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.
- 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.