Once upon a time at Ellen White’s Elmshaven home, a granddaughter who lived with her asked Grandma White what the children of the vineyard laborers ate in their camps down in the valley. What Mrs. White did next is a story they still tell when you visit Elmshaven.
Grandma White took her granddaughter into the kitchen and asked the cooks to bake up a ton of lemon meringue pies. “That’s my favorite food,” she told the children, “and I think that’s what the valley children would enjoy too.” From then on, every Friday morning the cooks would bake several dozen pies. While they were still warm, Grandma and the children would pile into the carriage and drive down the Silverado Trail to the camps where the Mexican vineyard laborers lived - distributing bread, vegetables, and lemon meringue pies to all the families.
We are in a whirlwind where all churches and ministries are scrambling to ramp-up online ministry initiatives, or to launch an online presence for the first time. These are uncharted waters where the ministry needs and process have changed.
When public gatherings were temporarily banned, congregations tried to move worship services online as rapidly as possible, providing church members with similar content to what they would have received in person on a normal Sabbath morning.
Overnight, most church members could now go online and choose from thousands of sermons with the click of a button. Churches were providing members with content they could consume at home. Quickly, there was way too much content to navigate and digest. And most of the content was just that: content. Isn’t church supposed to be about community, fellowship, conversation, and family?
Let us explain. People have been in physical COVID-19 isolation, starving for community. To serve effectively our online presence must build community rather than just providing things for people to see and hear. Online ministry must engage people in experiencing the love of Jesus “together.”
The key to a successful online ministry is engagement, connecting people as participants, rather than spectators.
Can we really build truth-filled spiritual communities online? Absolutely! Facebook has 2.5 billion users and Instagram has a billion more. Their success is in building community connections among people with similar interests.
Here’s a possible online ministry model:
1. Listen first. Use your phones and social media accounts to discover how people are facing their daily challenges. Ask about the kids, about Grandpa, about what they’re doing for exercise, and how they’re getting groceries. Provide new ways for people to talk to and support each other. Ask lots of questions. Take lots of notes. Get people involved in actively meeting real needs.
2. Purposefully plan online events to build community:
a. Story-sharing – 20-30 minutes
• Invite God’s guidance, and identify who’s online and how they’re doing.
• Stories. “What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve seen this week?” Tell us about a family member who especially needs our prayers.” “What new things have you learned about your neighbors?” “Share a Bible story that’s giving you hope.” “How did it go with last week’s Scripture activity?” Remember to include all age groups!
• Music. One member singing at the piano, a video of a virtual choir singing a favorite worship song, kids playing kazoos. Music energizes souls. Check your broadcast rights!
b. Scripture-sharing – 15 minutes
• A Scripture-based presentation laced with encouragement. Speak with the family from God’s Word and propose practical activity that will engage everyone in living the message.
• 5-10 minutes of practical applications from the message. Encourage feedback, take more prayer requests, share stories, and answer questions about this week’s activity. This is a time for family celebration and for planning specific community service.
• 5-10 minutes of community prayer. Un-mute the mics and encourage participants to share in brief sentence fragments. Some have found these “popcorn prayers” take the fear out of public prayer while encouraging everyone to participate.
Remember, in this time of isolation the real need is community. Help people know they are seen, heard, loved, and that they belong. Design and deliver Spirit-filled content that enhances spiritual community for the congregation and their neighbors.