My church in Seattle is 1-3 weeks ahead of the rest of The United States due to our proximity to the first COVID-19 (coronavirus) cases in the country. We like to share our learnings. In the previous articles in this series, we explored several realities with churches dealing with the COVID-19 world
- Churches that are allowed to keep worshipping and want to practice better sanitary practices around their churchy stuff (Holy Communion, bulletins, hymnals, offering plates, passing the peace, etc) can follow these recommended practices by the King County Public Health department in Seattle.
- Churches (most regions worldwide now) that have closed and are looking to livestream with a small group of worship leaders from their church buildings. Here’s how to do it.
- Churches that are under strict “shelter in place” lockdown can still create worship services from home. Here’s how to do it.
- For any situation of streaming from home or church, here’s some digital audio tips from a guest writer who is an audio expert and a pastor.
Today’s article is not on worship but on the care and connection with your congregation when you are unable to gather in groups, large or small, because of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Theory: A call from the past
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist tradition, would organize early Methodists into small groups called “bands” which met weekly to check in on each other and keep the colonial Methodists connected. These were important because the Methodist minister was assigned to multiple churches on a circuit and would visit those churches once a month or two months, so church members needed to connect with each other on their own. When the minister trotted into town, the minister would meet with the band leaders to hear how the communities were doing.
Small groups are critical for the life of faith:
Witnesses to Jesus Christ in the world are formed, equipped, and supported best in small groups with other witnesses. The early Methodist class and band meetings are excellent examples of such groups. Blockages to grace are removed when Christians meet weekly to watch over one another in love, to pray for one another, to sing hymns of praise to our Lord, to give an account of what they have done to witness to Jesus Christ in the world. Christians learn how to stop resisting Christ’s grace when they meet weekly in his name for mutual accountability and support for living as his witnesses in the world. As trust grows among them, their faith in Christ increases. They grow closer to Christ as they grow closer to one another. (Source)
While Wesley’s groups were focused on accountability with assigned questions, during this season of isolation, digital groups can provide a touchstone and connection to the world outside. And pastors can likewise meet with digital group leaders and be connected far beyond what they could in person.
But here’s the problem: The original bands were assigned by neighborhood. Folks traveled on horseback in early American days, so picking members who could easily walk or ride to each other was essential. So how do we gather and group people when we are unable to get together in person?
Practice: offer people the choice of connection
Keeping in touch as small groups can be easy for folks who have already opted-into a ministry group or mission. The first thing my church did was check in on the established groups and encourage them to continue to connect with each other. The knitting circle can call each other, the young adults can have pub theology on Zoom, etc. Encouraging those established groups connect in a different way was pretty simple.
But then I was shown a revelation: ministry and mission groups might not transition to online easily because even though people showed up in person to those events, they may not all have the same preferred communication methods.
This revelation came when I had a conversation with some senior adults who had gathered for the last time before the lockdown. I assumed they wanted to call each other, given their age bracket, but many said they didn’t answer the phone…too many telemarketers! They’d rather email one another. I ended up polling the group, and there was a diversity of preferred communication methods.
So what my church did was poll our membership and online community and ask them to opt into these small groups based on one criteria only: preferred method of communication. How do people want to check in once a week? A weekly email? A phone call on Fridays? A text chain? Or a video chat? Then we divided people into groups of 5-7 people and asked them to check in, once a week, by Fridays, and then their group leaders will check in with the pastor once a week.
What do those look like in practice?
1. Keeping connected by video chat
The most popular option by younger adults and technologically adventurous senior adults has been an app called MarcoPolo, which allows you to set up groups of people and record brief live videos, and when you click “done” it is automatically sent to that group. People can look at it at their leisure. It’s such a fun and helpful way to be more stream-of-consciousness with each other. It can take a little discipline (and you can delete videos if you accidentally walk into a pole while recording…lol), but it has been a new experience that is connecting to each other. Seeing faces and hearing stream-of-consciousness reflections is about as real life as you can get online.
2. Keeping connected by phone
The most popular option by senior adults and homebound members might be phone calls. There’s two ways of doing phone call check-ins:
- In a group of 5-7 people, rotate who is the “caller” each week and the caller contacts the rest of the group members and checks in, hears about their lives, and enjoys their week of deeper connections. Then the next week it rotates to someone else who does that. This can be really neat, but it can also be hit-or-miss if the times to call are not scheduled.
- The group can set up a conference call (Zoom meetings can be done via conference call, disregarding the video chat option) at a designated time, and then they can all be on the phone at the same time. This takes scheduling and picking a method that doesn’t involve a lot of typing in numbers, but it can work well with Free Conference Call or Zoom or other methods.
Both of these approaches allow adults of all ages to check in and hear each other’s voices.
3. Keeping connected by email or text
The most popular option by active persons is to connect once a week with an email or texting group. The expectation is that once a week, group members would email or text each other reports on their days. The group leader would have a guiding question, for sure, but each individual in the group suddenly has a built-in sounding board for whatever is going on in their lives. Texts return pretty quickly depending on the group, but you can get into the details better in email than any other medium.
Key side benefit: Accountability and connection
When the groups are formed, the ministry leaders can meet with the group leaders once a week, hearing what’s going on in their groups and how the church can best respond to physical, emotional, or spiritual needs. The ministry leaders can also answer questions and provide feedback the other direction, so both the people and the leaders feel better connected.
Conclusion: Instant Intergenerational Ministry
When I showed a senior adult how MarcoPolo worked, they were thrilled and wanted in that group. When I looked at the registration of a tech-savvy young adult, they had chosen phone calls as their preferred method. Communication desires span the age spectrum—and we are better for it as these groups are now the most intergenerational active ministry in the church in this COVID-19 season!
My hope is that this is a helpful reflection on helping people stay connected in this extended Lent, this long winter, this Groundhog Day concern, until we are gathered together again. May the church emerge anew and renewed, not yearning for what was, and build on the strength of what your church does in this interim time.
Thoughts? How are you connecting people during this COVID-19 lockdown? Post in the comments!
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