Where are you?
A basketball game?
A wrestling match?
A Black church?
Few places have developed a reputation for well-intentioned (even if uninvited) positive physical interaction quite like the Black church. From holy hugs to high-fives, physical engagement is as essential to the traditional Black church experience as choir stands and fellowship halls.
This is part of what has made the coronavirus pandemic so devastating. In addition to navigating families, congregations and communities through the loss of life and the subsequent trauma, many church leaders have had to deal with the added pressure of trying to find answers to impossible questions. Chief among them: What exactly do you do when your entire model hinges on the one thing you can no longer do — gather in person?
For the past 17 months, this question has been the Goliath many churches have found themselves up against. Thankfully, however, technology has allowed ministries to equip themselves. To keep going, the Black church will require several shifts that, although uncomfortable, may be what is required to save the institution from extinction.
Once upon a time, the media ministry — the people who work behind the scenes to handle the tech side — was often treated as the “forgotten” group. Now we have shifted to recognize the members of our media teams as the “essential workers” who keep our churches thriving. The pandemic has caused budgets to be restructured because upgrading technology and buying audio systems, video equipment, lighting and live-stream systems have climbed higher in priority and become dedicated line items on our budget sheets.
To survive this unprecedented season, Zoom, Streamyard, vMix and Restream have become new methods for hosting Bible studies, Sunday school lessons and, for some, even full worship services. Participants have shifted from attending these events in a sanctuary to viewing them on smart devices. Graphic designers are busy creating lower thirds and video frames to help disseminate information during live streams instead of just creating event fliers.
Social distancing has caused many large mass choirs to reduce to ensemble-size praise teams. In fact, many churches have replaced choir stands with virtual music ministry presentations. Many Black church budgets tend to be tight, so leaders are often making these shifts with limited resources.
A study from Givelify shows that 55 percent of churches that adopted digital giving methods (i.e. Givelify, CashApp, PayPal) as their new “offering baskets” for parishioners to submit their tithes and offering maintained or saw an increase in giving during the pandemic.
Many churches have embraced the digital shift out of necessity; however, a large segment of the church population still wants to avoid this new reality. Countless ministries seem to be convinced that if they just wait a little longer, this technology wave is going to blow over somehow and then we can get back to “normal.” The problem with that line of thinking is that it does not acknowledge that “normal” is still evolving.
Here’s the reality: Black churches will not survive without innovation. Our heritage is rich in creativity, a foundation that is crucial to the success of our churches in this generation.
There’s no reason to think that everyone will be back in the building for the foreseeable future. Some have legitimate health and wellness concerns. Then there are others who have just fallen in love with the idea of being able to go to church without getting dressed or leaving the couch. “Come as you are” is pretty convenient, but not nearly as convenient as “stay where you are.”
B.C. (before coronavirus), I was the host of a large in-person leadership conference. Our most recent event in 2019 drew 5,000 delegates to fill the 400,000-square foot Georgia International Convention Center. Five thousand people from around the world in one room … at my invitation. I hope you will forgive my transparency but that was a huge boost for my ego because that crowd validated my abilities.
Let’s fast-forward to the middle of the pandemic. Because of the coronavirus, we were unable to hold our large in-person gathering but we decided to offer an online worship service from an empty room with only a band, some singers and no audience. Much to my surprise, during the first service we aired online from that empty room, 50,000 people tuned in. No large venue, no roaring crowds but we reached significantly more people — in other words, we were more effective even though it did not come with the ego boost.
The reality is, it is unrealistic to expect a church to go back to what it was anytime soon.
For the past several decades, many churches have offered in-person worship with an online option. What we are seeing now, however, is a shift to where every church has an online experience, with an in-person option.
During the pandemic, it has been important that every church now considers itself a “multisite ministry” or a church that has more than one location. A church’s in-person location may be at 123 Main Street, but the second location is any place that has an Internet connection.
If leaders view our ministries’ online presence as a separate church campus, then it needs some key systems in place to be effective. Methods to gather information about viewers are vital for churches to be successful. This is not just about preserving the institution; members need connection.
Going forward, data will be one of the most useful tools to determine whether church leaders reach and retain people.
This is why it is so crucial that churches take advantage of things such as text opt-in systems (simpletexting.com is a great choice) that allow you to select keywords that your audience members can text to a dedicated number, giving you the opportunity to communicate with them at your discretion. For example, if you decide you want to join my ministry, you can simply text something like PARTNER to 75787, and it will automatically send you a thank-you message with a link to a training class (this is as simple as a YouTube link) and a link to a form that can collect more information from the people who opt in.
This simple 30-second exchange gives great potential benefits to the ministry. Not only did we get information from them by sending the new partners training video and the connect form but we also got their permission to send information to them, which is invaluable. Even if a worship service is streaming, we have the opportunity to send them the link directly or inform them of opportunities to financially support projects that may interest them. It hinges on the ability to capture data, which makes things such as email lists and text op-ins so critical.
If we are going to see continued progress and change in the Black church, we must make simple shifts toward a digital future.
The Black church has been known for dynamic “hand clapping, foot stomping” worship services, charismatic preaching, gatherings in the “fellowship hall” and more. Shifting to the digital space doesn’t mean that we lose our identity. Instead, it gives us an opportunity to be innovative in the way we do ministry in this generation.
Mark Moore Jr. lives in Atlanta. He is the founder and visionary of the Young Leaders Conference and Spirit & Truth Ministries. For more information about his work and ministry, follow him on Twitter at @MMooreJr or visit MinistryGoesDigital.com.