Churches overcoming quarantine – Q&A with Phil Vance
TFN: What went through your head when you heard that the quarantine was going into effect and that you would have to suspend in-person church services?
Phil: The first thing that went through my head was the safety of our congregation. We wanted to make sure that people were taken care of, especially older people. The second thing was trying to figure out how to communicate during the crisis. Things were changing so quickly that it was hard to deliver a plan when we didn’t know what was going to happen day-by-day. Every time we thought we knew what was happening, plans changed. We knew that we weren’t going to be able to meet together in person, but it was hard to put out a plan when the rules from the state government kept changing so fast. So we made short term plans knowing that we would have to change them often.
TFN: How did you arrive at your current online church format?
Phil: Fortunately, we already had an excellent live stream on Sunday mornings. But when we realized that we wouldn’t be able to meet as a church in-person, we decided to jump in entirely to online ministry.
We started by beginning a new daily devotional led by a rotation of our church staff. Each person takes a day and records a short video about a passage of scripture to be sent out to the entire congregation. We called it “Encouragement from the Word” and people have loved it.
Next, we came up with a weekly prayer outline to replace our usual Wednesday night service. Now we have people joining together in homes and as families to pray over specific points for our community and our nation. It’s a great way for us to stay united in prayer even though we have to be apart.
Finally, we upgraded our Sunday morning broadcast to account for everyone watching it online. We added some new interactive elements and brought in our children’s minister to do a special program especially geared for our kids before the church service starts. We do our Sunday morning service in real-time during our regular 10:30 am time, in our sanctuary, so that it feels familiar to people. We want to provide a feeling of certainty during these uncertain times. We have online greeters who give “shout outs” to people who are watching. We also encourage our people to make comments, give amens, and dialogue online in real time as the message is going.
We enjoy doing it live: it helps it feel like a genuine shared experience. We want our people to participate in something happening right now, not just watching a recording. We want it to feel like church!
TFN: How do you define success?
Phil: We are a highly relational church. And so if people feel connected, we call that success. The truth is that you can watch any online service you want. There are a ton of other pastors and churches out there that you could choose to watch. But I want to make sure our people connect relationally; to feel like they are known and noticed. We also want to be talking about what is happening in OUR community and OUR church family, not some other church. We want them to feel connected and a part of a larger body. That’s how we define success.
TFN: What are you doing throughout the week to help keep your congregation close and cared for?
Phil: We are continually trying to think about touchpoints. How can we connect with people daily? Or weekly? What can we do to encourage them in their relationship with God today? Or in their Bible reading? How can we make sure they know they are loved and cared for?
Another thing we did was divide the congregation into ranges of ages by decades and put a care leader over each one. We want to make sure everyone has someone to talk to and get help from. These congregational leaders can check and see if they are safe, if they lost a job, need food, need errands ran, or transportation, etc.
TFN: If you could do it over again, what would you do differently?
Phil: I’m pretty happy about how things have gone. When the virus first started making news, our governor limited the number of people we could have in one building so we did a Sunday service with only 180 people in our sanctuary with the overflow going to another building and the rest stayed home and watched online. I had no idea that the very next week, we would be doing church only online in an empty auditorium! We have continued to evaluate and make incremental changes every week.
I always wish we had communicated faster and sooner. In times of crisis, communication is key. The problem is, at the time you don’t know what you will need to know until after the fact. It is hard to do long-term planning during a crisis so you have to do lots of short term planning that changes rapidly.
But all in all, I’m really pleased with our setup and how things have come together.
TFN: What gives you hope?
Phil: Jesus! I don’t understand why all this is happening in the world, but I think that God is giving us a wake-up call. I believe that He is laying the groundwork for revival.
Post quarantine, I think there will be more people watching online. I can see that for shut-ins, people traveling, our church alumni. I predict that even after the quarantine is done, this experience is going to generate more opportunities for people to engage in the church community.