We are experiencing another month of social distancing, and people are feeling the need for connection. As online church attendance skyrockets, pastors are asking, "How can I integrate these new attendees into our church and small groups?"
While churches might not be able to meet yet, now is the time to plan and start reaching out to this new audience in hopes of connecting them to your church community.
I spoke with pastors from churches of all sizes to discuss the unexpected lessons learned during COVID-19 and how they are connecting new viewers to their church's small groups.
Embrace New Small Group Strategies
This time of social distancing has offered the church a chance to explore new tools and ways of thinking. The top strategies we're seeing include:
—Facebook Groups have acted as an important resource for churches incorporating an online presence. Utilize the function of a "group" for your congregation where you can post updates that apply to everyone, as well as smaller groups for classes. This feature will also be helpful to communicate and post updates or prayer requests post-COVID-19. Facebook allows you to view who interacts with your content, so you can easily reach out to them.
—Church websites are being utilized to post weekly sermon recaps and updates. Your website is a great place to give actionable directions on how to connect with others by displaying groups and classes.
—Zoom is a great tool to explore for online small groups. For example, one church offers the ability for new people to "view" an existing church experience on Zoom and then request opportunities to join an existing one or form a new one.
—Embrace time to learn by developing agility during this season. If the concept of an online church is new to you, it's a chance to truly experience Spirit-filled living. Trust that technology will work and serve your congregation well at this time.
Tips for Continuing Online Church Activities
There is a consistent viewpoint that a bulk of church interactions should return to in-person meetings when it's possible. As creatures built for connection, it's important to build relationships that are more than online friendships. However, it's clear that churches need to maintain an online presence to meet the needs and expectations of a new kind of community.
Additionally, at-risk people may not feel comfortable returning to church buildings for a while. A way to continue offering online service without losing your in-presence audience may include a shift in personnel.
Hire or grow online volunteer teams who manage online church viewers. Have volunteers monitor your online presence and reach out to these individuals with the goal of forming a relationship. Assess the needs of these viewers when you reach out by asking if they're seeking things like prayer, salvation, connection or spiritual growth. Have an additional set of volunteers manage these unique needs and offer classes or resources to serve these people. Ideally, set up online viewers with a small group. People are most easily integrated when they experience a real connection.
Most churches agree that their solution for caring for online audience members who are not local is to connect them to a church in their community. Initially, it's okay for them to engage in your online small group so you're not turning anyone in need of connection away. But the end goal should be to integrate them within their community, either at a plant church of yours or a similar church.
Small Groups and Integrating New Viewers
Many churches hope for most small groups to return to an in-person format, but there's no denying the added benefit of continuing online options.
Small groups are proving to be a great segue to membership. Churches are finding that organic group introductions have been the most successful way to grow engagement. Because of this, there's a growing need for small group leaders to become true shepherds and inviters. Transferring power throughout the church by training leaders of online small groups to share church initiatives and bring in new attendees will show significant rewards. As people meet and connect personally in small groups, it encourages them to come back for more than a corporate introduction.
There's also a new realization that small groups might not need seasonal breaks. Instead, during times like summer or Christmas, switch to an online format so people can still attend without the hassle.
One suggestion for training additional small group leaders is to have staff or volunteers who were in charge of operations that aren't currently happening transfer to leading a small group. They already have some experience and know the heartbeat of the church. The more people you can train, the more successful small groups you can manage.
Integrating the Community
Many churches are utilizing this new visibility as a way to connect to their community and build new bonds.
Introducing Your Church: Use this time when you can't meet people in person to create videos that introduce pastors, staff, groups and classes you offer. Create content to share your values to let people know who you are, so they can get to know your church without attending. Share these resources on your social media and website.
Continuing or Establishing Classes Online: A vast number of church leaders agree that while most church functions ideally happen in person, classes online are a great way to get more interested people to learn about your church, God or other ministries like prayer and discipleship without having to physically attend your church at first. Connecting your online audience with online membership courses helps them to know you before taking the plunge.
Enhancing Community Involvement: Churches are finding fun, new ways to connect with people who might not be able to leave home right now or when the world reopens. For example, one church offered a men's cooking class for Mother's Day, couples' dance classes and broadcasted concerts that anyone can join and enjoy. In the long run, these activities can continue post-COVID-19 for parents who can't get babysitters, elderly who prefer not to commute or even youth who might not have a ride to events.
Our post-COVID-19 world is full of new ways to connect and worship. Share your ideas with us here. For more discussions and resources from thought leaders on reopening the church, visit reopeningchurch.com.
Sutton Turner is the chief operating officer at Vanderbloemen, which serves teams with a greater purpose by aligning their people solutions for growth: hiring, compensation, succession and culture. Through its retained executive search and consulting services, Vanderbloemen serves churches, schools, nonprofits, family offices and Christian businesses in all parts of the United States and internationally.
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