As progressive faith leaders, many of us know how difficult and rare it is to find a community that shares your values and beliefs in a worshipping culture that resonates with you. While Launchpad is working to make more churches and communities of faith present in every city, the reality in 2020 is that if you don’t live in a major urban context, you might find yourself resonating most with online faith communities.
I’m a church planter and leader who has been without a worshipping community I call home for almost three years now. As I listen to friends lament the loss of in-person community, I’m realizing many of my closest and most important relationships over the past few years have been the ones that are mostly virtual. Because everyone is now forced to invest in virtual relationships in order to feel any sense of community, I’m finding I feel more connected and included in church community than I have in a long time.
So while most of us are just trying to figure out how to survive right now, it’s worth it to consider how we can take this shared experience of social distancing and start to set up our communities now to empathize and integrate online community into our in-person relationships once we’re all able to leave our homes and gather again.
Here are a few things we’re hearing and seeing in our partner communities that you may be able to start discussing or implementing into your organization now:
Livestream your regular services.
This can be as simple as putting a camera in the back of your gathering space and as elaborate as having a professional A/V team help you set it all up. Launchpad partner communities have seen as much as three times their usual attendance joining them online. Don’t make the mistake of leaving these people out whenever you resume your regular services. These people are part of your community now. Welcome them in your watch party by name in front of your in-person community and/or include their prayer requests, questions, or comments along with those in-person with you. Incorporate language about your online community or broader community into everything you do.
Have an online host for your livestream watch parties.
This can be a great role for a volunteer or a member of your hospitality team. Welcome everyone by name who signs in to watch your live stream. Engage them in general questions they can respond to in the chat. Drop in links for upcoming events and ways to give. Offer a prayer host or coach in the online space who will pray with you individually via chat, phone, or zoom during or after your live programming. The online host should stay through the entire event and capture the requests or concerns that people share that a pastor or leader can follow up on later.
Host once a month or more Zoom meetups.
Host an online brunch or talk-back with your leaders after an event. It could be centered on a topic, or as simple as a happy hour just for the online community. Ask a couple leaders from your community to host this with a staff member or two. Choose people your online community sees in your live streams to help them get connected with people who are pastoring them through the screen every week. There are many great resources out there to help curate conversation during general meet-ups. Here are just a few good sites to focus your ideas around these gatherings: Bespoken Live, Together Apart Podcast, The People’s Supper.
Care for and transition those who move away from your local community to stay connected through your online community.
If you have folx moving out of your city, keep in touch with them as though they still live nearby. Chances are it will be some time until they find a new spiritual community where they feel they can truly belong. How can you help them with the transition? Once a month check-ins via email or phone, continued prayer, transitioning them into leadership roles within your online community are all great ways to start. Transitions are incredibly difficult and a pastor or coach who takes the time to stay with you during hard moves and transitions can be someone that has a lasting impact on your life. Lay leaders who move out of your town hold great potential for building online communities or new plants or branches of your work focused around the new region where they live, because if they’ve experienced the love of your community in-person they’ll want to share that in their new locations.
Frequently remind your community of how it felt to be in this time and invite them to include online folx on an ongoing basis.
When in-person gatherings begin again, make it a priority and a new mode of operation to always consider how you can include your online community in your regular programming. If you’re doing a social justice event, can you livestream it, turn it into a webinar or podcast, and/or ask your guest speakers to hold a Zoom conversation after the event? Do you have people you can ask to write their stories now? Have people write blog posts or film short videos so they can capture these feelings as we live them. Then use these stories to help cast your vision in the future. Being intentional about including your online community means you need to regularly remind your leaders of how it felt to be in this season of social distancing and guide them on how they can use their empathy to connect with others who always feel socially distanced from spiritual community.
Create an online weekly small group, or connect people who live close to each other.
Left Hand Church in Longmont, Colorado created “Branches” when shelter-in-place restrictions first began. Branches are small groups of about 6-8 people who live near each other who can check on one another in times of sickness, share resources with one another, and stay connected through calls and other means. How could your community continue something like this beyond Covid-19? As you get to know your online audience, help them build community with people in their region. Even if they are two or more hours away from the next closest person, they still might find something to connect over regionally. When you live in a rural area and can’t find a spiritual community, you’ll drive three hours to get it if the relationships are bringing you meaning.
Ask your online audience how you can better serve them and include them in your community.
The point of all this is to suggest how we might build or maintain pastoral care relationships with those we only know through online interactions. We can learn a lot from folx who invest their time in gaming communities. They know that the relationships you build online can be just as meaningful or even more important to you, than those in your physical life. Take as much time to get to know your online community as you do with those in physical relationships with you every week. One example is to learn about their work and the services in their area and get your organization involved in supporting causes in their area. It’s a great place to start discerning how God is calling you to invest in justice initiatives on a national and global scale.
Send physical gifts.
This season of social distancing is reminding us of the importance of simple gestures of love. Getting a card in the mail, receiving an unexpected package at your door – gift giving is everything when you are longing for This season of social distancing is reminding us of the importance of simple gestures of love. Getting a card in the mail, receiving an unexpected package at your door – gift giving is everything when you are longing for connection. How can we continue these practices when life returns to a “new normal”? Consider sending your online community some special gifts at Christmas and Easter. Mail them any props or supplies you’re handing out to your in-person community during special events or seasons (Advent, Lent, etc.) Take the time to write personal handwritten cards from the staff and lay leaders for thank yous, birthdays, and major life events. Send craft supplies and activities for their kids. Send care packages to college students at the end of their semester. Furthermore, consider creating scholarship funds to support those going through school, or small grants that your online community can apply for and put towards projects or services in their area that spread your vision and mission. In other words, invest in your people who are farther away as investments in building your community beyond your local context. Invest in them because you love them.
Raise funds to do all this through hiring an Online Community Coordinator or assign this role to a deacon or elder in your in-person community.
If you’re thinking that all this sounds like it could be a full-time job, you If you’re thinking that all this sounds like it could be a full-time job, you may be right. It could also be a great role for an elder or deacon. Who in your community has a passion and skill set for building online communities and social media campaigns? Who’s great with technology and can help you get some of this started? Maybe it’s a team of people who are particularly gifted in hospitality and caring for others, or maybe you’re lucky enough to have the funds to hire a Digital Pastor. Consider building these goals and job descriptions into your next budget or financial campaign.
Expect them to give, so include their stories when you ask people to give.
If you are taking the time to love those in your online community, then expect them to invest their love back into their community as well. Forefront Brooklyn has been livestreaming their worship services for years. Two in-person visitors who came to worship once while staying in town with a friend later because monthly givers who reached out to share their story and encourage the staff to keep investing in their online services. Assume everyone who walks through your door, whether or not you ever see them again, is someone who is now a part of your community. This is only the start of how we’ll begin to see more churches, more communities and more people loved and thriving in the world. Just as God intends for it to be.