April 9, 2020

Evangelism, Connection, and Our New (Virtual) Reality

I am in awe of the work I see happening across our diocese and around the country to reshape the central gathering of our church. I’ve had the privilege of engaging with some of these leaders and congregations as they map out what this looks like and how this happens. Some thoughts around evangelism and connection as we continue to redefine this work in the coming weeks and months:

Make sure people can find you online.

First things first, make sure people can find your congregation online. Maybe it’s a website, or a Facebook page, but now more than ever, our online presence is essential. We also must make sure folks can find our online worship gatherings easily. For many, this will mean redesigning some pages on our websites so that the landing page and gatherings pages point to both the times and the ways in which people can engage.

Know your audience

At some level, this is obvious: We’re still speaking to God’s people. But now we might not know who among our congregation knows the lingo, our codes, or our abbreviations. Now is a good time to practice using plain English to describe what we’re doing, and clearly explaining any terms that might be new to someone just logging on to our worship for the first time.

Also, our current situation, and the change of medium, should push us to reconsider how we “present” online. Those with a microphone in hand (leading the service, making an announcement, leading the music) should consider looking straight into the camera and speaking to the people worshipping on the other side of it – not to the other people in the room at the time helping make this happen.

For the sake of those watching on, this is absolutely key to helping them feel as if they are part of what’s happening, not an afterthought. Perhaps this is an opportunity to embrace the awkwardness and make it a strength.

Acknowledge the difference and set the guidelines.

We do this naturally when we meet on Sundays (“Great to have you with us…if you’re new…stick around afterward and have a coffee and chat…”) and we need to continue to do this as we live-stream.

First, acknowledge up front that this is a new way of meeting, it’s not the normal way, and that it’s great to have people join you. This is both to begin to establish rapport with those on the other end, and to point to a theological truth that it’s important for us to meet together, even virtually.

Second, we need to help people see how they can interact and connect during our times together. This might be through the chat bar on the side or in the comments, a Q&A time after the liturgy, or a time during the service for people to break out into smaller groups to say hello (a functionality on Zoom).

Create intimacy and connection.

One of the biggest differences I saw in the live streams was how some made me feel like I was a spectator, and some drew me in making me feel like I was there and involved. This was the combination of a number of smaller things that contributed to the overall feel, but there was at least one common denominator: the online chat during the live stream.

This is probably a controversial point at some level, because we’ve certainly never been into encouraging people to talk (and even make jokes!) during church…but can I suggest that in the current circumstances we may need to reconsider how we think about this during live streaming? I’m not suggesting we encourage people to start posting gifs or memes during church (unless they are REALLY good…), nor be a purposeful distraction, but I am suggesting that we provide more scope for freedom to mimic those moments in church when something resonates with us, when we are moved by something, when we find something amusing, where we turn to the person next to us and give a knowing smile. How do we do that online? I’m tentatively suggesting – as sacrilegious as it sounds – that the live chat did that for me. It connected the diaspora. It gave a sense of who was there. It helped create the community of the gathered even as we all worshiped from our own homes.

Live chat may not be the answer to creating community and connection online…but on those live streams that had it, I certainly felt more connected with both what was happening on the screen as well as those people who were experiencing it with me.

Offer grace to those trying a new thing.

These thoughts are rough and still being formed based on some initial observations. These ideas come from conversations I’ve had with leaders within and beyond our Episcopal tradition, and my experiences in online worship (as a leader and participant) for several years. As we continue doing this in the coming weeks, we’ll all find our own rhythm. We’ll all find our own style.

Maybe the church down the street is doing something you think is crazy. Maybe another priest is discerning a different way of connecting with her congregation that you wouldn’t choose. Then it’s probably a good thing you’re called to help lead different people in different ways.

We’re all trying to be as faithful, pastoral, and responsive as we can be. None of us have been in this situation before, so let’s start with the assumption that God is alive and active and working through whatever hackneyed ways we come up with, sometimes even in spite of our efforts.