Church and Kids Ministry Online

One of the big struggles with the current church online scenario is what to do with kids. Churches are struggling with it. In many ways the problem can be summarized this way…

Don’t try to digitize the past or the present. We need to invent the industry of tomorrow.

Erik Swedberg

The quote is actually from a Dassault webinar I watched, but the application is wide-ranging. Churches are asking how can we do kids ministry online the same way we used to. The answer…we can’t.

We can’t just approximate what we did physically for children in the digital space.

We may have to go “old school” and disciple and equip the parents to engage their kids.

We may all have to act as if the time of church programs that often acted as free (or discount) kid watching (and, yes, brought lots of people in and built relationships) is over.

Emily Flake wrote a piece titled, My Kid Sold Her Soul to Roblox: It’s my daughter’s main social outlet, and I’m not taking it away from her. In it we read a parent’s struggle with the current reality of living remotely.

This is not to argue against gathering physically (Flake certainly isn’t). It is to recognize that part of the church’s struggle with kids ministry in the current context is that we’re trying to do it the same way that we’ve been doing it for decades.

Here’s the question, though. If kids ministry has been so effective the way we’ve been doing it for the last few decades, then why has the percentage of identifying Christians continued to drop at an increasing rate?

Maybe COVID is our guilt-free way of pressing reset on church.

Spacing Out

We’re all basically in a place right now where we have so many attentional drains, because we don’t have place to focus us. You know, going to a place focuses our effort, because we’re here to do a thing, but when you’re working out of your home, it’s very different.

How to Channel Your Attention, Todd Henry. The Accidental Creative Podcast ©2020

We recently received a message that some of our people would not return to church, because we required face masks (in compliance with the government directive).

First of all, this is not about any COVID-19 face mask requirements in your state (or country). Nor is this about the apparent disregard some have for the authorities. Nor is this about those who rigidly adhere.

This is about space.

Many years ago, I heard about a study on sleep and reading. The study’s supposed conclusion was that if we spend all our time reading in our bed, we will psychologically associate our bed (a place of sleep/rest) with reading (a wakeful activity). This makes it, according to the study, harder to fall asleep.

Associating a space with an activity is valuable, and very human. This is part of what makes the current conversation about church online difficult. There is a reason many people cannot move beyond the space.

Thomas Moore wrote about this in one of his books (I can’t remember if it was Care of the Soul or Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life) about people making altars in the simple places in their homes.

We see this in many Asian countries. If you go to many Asian restaurants, you will see, often at the entrance, a very simple shrine. You may overlook it. However, that is a “place” within another “place” that has a completely different function.

Jesus said, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6 NIV)

Why bring that up? Well, it’s talking about space; a private space for a particular activity.

That family from the opening? They were looking for a space worship with certain requirements.

Todd Henry’s focus was on how, for those working from home, there is all this stuff competing for attention. His point being that people were having to fight greater distractions from home. He was applying this to work.

This also applies to church. A person is at home “watching” church. The same distractions that may have caused a problem working remotely now impact worship.

For the ongoing COVID season, we may have to start thinking about teaching people about space and preparing a space for worship. It could be as simple as a couple of candles that are only used during worship (back to the whole psychology thing).

There is another reason for this. Should the church return to the building next year (we hope), we may have to reteach and relearn how to worship again together. Yes, that’s down the road, but it’s back to space, and it would be a different space than the space once worshiped in (i.e., their home).

Let’s NOT Go Back?

Just like so many people, I’ve been overwhelmed as of late. You’d think I’d be really happy that all the churches are going online. I am. It’s just that I’ve found that it now means a lot more voices in this conversation that I, as an introvert, find hard to manage.

That being said, I’ve been listening to an older episode of The Church Digital Podcast (Episode 69), and Matt Welty and Jason Morris drop a proverbial bomb in the first 10 minutes

Matt Welty, “…it’s up to you pastors then go for it, you take the responsibility of the health of your county, of your neighborhood, and of your state. It’s on you now. Because the sports guys, they’re not doing anything. I mean, every other large gathering has been clamped down except for the church. And this is one of those weird legal things about separation of church and state kind of stuff where it plays out in wacky ways. For pastors right now. And now we’ve got pressure from both sides. We’ve got pressure from the culture to not open and then you’ve got pressure from people in our churches to open…We want it because it will give us a sense of normalcy. As a churchgoer, as someone who’s been in bad habit, this will give me an anchor that feels great and it will be amazing and I’ll get to see my people and that’ll be awesome. But we’re going to reopen and risk are witness to unbelieving people who we hope to reach and welcome into the family of God. So that the church people who are already engaged in our church currently can come back into a building and then…”

Jason Morris, “…Because you would think that we would have learned from the example of Jesus, that it’s not about us [it’s] about that last person who doesn’t know Jesus yet. And if we do something stupid culturally, that puts yet another mark against the name of Jesus. I think we’re kind of gonna be held accountable for that, too”

Otter.ai transcription of The Church Digital Podcast Ep 069.

Perhaps this is telling of my perspective as it currently stands. I agree with them. The people of the church are so eager to get back to normal, that it could be that we are blind to the people around us who are not church people, or even not believers in Jesus Christ.

The whole staged return concept is attractive, yet it is fraught with dangers. The steps forward and likely steps back will probably create more hard feelings or bad habits. It has struck me that the staggered return might actually accelerate the big fear of the “the church” as an organization…they aren’t coming back.

This dovetails into concerns that are more of a personal and pastoral point-of-view, rather than the Digital Expression of the Great Commission (what this site wants to be about).

I’m glad that people want to get back together. Even I, as the introvert, am struggling with this separation. However, we really need to think about why people want to get back together. Is this really just proof that “the church” is a country club?

How many people are pursuing some sort of discipling while not attending church? Even when options are provided (and within the confines of requests), many people are not part of some sort of discipleship.

Of course, there is the reality is that some people are participating in discipleship (especially right now) to “medicate” their separation from others. There are also probably far too many that are participating more to check the box than to grow in Christ.

All this to say, that “the church” should probably reconsider when and how the return to the building is done.

Now for the ouch part, for me at least. When the church was kicked out of Jerusalem (tied to the fall of Jerusalem in CE 66–73), the church really began to spread. Perhaps instead of viewing not being able to be in the building as a problem to solve, it ought to be seen as a mission to be embraced.

No One Way

Yesterday (on Easter), I woke up (on purpose) before 5am. I had decided to experience Tampa Underground’s Easter gathering. Tampa Underground is a hub-and-spoke model of church, in particular microsites. There is a governing center (the hub) with a whole bunch of committed satellite sites (the spokes). It is different than the American standard model of denominations in that each microsite is very particular and small on purpose. This is in contrast to many American churches that are small and particular by chance, atrophy, directionlessness, or some leader issues.

Yet, the hub-and-spoke model created a very different (historically) expression of an Easter service. We were (predominately) on Zoom. Due to Zoom limitations, some people were watching on Facebook. What made this interesting is that there were people from Ireland, the Philippines, France, and the USA all leading different aspects of this worship gathering. Imagine that! An international/intercultural Easter gathering! Talk about turning the world’s systems upside down!

If there is one thing that church online does better than the physical gathering on Sundays (or whatever day your church gathers), is the ability to gather from around the globe. There is a special power when people outside of your immediate world speak into your life.

The standard model of church is able to do this, but the protection of one’s local context (often out of unrecognized fear) creates an atmosphere where this is much harder. The advantage of the hub-and-spoke model is an automatic decentralization that really allows for such a creative and expressive Easter (or any church) gathering.

So, while much of the church is still trying to figure out what the digital means for their local expression, there also needs to be a shift into thing what we can do with this technology. This time is a challenge. This time is also an opportunity!

Now What?

One of the biggest (and most valid) critiques of doing church online (or, as in the current COVID situation, only online) is the lack of connection. We humans are made for connection. Understand that this is coming from an introvert. I too need connection. There is something about physical connection. There is this matter of being present with one another that often defies logic.

Many people of the more digital persuasion are not persuaded by this undefinable need. Some people dismiss the “digitarati” as broken or emotionally-stunted people. Some may be that way. Most, however, are driven by numbers not undefinables, or so they think. Honestly, numbers are good. Those that often dismiss the digitarati don’t connect the numbers to the people.

There is the historical people are not numbers. They aren’t. They are people with stories. However, numbers represent people, people who have stories. Numbers can and do tell stories, too. They tell the story of people and their history. Numbers should be paid attention to.

What does that have to do with, “now what?”

There are lots of numbers watching church online right now. That cannot be enough. There are usually a lot of numbers watching football, soccer, basketball, hockey. Numbers can do many things. And they are lacking…and so is online church.

Yes, online church is the wave of the future. Okay, it was. It is now the present. Our next steps, and I know mine, is how we move to discipleship and spiritual growth. Really, much of online church is what already happens in the so-called “real” physical church…audiences and consumers.

Even some of the younger people of the church do not find this online expression to be very satisfying. That’s actually a good thing. In a day and age where there is great concern regarding disconnection, that the technology-embedded generations recognize a difference is a good thing!

The reality is that all of us are looking at ways to develop and maintain community while we are physically distanced. Small groups online is the way we are going to all have to go, and it will not be the most comfortable or the most incarnation we think or feel it ought to be. That’s okay.

Online church services and online small groups may online be for a short time. It also may be for a long time. We don’t know. There are currently denominations/traditions/regions/local churches that have chosen, for example, to not celebrate the Eucharist together. There are others who are bending their theology to allow some sort of communal Eucharist celebration. There are others who have no theological issue with online communion at all. Most of the longtime online churches have that theological perspective.

This is a time of learning. What needs to be done to be the church? What does it mean to be part of the church when we are distant?

One of the things that this is teaching us is that how poor our Bible teaching has been. It’s probably better to say, how poorly have we empowered and encouraged people to pursue Christ through reading the Bible in discernment on their own. We have, it seems, overly centralized God’s word. For those who object to the term “self-feeding”, I do agree to an extent. Yet, this shows why it is so important to create some form of “self-feeding”.

Without decentralization, we would have never been gifted Paul’s words. Think on that for a moment. When Paul wrote he was away from (or never even met) the churches he wrote to. This isn’t that new.

In the American Western Frontier (from the 19th century) there were the Methodist Circuit Riders. They existed because the people were disconnected from one another. They went around to deliver the Word of God and the Eucharist, and to baptize. What has been utterly fascinating is how much the American Church has forgotten that. The Church of the Nazarene came from much of that, as many of our churches are in very rural areas, which is odd having been started on the streets of Los Angeles in the “wrong” side of town.

Perhaps, we have lost what it means to be connected. This might also be an echo what the USA is experiencing in its current cultural and political climate. We are disconnected from one another, even in our own neighborhoods. Perhaps the greatest lesson we are learning in the current COVID situation is that we are disconnected and we don’t know how to be connected.

Tech Glitch

Everything’s been working, and then suddenly there’s a problem. Sound familiar?

For those of us who do not do online church as profession (i.e., full-time paid), we often have to fit online in. In addition, while churches are learning about online (COVID-19 being the biggest full-blown panic instigator), they may not have all the pieces in place needed for that professional presentation we all desire to have (and compare ourselves to).

Take this past Sunday (15 March 2020). We didn’t have house sound. Which has always been a problem for my online mix, as I’m in the house and miss a lot. The sound should have been perfect!

It wasn’t. Instead of having the perfect sound, we had this weird warble. It was awful. Really, really awful. The primary guess is that it was an input that doesn’t cause us problems that did now because there was nothing to mask it, or something else changed. There were a couple proposed items, which I will be working on.

Long way of saying, I’m not a professional. Just like a lot of other people, I’m learning along the way. I have to fit this into the rest of my life. So, it will be frustrating and heart-wrenching. That’s the reality.

If you had a great first launch…AWESOME! I’m really glad! If you didn’t, I understand completely.

Measuring Up

We all compare ourselves to others. Churches compare themselves to other churches. Pastors compare themselves to other pastors. Online streamers compare themselves to online streamers. There is some good in that, as long as one is looking for a goal and to learn. The problem lies in looking at the current state as if your current state is similar. It isn’t.

The COVID-19 virus currently sweeping the world (whether physically or mentally/emotionally) is shining the light back upon this for me, especially for those who are finding themselves in the middle of trying to do something with which they are unfamiliar and unprepared.

There are a number of easy ways to get online streaming started. However, your first run will probably be a bit rough. It might even be awful. That’s okay. In many ways, just to be clear, I’m preaching to myself as much as I am speaking to you. I mentally rip apart each of the streams I do with what I did badly. As long as I don’t tear myself down and learn from it, and improve, that’s fine. It should be the same with you.

A lot of small (i.e., don’t have much/any “spare” money) churches are going to be live streaming this weekend. They will be doing it on a shoestring or zero budget. It’s also likely that those further along the streaming road will criticize the shortcomings of the stream. It’s quite possible that congregants, too, will be unhappy and complain. Not only are the congregants unable to go to church, now they have to watch this “awful” thing on their phone, computer, or TV.

The sad reality is that many churches (including my own) will be compared to “professional” setups that (frankly) most churches just can’t afford, or would even want to. The big “professional” setups cost a huge amount of money. This is not to say that the “professional” setups are wrong, they just aren’t the calling of most churches.

Ultimately, give yourself grace to do this. While broadcasting online really isn’t that new, churches (even those who are “professional”) are still learning exactly what it means to be “church online”. Don’t think you need to be up to speed this Sunday.

Digital as AntiFragile

In his book, Rings of Fire, Leonard Sweet writes (pg 13):

In the language of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, we must learn to be an Antifragile Church that can embrace vulnerability and weakness and celebrate the positivity of stress. To be “antifragile” is to trust the order behind the chaos, to flourish from random environments rather than established settings, and not to be afraid of antifragile preaching that can take place outside the normal patterns (systems) of church. YouTube, Facebook, podcasts, and other digital formats (screens) are a few antifragile ways to preach in a hostile culture.

I was recently involved in a conversation which talked about how the “local” church must/should remain local, and yet understand that the moment they go online, their online expression (in whatever form) is no longer local. This is incredibly important to understand, as we now have a unique freedom to speak the truth about Jesus Christ in a way that a greater proportion of people will not feel threatened by it.

The internet has been a great source of bad, honestly, no matter how much we might “love” it. It can—which is the point of this site—also reach the world for the Gospel. Roads can be bad, as bad drivers (or even good drivers under bad circumstances) can kill a person with a bad decision. We’re not talking about banning roads. The internet can bring a lot of evil and corruption right into our pockets. If we ignore that power, however, do we really want to look a Jesus and say, “sorry, I was too concerned with what might have happened, to care that I could have shared about your grace, love and mercy.” That’s not a conversation I want to have.

Digital is #IRL

Back in January, I had posted a comment on Online + Digital Church Leaders (Facebook ⧉) regarding the language used in the context of physical and digital expressions of church.

I realized that it might be time to adjust some language. If we really are going to believe that digital community can (and does) happen, then perhaps we ought to drop In Real Life (IRL). We all (I think) believe that the digital expression of church is valid. Therefore we ought to not diminish it by using IRL, as it implies that online isn’t real. I understand that this is a cultural thing. However, as we train our leaders and churches about digital church, we shouldn’t even inadvertently reinforce the bias against digital expressions.

If you are not familiar with #IRL it is the abbreviation for “in real life”. It is used in online and SMS messaging to indicate that something is happening outside of the digital realm. The problem is, especially when considering online church and discipleship, is this constant comparison of digital to “real”. We all do understand some of the “false” digital life pieces, much of which revolves around games. Yet, at the same time, we understand just how real the digital is with concerns about “flame-wars” and cyber-bullying. There is a constant tug between the “unreal” part of digital life and the “real” part.

My role as Online Campus Paster at Generations Community Church has forced a lot of this to the fore in my mind and heart. I’m not much of a gamer…okay, I’m not a gamer at all. Like many, the extent of my “gaming” are those mobile games. My interest wanes pretty quickly, as I am just not willing to invest that much time into any of it. Many people view games as fake or false, and thus “not real.” It’s then easy to put any such digital “thing” in the “not real” category.

Part, maybe even most, of it is this concept/perception that if the flesh can’t be touched, then it is not “real”. There is this idea back from the old days of the internet, that everyone behind a screen is just a persona. That just isn’t true. Is there some of that? Absolutely! There is just as much of that in the world of “touching flesh”. In fact, there might even be more. What if the digital does a better job of separating our personas from our true and deep selves?

Someone (I’ll give credit if I can figure out who) recently noted that the Roman Catholic church has had a practice of anonymity when it comes to confession. There was no question as to the integrity of what was confessed, though the confessor’s integrity in pursuing confession could be different. Yet, somehow we have this mindset that everything else must be “in the flesh” to be real.

Counting Online Worshippers

In February 2019, the general SDMI board sent out a directive for counting online worshippers.

The criteria for online attendance should address these items: personal identification, minimum duration, opportunity for participation, follow-up from host congregation.

Churches may include in their regular worship attendance the number of confirmed devices or individuals who have:

  1. remained connected during at least 50% or 30 minutes of the streamed gathering or recorded content
  2. engaged the broadcasting church by:
    • Online registration or identification
    • Provided an opportunity for personal participation or communication (Chat rooms, submission of prayer requests, etc.)
  3. received weekly personal contact/follow-up by a designated individual from the hosting congregation

Church should indicate on-campus and on-line attendance separately when reporting monthly worship attendance.

Churches should take care to actively engage online participants in the same manner they do those present at their physical gatherings. Intentional efforts should be made to enter them into discipleship processes and, where possible, move them from the digital gathering to the physical gathering of the local congregation.

Based on observed (and sometimes confessed) behavior, I wonder what would happen were we to apply the same requirements of those who visited physically.

Let’s take item 1 regarding remaining connected. How many people are really and truly connected at our physical services? I have spoken to many who are flat-out are disengaged during the singing of worship songs. I have known others who have calculated the average amount of singing and will show up at the service at that average time, trying to minimize (or eliminated) any presence during the singing. Yes, these can be exceptions, however, with what we know about attention spans, it really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that people aren’t engaged for the full service when physically present at them.

Item 2 is actually quite interesting. In my short experience, by this measure, most people seem to be “engaged” (again, as defined by item 2). This item is different insofar as being an “opportunity” not necessarily an action. As for saying “I’m here”, that is one of the beauties of online, is that the church’s capability to “prove” attendance is actually part of many platforms. However, connection cards—whether digital or physical—are really only somewhat successful.

It is, though, really Item 3 that is the most significant. This item would fall under the area called life groups (or discipleship groups or small groups or…). Most churches, that I am aware of, know that this particular subsection of the church is vital to both the health of the larger congregation, the church as a whole, and the growth of individuals toward a fuller expression of Jesus Christ.

This is probably part of the Church of the Nazarene’s Wesleyan heritage that creates a focus on this. However, it’s this heritage that also, sadly, displays the shortcomings of the current Western church culture at large. The “official” metric for Sunday School (the Church of the Nazarene term for all things not Sunday service) would be quite interesting were we only able to include those that attended both a Sunday Service and a life group of some sort. Many church’s official attendance would be significantly reduced.

Now, to be honest, that may not be a bad thing. Imagine if the reported metric was attendance and it only counted for those who did both? How would the church (digital or physical) change its behavior? That is an interesting thought experiment itself.