The Digital Church as a New Site
Everyone has had to adapt during the pandemic. And everyone looks forward to things getting back to normal. Some churches are now taking a serious look at how things they have learned, and are continuing to learn, during the era of online church can be applied to a post-pandemic world as a tool to make disciples. It brings up a new way of thinking – considering an online presence as a distinct campus of a church – even going as far as treating that digital campus as a new church start.
“In the midst of the pandemic, some churches have realized that simply putting their worship services online is not enough for people who genuinely want to explore Christianity or grow in their faith, but will never be able to physically attend that church,” said Missouri Conference Director of Congregation Excellence Roger Ross. “A Digital Campus is essentially a multi-site whose location is online rather than geographic. It will have staff and lay leaders dedicated to those who participate in the life of the church virtually, including providing small groups, a discipleship pathway, and ways in which people can serve.”
The GatheringOne Missouri Conference church that is assertively moving forward into that world is The Gathering in St. Louis. The Rev. Matt Miofsky has leaned into managing their online campus as a new church start. One difference in having that mindset is the notion of permanence.
“The online campus isn’t just a stop-gap measure to employ during COVID-19. It’s a permeant feature of our worship that will be there for people who live some distance away, or people who may be reluctant to attend in-person worship after it resumes,” Miofsky said. Another factor is ensuring the online-worshipper has a full ministry experience.
“We’re providing clearer ways to connect and get involved, with opportunities to be part of a core group, and have a pastor dedicated to the online experience,” Misofsky said.
Dave Merrill has been with The Gathering for eight years, with positions ranging from college-age ministry to children’s ministry. Now as the online pastor, his goal is to give virtual and in-person worshipers the same opportunities with no exceptions.
“They should feel like they can stop in to pray during the week, or make connections and find friends online,” he said.
The Gathering went into the pandemic in an advantaged position of already having a video sermon that is prepared in advance of worship. As a multi-campus church, Rev. Matt Miofsky has been preaching his sermon for years to a small group in the chapel a couple of days before the weekend to have the message ready for all the campuses by Sunday morning.
“We didn’t have to change anything regarding the way we doing the sermon,” said Dave Merrill, digital campus pastor.
Worship is being shot in a new way, though. Rather than a wide shot of a stage while they play, or a single camera panning around, the worship video is being produced like a music video, with the audio recorded in advance, and then the band performing again while the video is being shot.
Online benchmarks are different. Miofsky isn’t interested in trying to duplicate in-person benchmarks like attendance, but would rather create a new set of online benchmarks, looking at things like views that only lasts a few seconds, longer views, whether people are engaging in some way other than just watching, if people are participating in online events outside of worship, are they giving, are they connecting.
There are also new ways to serve at the church.
“We have moderators at each of our online services who are there to welcome people and answer questions,” Miofsky said. “We’ve already had people who have joined our worship team as moderators who have never been to an in-person worship service at The Gathering.”
The Gathering has online services on Sunday morning at 8, 9, 10 and 11 a.m. The “attendance” at the services leveled out, with the 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. services taking over from the 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. services as being the larger ones, but not by much.
“There’s more equality between them now,” Merrill said.
The Gathering has started moving into mid-week worship as well. Merrill says he’s thinking they will offer worship during the weekday lunch hour, five days a week.
“It can’t hurt, even if it’s just a few people each time,” he said. “But we don’t want to run a live stream service without someone present to receive people, welcome them and answer questions.”
Miofsky is intrigued about the opportunities that multiple worship times present.
“The more options you have, the more people will opt-in. Unlike in-person worship, there is no downside to worshiping multiple times. You may not have 200 in worship, but maybe you will have 20 that is replicated 10, 20 or 30 times,” Miofsky said.
The Gathering is still online-only, but is beginning to consider steps to returning to in-person worship. They’re considering not only statistical data relating to COVID-19 in their area but also congregational readiness, internal (staff and volunteers) readiness, and stewardship issues, with the bottom-line being “Is returning to in-person worship at this time the best way to accomplish our mission?”
Miofsky sees one of the biggest differences between in-person and online worship is the timing difference regarding invitation. For an in-person event or worship experience, people have to invite their friends in advance of the event, in anticipation of it being good. After the event is over the opportunity to invite is gone. For an online event or worship experience, if someone finds it to be meaningful they can invite their friends after that event.
“That happened after the riot in Washington DC,” Miofsky said. “I spoke to it in my sermon, and many people who found it meaningful then invited their friends to that online worship experience after they heard it.”
Before the pandemic, The Gathering had multiple Facebook pages, and no Facebook groups. They learned they needed to consolidate to one Facebook page and establish groups for engagement. Merrill posts to the group every day.
“You have to keep the conversation going,” he said.
He had started out by posting educational things and heavier theological topics on the group, but it didn’t result in much engagement. He then tried simple posts, like “What should I pray for today?” and it took off.
Sermons from the week prior are available at anytime on-demand. Initially, sermons were being shown on the website, but that didn’t support chat. Then they moved to Facebook. Now the services are available on three platforms, The Gathering Church | St. Louis, MO (gatheringnow.org) website, Facebook and as podcasts.
“The name of the game is options,” Merrill said. “It’s like how Amazon is building physical stores. It’s not something to compete with what you already doing, but to compliment it.”
Merrill posts to The Gathering’s Facebook page every day, sometimes multiple times a day. He found deep, theological posts didn’t get much attention. But a simple question, like “What or who should I be praying for today?” would get hundreds of responses. Merrill sees the engagement as presenting them with an in-road to the core purpose of the church.
“Our mission was to create Christian community for a new generation of people, and that hasn’t changed,” Merrill said. What online church looks like may evolve to something very different than an online version of in-person worship. basically treated the online viewer as an afterthought in terms of priorities. “There was no real intentionality around engaging our small online community, developing relationships or inviting them to take the next step towards engagement and discipleship,” Schulte said.
He knows that the natural tendency post-pandemic will be to return to how things were before, but he intends to do better and keep the online momentum going.
“Our online campus is a unique expression of The River at Eureka,” he said. The church’s weekly online worship service is recorded on Thursday evenings and includes different music and a different message, although it is still in line with the current sermon series. They use a live streaming service to live stream the online campus weekend services at 5 p.m. on Saturday and at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Sunday. During these times the online hospitality team is engaging people through conversation, asking questions, and providing links where they can send a text message or contact someone with any questions or any prayer concerns that they may have.
“This is still very much a work in progress,” Schulte said. “Our next step is to establish online life groups and one-on-one discipleship for the individuals and families that we are developing a connection with through our online campus.”
The church has developed an online hospitality team that interacts with its online community. Being online allows them to recruit from a much wider area. Two of their online hospitality team members who have been fully equipped and trained live out-of-state, in Ohio and Georgia.
“We are developing relationships with our online community, engaging in conversations and inviting them to take the next step towards discipleship and a deeper connection with Christ in the Body of Christ,” Schulte said. “We have a gentleman from Texas who has developed a strong connection to our online community and will likely be our first online-only member who will join from out of state.”
The online campus also reaches many people in their immediate mission area. The church has seen steady growth in the connection with new people that live within about a 30-mile radius of their location in Eureka.
“It has challenged me, our staff, and members of our worship and tech team as we sought to bring this vision to life. We were working with a pretty short runway of just a few weeks to launch this campus before we began meeting in person this fall,” Schulte said. “One thing that I’ve personally learned through this is that I now see our online guests as real people and not simply a number that shows up in the upper left-hand corner of the live stream. These are real people who either love Jesus now or are seeking answers and will hopefully discover the joy of their salvation through a deep and meaningful relationship with Jesus.”
Good ShepherdLike The River, Good Shepherd in Kansas City had previously thought of their online presence as a fallback option for when their people were unable to attend. Through COVID-19 they’ve been drawing in more people who had never been to the church. That makes Rev. Mark Sheets consider how a church like his can compete with a mega-church like Willow Creek or Saddleback, let alone the elephant in the city, Church of the Resurrection.
“We’re not comparing our something to something else in town, we’re comparing our something to every something around the country,” Sheets said.
Sheets feels blessed to have a gifted worship leader who is also very tech savy. They transformed Good Shepherd’s online worship experience from what looked like a streaming video of a live event to something much more produced that looks like a television program. The church set up a dedicated studio space in a 15 x 15 room and individually produced various elements of their worship experience.
Now when Sheets is preparing a sermon, rather than thinking in terms of how to localize a topic, he’s considering how to globalize it.
“I’m not making as many Kansas City references, and remembering that not everyone is a Chief’s fan,” he said.
He knows there are thousands of people trying to connect online now at Good Shepherd. He doesn’t know if they will stay in small groups, if they will get baptized, if the online church will become a permanent thing, or if eventually the church’s online presence will revert back to just being a nicer option for their own people when they are on vacation.
“COVID-19 is a game-changer,” Sheets said. “We can’t do some things that we were doing before, but we’re not sure what to do next, so we take some stabs in the dark. Some things will be fruitful and some things will fall on its face.
He hopes their online campus connects to people who don’t have a church home. He wants it to create community, to have its own identity, to not reference in-person worship and for the online worshipper to not feel like they are second-class citizens. He also knows that as restrictions ease and in-person worship and other in-person activities resume, it will be challenging to keep the digital campus as a priority.
“When we come back into the church I will have a lot of irons in the fire,” he said.
The Missouri Conference Center for Congregational Excellence has two cycles of grant funding for New Places for New People, with grant proposal submission deadlines on February 1 and September 15. For more information email Tammy Calcote at TCalcote@moumethodist.org.