways that can increase your reach.
In my opinion, webinars are the simplest. Depending on the number of people you expect to use it, you can choose a platform. One of the oldest (and thus the most tested and stable) of the many webinar companies out there is www.GoToWebinar.com
. If you have a church of 100 or more, I would go with them. You can buy plans that will handle 1,000 or more at one time. This will obviously be one-way communication, but people can interact by asking questions or making comments by text.
GoTo also has a smaller platform for 25 people, but if that is your size I would recommend www.ZOOM.us
instead. This can actually work for hundreds of people, but if you get much above 100 it becomes difficult to manage. Also, it requires some
technical savvy on the part of the participants – not a lot, but some people have challenges the first time they use it. I would suggest giving your people a phone number with a techy person on the other end of the line.
The other option is live streaming. This is a good option for churches with younger people who have their faces in their phones all day, every day. This can be as simple as setting up a smart phone on a tripod, pointing it yourself, and publishing it to Facebook. Unfortunately people won’t be able to see it unless they have a Facebook account. Some people are very resistant to Facebook for a variety of reasons. Other options are YouTube Live, Periscope and Google Hangouts. Each has their advantages, challenges, and requirements that go far beyond the scope of this article.
Of course, you can combine the two technologies. You can do a Webinar for less techy people, and livestream it at the same time. And you can stream to several places at once. A useful tool that you can use so you don’t have to have a camera for each livestream is www.Spreaker.com
If yours is a large, mega or gigantor church you don’t need me. Your tech people can run circles around me. You have probably been livestreaming your services for years, and many of you broadcast on television at the same time. About the only change you will need to make is to lock the doors and put up a sign: “Catch us on the Internet” with directions to access your sites.
However, there are some things that you will need to do that go beyond your wonderful technology. Some churches use email blasts to attract new visitors, and fail miserably because they lack any personal connection. In the same way, if you stop having live services and depend totally on broadcasting or streaming, you will not enjoy great success.
Look for ways you can do your broadcasting differently. Remember, before putting your live services out there was a supplement to the regular in-person service. Now it is a substitute. Big difference. In this brave new world you need to provide opportunities for interaction. Allow opportunities for people to send comments or ask questions live. Try doing an online poll. Have a place where people can post prayer requests and praise reports.
Get people on the phone to check on people and encourage them. Identify people who live alone, and make sure they receive a phone call every day. Not just a check-in: “Are you still alive. Good.” And on to the next call. Have a conversation with them pray with them. Let them know you (and by extension the church) care about them.
This will happen naturally in smaller churches where everyone knows one another. But huge churches will have to re-learn relationships. I attended a mega-church for two months, and never saw the same person twice. If a new person tries hard, they can discover small groups and build relationships. But many just sit in their pew and watch the show. Those are the ones you will need to seek out.
The rest applies to all churches trying to navigate these uncharted waters. Small groups, cell groups, home groups. Whatever you call them, they are the glue that holds large and small churches together. How can you continue this vital ministry when people are afraid to say “Hi” to each other on the street, and will certainly not come to your home meeting even if their states allowed it? www.ZOOM.us
. This is the third time I have brought ZOOM up. Sorry, I’m a big fan. There are lots of competitors out there, but they do the job better than most. One sign of this is that while the stock market was crashing 35%, ZOOM held up better than any of the companies in its space. Lots of people were already familiar with the company and liked it, so they bought their stock.
ZOOM can be used effectively for small groups and Bible studies in any size church. That’s because it is relatively easy to use, and is particularly well-suited to small numbers of people. Twenty people can be on the same ZOOM meeting, and all their faces can be seen at the same time. They can speak if they wish, and they can all hear everything anyone says. That’s as close to being in the same room at the same time as you can get without actually being there. The best thing? You can be in your pajamas, and only have to dress from the waist up!
A very cool feature of ZOOM that I find even experienced ZOOMers don’t know about is that you can do breakouts. You have been in conferences where the leader send small groups to different areas to discuss a topic, and when you come back together each group’s spokesman reports their conclusions. That’s a great teaching technique that turns spectators into participators.
Guess what? You can do that with ZOOM. The Organizer can decide which people will be in which breakout group, click a button, and suddenly the members can only see and hear the people in their group Everyone is still in the same meeting, but in separate virtual “rooms.” The organizer can pop into each room and see how they’re doing, and when he clicks another button, everyone is back in the big room. As I said, very cool. (But then again, I’m easily impressed.)
What about money? Every pastor dreads the summer slump in offerings when people go on vacation. Out of sight, out of mind. Some people faithfully send their tithes and offerings home, but some forget, and some people give wherever they are visiting. But strangely, the bank expects the mortgage to be paid on time, even in the summer.
I sincerely hope we’re not, but we could be facing a very long summer that started in March. Lots of churches have modernized and have not just online giving, but also have their people trained to have their offerings deducted automatically from their bank accounts. Pretty soon they won’t need those offering plates. But millions of churches have no way for their people to give online. If yours is one of those set up online giving on your website – yesterday.
If you don’t have a website, start working on one. But here’s some good news. You do not need a website to accept donations online. Check out www.Tithe.ly
(Yes, it is .LY – not all websites end in .com, net or .org.) You can add www.Tithe.ly
to your church’s Facebook page, or members can download the free www.Tithe.ly
app on the app store and give to your church from their smart phones. They also have the ability to let your members give by texting if they don’t want to download the app. And it’s free!
Speaking of websites, now is the time to update yours. I see many churches neglecting their websites. I visited one last week that hadn’t been updated in two years. Please don’t make the foolish mistake of believing that your Facebook page can replace a website. Two thirds of Americans have Facebook accounts, and that number is declining as other platforms emerge.
The two thirds number Facebook claims publicly is purposefully misleading, because the more members they have, the more they can charge for ads. Facebook admitted in its Federal securities filings in 2018 that 116 million of their accounts are fake. Many people have multiple accounts – one personal, one for ministry, and one for business, for instance. And don’t forget the fake accounts created by Russia, Russia, Russia.
One marketing survey indicates that up to 70% of Facebook accounts are inactive. And Facebook admits that they still keep pages up for at least 30 Million dead people. The bottom line is that far less than half the people you think you will reach on Facebook don’t even have an account. The same is true with other platforms.
The one place most people check to find out about your church is your website. But only slightly more than half of all churches even have a website. Kelsey Dallas, a researcher for Duke University wrote concerning these statistics:“As a result, online presence has become a dividing line between American congregations, helping larger churches keep growing, while others risk obscurity in a digital age.”
Do you remember the days when you looked up a tradesman or contractor in the Yellow Pages to see if they were legitimate? Today you look on the Internet. It’s no different with churches. A growing number of people won’t set foot in a church unless their website makes them feel comfortable and welcome.
Think of that! You won’t be able to dazzle them with your great worship team and in-depth preaching unless you have something that many pastors despise – a website. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but ever since Al Gore invented the Internet, the numbers of people who depend on it have grown exponentially.
If you didn’t have a decent, well-maintained website before, you’re missing a lot of potential members. If you don’t have one in these troubled times, you are committing institutional suicide.
Here’s some more good news. If you don’t have online services, your people will likely attend those of another church. They may like it so well that they will attend there when the storm passes. They may already be sending their tithes there. As a result, when things return to normal, the few people that stuck with you may find that their church no longer exists.
Being a leader is all about relationships. And relationships require communication. God is our creator, so He is creative. As His child, made in His image and likeness, you are also creative. Ask Him to show you creative ways you can maintain communications and relationships with your flock. Don’t assume that they will stick with you if you neglect them.
Now to the good news. I talk to pastors every day who are using their Godly creativity to great advantage. Here are some examples of churches that will emerge from this attack of Satan stronger than before. They are the ones who will make the devil wish he had never visited this on us.
My pastor was one of those who was already technically on the ball. Ours is not a large church, but we were ready. The first time we were not able to meet, he had our online presence ready to go. He didn’t skip a beat. He even organized “drive-in prayer,” in which people drive up to our portico and leaders prayed for people in their cars – without touching them.
The president of the Seminary at which I teach is also a pastor. He has purchased an FM transmitter and has received permission from his County to hold Easter services – with people in their cars. They have built an outdoor platform for the pastor and the worship team – with proper social distancing. The people will tune to a specific FM frequency on their radios, and the service will be transmitted to them.
Every jurisdiction is different, so this may not work everywhere. But in many places small churches can meet out of doors, as long as the people stay six feet apart. Set up your PA system outdoors and have a great service! If you can’t move your equipment, get a handheld megaphone.
If you are in a state like mine where groups of ten or less are allowed to meet, organize small groups of healthy people can get together to pray and study the Bible. Choose a home with a large living room so you can practice the dreaded social distancing. I’m sorry. I’m a hugger, so this is hard on me.
Along this line, invite a few neighbors over for brunch and watch your church’s service together. For some this may be the first church service they have ever attended.
Romans 8:28 states, “We know that in all things God works for good with those who love him, those whom he has called according to his purpose.” Perhaps one of the good things that will come as a result of the China virus is that churches will learn in a deeper way what the early church understood so well: Community. And perhaps it will drag some pastors and churches kicking and screaming into the 21st