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Archives for January, 2021

Like many churches in Covid, the church I’m part of has been meeting online since March of last year. Because we’re a small community, we opted to use Zoom (video conferencing application) for our worship gatherings, rather than a live-streaming platform like Youtube or Facebook, in hopes that we could maintain some of the connection and interaction that characterized our in-person worship gatherings.  

If Covid has revealed anything, it’s that the folks in our context are looking for connection more than content.  

They can get content anywhere. But what they can’t get anywhere is connection: people who know them, people who know about what’s going on in their lives, people to whom they belong.  

Covid revealed this truth, but didn’t create it. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in 2017 that loneliness was a public health epidemic in the United States, at the root of a great amount of emotional and physical pain. 

The global pandemic gave us the opportunity to enter into the ecclesial research and development lab in search of ways to facilitate connection and spiritual community through less than ideal digital mediums. And while I can’t wait for in-person gatherings to open up as soon as possible, I suspect these digital connection points will stay with us into the future.

Here are four strategies we’ve found helpful in cultivating community via Zoom: 

[Note: These strategies make the most sense in the context of a “mid-sized group” of 20-70 people (that is, not a small group and not a large group) — contexts like small churches, Sunday school classes, or large small groups.] 

  1. Employ leaders as virtual moderators. We offer discussion prompts throughout the course of our gatherings. For instance, every week the communion leader asks participants to share something they are thankful for that week. Those who want to share are instructed to put their name in the chat bar and the communion leader calls on folks one by one to share. For Zoom geeks, we use the chat bar rather than the “hand raise” function because it’s easier to identify. 
  2. Shorten or front-load content. Virtual venues seem to shorten participants’ already limited attention for information, so we decrease the amount of content we share in order to create more space for interaction about it. Some of my fellow Zoom colleagues are shortening their sermons to 5-7 minutes in response to this reality. We’ve also experimented with inviting people to process content ahead of time (e.g., a video message) and come ready to discuss it. This approach just happens to square with the cutting edge of adult learning theory — adults learn best when they are discussing what they’re learning!
  3. Nurture deeper connections with breakout rooms. Zoom’s breakout rooms are a great tool for deeper connection. Sometimes instead of introducing a discussion prompt for a group of 25 people, we’ll use Zoom to break people out into five groups of 5 people where the discussion can go deeper. We put the discussion prompt in the chat bar so groups can see it. Sometimes we prep breakout group leaders in advance to facilitate discussion; most of the time we just let the groups sort it out.
  4. For kids: minimize Zoom time and maximize parent participation. Last fall we started a simple format with our kids that they love. We get the kids together on Zoom for 10 minutes to see each other and talk about a discussion prompt. Then we get off Zoom for 25 minutes and parents do a lesson/activity they have prepared with their kids (we give all our parents access to our online kids curriculum and they choose what works for their kids). Then we get back on for 10 minutes for the kids to share what they learned with each other and pray together. The upside to this approach is that it empowers parents to disciple their kids while also giving kids the chance to connect spiritually with their friends — all while minimizing time on Zoom to account for short attention spans. 

I’m curious to hear from you all: how are you learning to cultivate community in this digital season of church? Leave a comment so we all can learn from your experiences! 

Flexibility – not everything is going to happen on schedule. Get used to making adjustments. This is going to get us limbered up for the future when we are going to have to get more innovative in areas that we could have never done had the pandemic not taken place. Consider this a warmup!

Technology – Many churches moved their message from a few hundred people in the local congregation to thousands of people online. This forced the infrastructure to be put into place that can enlarge churches’ global footprint for many years to come. Let’s use this wisely.

Facility – The facility finally got put in its place…large rooms that sat empty 90% of the time now sit empty 99% of the time. The idol of the big building has been exposed.

Simple – Simple approaches are becoming more viable in a way that would have never happened without a pandemic. People are meeting in homes, in backyards, and in parks

The church has moved out – In the absence of corporate building-centered worship, the church moved out to where non-believers are at. It is in these places and spaces that new people can be reached and the visibility of the church is increased. The church left the building and now the church has opportunity to connect with new people.

Less reliance on the local ministers – People started looking out for each other in instances they may have previously relied on staff or elders to do.

Exposure to more teachers – As people stayed home they “attended” churches they would have never had contact with otherwise through YouTube and Facebook livestreaming. This will ultimately prove healthy as people engage new ideas and worship styles. They may glean ideas to bring back to mother ship.

What would you add to the list? What have you learned?

It wasn’t planned. At least, I didn’t plan it. In the 10th month of the Year of Covid, I was suddenly jobless and at a loss as to what God had in store for us next. Job offers came in, but none lit us up. A good friend called me and said, “Don’t just do something – sit there.” Best advice ever.

In the flood of emails, texts, phone calls and visits to our home, we kept hearing the same stories, the same requests: “We want to keep hearing your lessons. Start a virtual church.” I resisted. I’m a 64yr old man with high mileage already. What do I know about starting a virtual church? Friends of mine who work for two different church coaching companies and with a combined 40yrs in their fields told me to start a virtual church because, in their opinion, 20-33% of all churches in the United States will be shut forever in the next 4yrs. I was startled by those numbers, so I checked with others and their numbers were the same or worse.

It was clear there was a need. We’d stopped counting after 300 requests came in. The questions keeping us awake at night were: what does this look like? Are we the people who can do it…or at least start it? Will this pay our bills so that we don’t lose our house and have to move away from my aging mother and my grandkids? Is this a vanity project or a Kingdom project?

We launched Our Safe Harbor Church in mid-November 2020. A friend of mind in Brentwood has a two-story basement complete with a soundstage and meeting rooms. He built it for use by Christian organizations such as songwriters’ groups, Samaritan’s Purse, and others. All of them have used it successfully for annual meetings or special events and it was there for us if we wanted it. We did.

We are only 8+ weeks into our journey and we are finding the need was much, much greater than we’d ever imagined it to be. We are still learning, and we have made missteps and will make even more in the weeks to come…but we’ve learned some things that we are happy to pass along.

  1. Your Social Media Presence must be created early. I’d been building mine for 15yrs or so, longer if you count the hundreds of churches that have recorded my sermons and placed them online or made them available on CD or cassettes (remember them?). To build a buzz, you have to have ears to hear the buzz so work on your social media now. Remove the political stuff, set security and privacy settings so that no one can post drive by memes attacking a church or someone’s politics…even if that someone is your mom or dad.

Grow a cross platform presence. Use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube as well as up and coming platforms that seem to pop up weekly. Our website is www.oursafeharbor.com and you can easily find our YouTube channel by searching for “Our Safe Harbor Church.

Get your friends to post links to your material and to publicize your new venture on their social media pages. It makes a huge difference and it is effective and free.

  • Your best friend is an iPhone (or Android) and a tripod. We now have a couple of broadcast cameras and can switch back and forth, but we used my iPhone for the first couple of weeks and continue to use it for everything other than Sunday morning worship. Record or stream in HD…and that means getting the fastest internet service you can get.
  • Content, Content, Content: To cut through the internet noise, you need quality material and you need to keep producing it on a regular schedule. We have a one hour service on Sunday, and we work hard to keep it to that length. I also post a Monday Morning Message that runs 5-13min each week. I also post a Mid-Week Bible Class (currently on Revelation). The Sunday worship is viewed between 1-2K times in the first week after posting and the other messages run from 250-650 a week in viewership.

We are planning a Q&A broadcast every month or so where I and a team answer questions that have come in about life, scripture, faith, doubt, etc.

We had three Christmas broadcasts on top of all of this. Why? Because we were just starting out and we needed to get into the homes and onto the schedule of as many as possible. Each was different (Stories Behind the Songs, Fun Songs, Christmas Eve Worship) and had different musicians join us for two of them.

  • What About Community? Many churches in the US have not met since March 2020. People are feeling a deep loss of community. For some, virtual church sounds like more screen time and zero engagement. This is something we are working through at present. I cannot give you THE solution, but here is what we are doing. Sermons emphasize the need to a) serve your local community in any way you can, b) calls for prayer requests – which we follow up on in less than 48hrs, c) suggestions on how to share our worship time with others, and d) invitations to join us and lead us in prayer, scripture reading, devotions for the Communion, etc.

This week, we will have two families in Indiana lead at The Table via a prerecorded iPhone video. We will have a retired missionary read the scripture from his home in another town in Indiana. The following week, we have a family leading in Communion from New Jersey and a scripture reader from California. This is one way to work viewers into friendships and lessen their isolation. We have more.

We have two people assigned to monitor comments made during our live broadcasts. We’ve only had a couple of “heathen!” comments so far but each week brings at least one spam comment that we can quickly block and hide. Sadly, the Keyboard Kommadoes are out there so monitor carefully and if ever anyone tries to shame you by saying “Who would Jesus block?” ask them to read the Book of Revelation.

We have local viewers who are joining each other to view worship and who then go further and set up women’s fellowship gatherings. That is just starting up and it looks great. We also look for “clusters,” groups of 2-5 families viewing from one general area. We ask permission to let others know that they are there in their town. If they agree (and all have so far), we connect them with Our Safe Harbor Church people so they can have a local community. If hospital visits ever are allowed again, we would alert the nearest OSHC member and ask them to check in on the sick or injured member.

  • Get the Legal Stuff Done: You may have to ask for help with expertise and money, but it is absolutely critical that you incorporate with the State, get your 501c3 package moving, and that you get Errors and Omissions insurance on you and your board (you have to have a board to incorporate and get tax free status). NOTE: people will ask if their tithes are tax deductible even though, after the last tax cuts, only those who itemize can deduct and most are limited to $300 per year. Doesn’t matter: people want that option. Approval can take up to a year but once your package is in to the IRS, you are considered “Pending” and all donations are deductible; you don’t have to wait until everything is approved. 

All of this is new to us but, in less than 9 weeks, we have grown to over 300 members, most of whom tithe, along with thousands of viewers, many of whom send in encouraging texts, emails and quite a few of whom have contributed. Three cities in Australia, about that many in Mexico, and about half of the States in the US are represented each week in our viewership. It seems there is a great need for this. People are tired of pouring millions into real estate only to keep pouring into it for utility bills and maintenance while others are doing the same thing two blocks away. They want solid content, friendship, community, art and song. We can do this without all the detritus of the past few centuries and truly “go into all the world and make disciples” with just an iPhone, prayer, some solid supporters, and courage.

Patrick Mead

I’m grateful for the invitation to write a poetry column for Wineskins, and to share my passion for non-sappy Christian verse (and the connection with Bible passages.)

The most oft-printed poem I’ve ever written appears in the Howard Publishing company hymnbook, Songs of Faith and Praise. I offer it here as a (perhaps familiar) introduction to my poetry.

When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was a garden, and he and his disciples went into it. ~ John 18:1

The Conduit

In the temple now they are killing the lambs. There
Two hundred and seventy thousand will die. The air
Of Jerusalem has been filled with their bleating
All day, as red-sleeved priests perform their duty of meting
Out death. One by one, white throats are slit.
The temple has the hot, moist smell of blood about it.
A conduit drains from the great brass altar down
To the brook Kidron.

But in the dusk-light of this Thursday, the leaves
Of the olive trees tremble as the wind heaves
And lunges into them. Men approach the blood-swollen creek
And cross this bridge, hurrying toward the shade they seek.
Why has this lone Man stooped at the Kidron before He crosses,
His finger just touching the red water, and pauses,
Pauses?

We often speak with passion about the privilege we have of “making contact” with the blood of Christ, that point at which we achieve salvation through His blood. We know that it symbolizes something bought at terrible price for us. Just how great that price would have seemed to Jesus, as He made contact with the blood that would symbolize His own death!

I’m also thinking about this month’s Wineskins theme. Perhaps you’re missing in-person worship as much as I do.

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

                                                                                ~ Colossians 3:16

A Cappella

And now it begins:
The old widow women
Chirp the soprano
With querulous bird-voices
And the alto is a forgotten heritage
Of nasal hums
The children push the notes
Through rounded cheeks
And new teeth
As the song leader pauses
Poises for the next verse
With sucked-in breath and belly

And now it ends
As gravel-throated old men
Are prodded by their ample wives
Out of
Padded-pew slumber:
Amen,
Amen.

One of the truths of Christian worship is the way it unites people as The Body, worldwide, across geography, even across time as we identify with those at the first Last Supper and anyone partaking today. Perhaps that is why people such as I who are not currently attending church in person because of health reasons can still feel “at one” with the Body on the screen, on the map, on history’s timeline. May this poem encourage you with our united mission of being His Body on earth, now and always, and help you consider our unity in a new way.

The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.”‘ …So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

~ Ezekiel 37:1-6, 10

I had a dream and a vision
I was in a blistered valley
In Ezekiel’s shadow
And when he said
“Sovereign Lord,
You alone know”—

Then he prophesied

And when the rattling began
And bone
Came to
Bone

It was your bone to mine
My wrist joined your hand and arm
My breastbone
To your shoulder

And the sinews that grew
Were the
Power
Of
God

You,
Bone of my bone
And flesh of my flesh
And I
We have become
The mighty army
And we chafe as
We await our marching orders

Dr. Latayne C. Scott is the recipient of Pepperdine University’s Distinguished Christian Service Award for “Creative Christian Writing,” and is Trinity Southwest University’s Author in Residence. Her newest book is Talking with Teens about Sexuality: Critical Conversations about Social Media, Gender Identity, Same-Sex Attraction, Pornography, Purity, Dating, Etc. with Dr. Beth Robinson (Bethany Books.) The author of over two dozen published books, including Passion, Power, Proxy, Release (TSU Press) in which these poems appear, she lives and writes in New Mexico. She maintains two websites: Latayne.com and Representationalresearch.com.

We had a first on Sunday…our worship leaders were leading worship from their living room as both of them were recovering from COVID!

The picture that goes with this article was my view on Sunday while the worship leaders sang from their home. We listened and sang along with their familiar voices even though we couldn’t see their faces.

Their home is within a few hundred feet of ours…they live in our neighborhood. So here are our neighbors leading worship from their living room, over the internet on zoom…coming right into our worship service live! We know how to livestream worship to the people at home but how about livestreaming the worship leaders to the church?!?

Welcome to 2021.

Crazy times.

As I reflected on this it hit me – we are learning to be flexible. If we can have COVID positive worship leaders leading while not even being present and with several other members of Backyard church who are vulnerable to the cold weather all on Zoom to make sure everyone can still be involved in the worship…what kind of challenges are we preparing for down the road?

I do wonder if God is teaching us to be flexible. I also wonder why. Why is He teaching us to be flexible? Because we were too rigid…because something down the road will require it…both?

I don’t know the answer to that but I do know how proud I am of the resiliency and creativity of our people!

Let us consider the blessings of all we are learning during the trying times and see how God is both shaping us and shaking us! And may we be all the more ready for the challenges that face the people of God in the next 50 years because challenges are coming.

Deanna Thompson describes herself as a “digital skeptic,” but that changed while undergoing the isolation imposed by a serious cancer diagnosis. During that difficult time, friends and family members connected with her through virtual tools, and that care and assistance caused her to rethink the power of digital relationships.  She highlights an insight by Jason Byassee that “the body of Christ has always been a virtual body.”  The Apostle Paul, rarely physically present with other members of the same body, is connected to the Church spread throughout the Roman world through an important technology of his day – letters. Virtual presence presented real challenges, but it also possessed real advantages.

Thompson states that “while conventional wisdom tends to view virtual spaces as disembodied and therefore inferior to embodied,” we must learn to appreciate the ways that our virtual gatherings are deeply meaningful and real.  As a fellow “digital skeptic,” I’m trying to recalibrate my perceptions and not see digital connection merely as a cheap, temporary substitute, but appreciate it as timely and substantial.  How can being an Online Church meet important needs today and provide real connection?  Are there aspects of community involvement that work better online than in person? I want to think differently about Christ’s virtual body, Christ’s virtual church.  I want to keep in mind the way that virtual connectedness can offer something to us even as we are disconnected.   

As 2020 and COVID have taught us, human beings are much more likely to make decisions based on stories than science.  So, as we approach the challenges of “Online Church,” let’s be sure to get our story straight – the Church has always been a Virtual body. Being a virtual body is not something that the Church has to “pivot” to, instead it is a principal part of who we are – it’s in our DNA, it’s in our source code.

Thompson’s main example for exploring the way the Church is a virtual body is through the Eucharist.  While the practice of communion is certainly a place to find and remember this truth, there are other parts of Christianity, beyond the Lord’s Supper, where it is evident as well.  It is also essential to see our virtual interconnectedness in pneumatology.  Our virtual connectedness through the Holy Spirit is both real and powerful.  

Leonard Allen notes that “to enter the community of Christ is to enter the sphere of the Spirit’s power.  One of Paul’s fundamental convictions is that the Spirit of God is active among groups of Christians (Rom. 15:19; Eph. 3:16; Gal. 3:5; 2 Tim. 1:7,14, etc.)” (Poured Out, 175).

As we approach the challenges of being an Online Church, it is important to remember that our connectedness is not based on Zoom, Facetime, or Google Hangouts.  The interconnectedness we inhabit through the power of the Holy Spirit means that Christ’s virtual body is a deeper truth about who we are.  What if we saw the Holy Spirit as the great facilitator of virtual connection? How would that help us continue to be the virtual body of Christ today?  May we not give into despair at the challenges of “Online Church,” but lean into this as right in our wheelhouse as the people of God.  May we have greater hope today that God continues to weave worshippers together in relationship to each other through the activity of the Spirit!

Sources:

Alan Howell

During the middle of last year, I imagined that turning the page in our calendar into a new year would mean that we’d finally left our “unprecedented” season behind.  But, it seems clear that as we enter into 2021, challenging times are still ahead of us even though 2020 is (thankfully) in our rear view mirror.  One of the real challenges still facing us is what it means to be an “Online Church.” Even though so many among us have become quickly functional or even fluent in tools like Zoom, the fatigue that has set in is making us reconsider our approach to “Online Church” – it may need to be more like a marathon than a sprint.

Since our recent celebration of Advent, just a few weeks ago, I’ve found myself considering how the Candles of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love really matter for a world in darkness.  Advent is about adopting a posture of waiting & watching for the arrival of Jesus Christ.  Fleming Rutledge reminds us that, “every year, Advent begins in the dark” (Advent, 251). Advent is a season of waiting – waiting on God to act, waiting on God to come. There’s Israel waiting for 400 years in slavery for Exodus and Deliverance. There’s Israel waiting for 400 years after Exile for the coming Deliverer. “Every year, Advent begins in the dark.” 

And the truth is – being in the dark can be hard.  It’s scary.  And 2020 has been a year of darkness for a lot of us. We’ve lost loved ones, we’ve been socially distanced, and we’ve experienced loss of connections. We’ve grieved cancelled plans and loss of income or security. It sure seems like we’ve spent much of this year “in the dark” … “in the dark” about what’s really going on, how long it will last, and what things will look like on the other side of COVID. So, especially in dark, discouraging times what we need is some light to help us through the season of Advent-like waiting and beyond.  

In considering what it means to be an “Online Church” (an idea that has a lot of uncertainty and darkness surrounding it), I think we need the Advent Candlelight of Joy to help us find our way.  Advent Joy has some important competitors out on the market today – I’m just going to name two of them in this short space:

One cheap substitute for Advent Joy is a fake joy – a pollyanna, unrealistic joy, pretending that everything is great, minimizing our suffering.  A label for that kind of joy substitute could be the word “jolly.”  Jolly is a Christmas word – and it’s not necessarily a bad word, but people sometimes wear “jolly” like a mask in order to plaster on a smile, to cover up the pain and pretend it isn’t real. That doesn’t work.  The truth is we can’t breathe under that “jolly” mask – and instead of helping us look nice and neighborly, it actually ends up making other people nervous about what we may be hiding and often they decide to walk away.  Some of us may feel tempted to adopt a jolly mask related to the challenges of “Online Church,” but we can’t wear it for long before we’re worn out.  In contrast, the light of Advent Joy is so much deeper and richer than fake jolly.  Advent Joy doesn’t hide the pain and the problems, instead it’s a light that reveals joy right there in the midst of sorrow.

Another response, often in opposition to the fakeness of Jolly, is the rejection of Joy as a reality or a possibility altogether – let’s call that being “Jaded.” What does it mean to say someone is jaded?  They’re too cool for what other people care about, they’ve “seen too much,” they’re cynical, and tired, they’ve stopped being excited about something that probably used to matter to them.  The dictionaries tell us that this term may come to us from the term “jade” – a tired, worn out, exhausted horse.  This word jaded is on my mind because in spending time with college students, some of them take a jaded position of being “over faith” or “done with faith,” by which they usually mean rejecting a simplistic, childish faith. And I can appreciate where they’re coming from – “being jaded” can happen to adults, too.  Sometimes when people get “burned by Church” or “burned by other Christians,” they lose their joy, they get jaded and check out emotionally because they’ve “seen too much” in that it leads them to reject joy and become jaded.

So if some people wear fake jolly as a mask, others reject joy as unrealistic and may end up wearing their “being jaded” in a way they think makes them look sophisticated, wearing their status of “jaded” as jewelry.  Being jaded can feel interesting and exotic and cool, but real joy is so much more beautiful.  Advent Joy is “Past-Jolly” & “Post-Jaded” in that an Advent Joyful person says, “Yep, it’s true, there is suffering and darkness in the world, the Church is broken, but ‘I’ve seen too much’ of God’s faithfulness to walk away from faith.”  That kind of real, authentic joy comes from God!

As Dallas Willard says, God is the most joyous or joyful being in the universe (Divine Conspiracy, 62).  So, while the world offers us cheap joy substitutes – and it pokes fun at real joy and labels us as naive.  What we need is a “second naivete.”  We need faith like a child in a joyful God.  We need joy like a child.  Followers of Jesus practice the discipline of recapturing a child-like joy.  Maybe capture isn’t the right word here…  Joy that comes from God is wild & good – something that in its purest form can’t be tamed or captured, instead joy is something that captures & captivates us!  

What does this mean for being an “Online Church”?  It means that while there are best practices that we certainly should learn and adopt, those will not get us very far unless we are captivated by something (or someone) greater.  We need to be practicing joy and approaching the challenges of being the people of God in challenging times with a posture of joy, living in the light of Advent Joy, instead of wearing Jolly or Jaded.

I’ve heard that Landon Saunders has said, “Joy is not an end we pursue, but an energy we apply.” So, while joy is not a good “end goal,” it is a rather pretty terrific “process goal.”  Joy is more of a practice than a place – more of a “how” than a “where”… Joy is how we get where we want to go in our journey to and through the good life – even the good life mediated online!  The more we live in light of God as the most joyful being in the universe, the better we can apply and practice what the true, good life is all about.

So, my hope is that we can approach these challenging times of trying to be an “Online Church” in the light of real Advent Joy. That light can inspire us, increasing our endurance and resilience as it helps our eyes adjust to the darkness and see ways to glorify and honor God in a continued season of waiting.

Alan Howell

When the pandemic hit in March many churches moved to an online format. Some already had this in place. Others had to make needed shifts to get the technology in place to livestream or pre-record service. The results has been an endless supply of online material as well as efforts to keep various congregations moving ahead in spite of not being able to meet in person.

Every time a major piece shifts in church life other pieces must shift as well. This leaves me wondering what happens when you spend time making sure everyone knows not meeting together is still “church”?

Will people return?

Will the inclusion of pre-recorded women’s voices translate into women being vocal in the assembly when people meet again?

Will church leaders look for other options?

Will the paradigm of high overhead, low reproducibility finally bite the dust and be replaced with something more Acts 2?

Time will tell but in the meantime we can talk, dream, plan, cast vision and execute on new (actually old) approaches. At the end of the day my hope is “less talk more do”.

Maybe it is finally time the church has left the building to go out to be where the people who need Jesus actually live!