Reach: Online church the new missional frontier

May 28, 2020

By: Karla Hovde

This article is the second in multi-part series that will take place throughout 2020-21 in conjunction with the virtual Reach! webinar series. Last week’s article featured four strategies for leading a scattered church as presented by Gina Mueller during the May 14 webinar.
Online church is the new missional frontier. Every church will need to become a hybrid of an in-person congregation and a strong outreach-focused digital church if it wants to continue to reach new people.
That’s wisdom Rev. Dr. Michael Beck provided to nearly 100 Dakotas and Minnesota church leaders in a Reach! webinar on May 14.
In 2020-2021, a series of Reach! webinars is bringing expert speakers to present practical and inspiring strategies for the challenging work of sharing Jesus with new people. During the May webinar, attendees heard from Beck and Gina Mueller on reaching new people in a time of scattered and virtual church.
Beck is the director of remissioning at Fresh Expressions. He also serves as co-pastor of Wildwood UMC in Florida with his wife Jill. They direct addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, an interracial unity movement, and a network of 13 “fresh expressions” that gather for worship in tattoo parlors, dog parks, salons, running tracks, community centers, and burrito joints. Each fresh expression group is overseen by a layperson who has turned his or her passions and hobbies into a form of church.
Beck recommends continuing to nurture your existing congregation while also planting digital aspects of the church focused on outreach. In other words, cultivate what exists, create something new, and graft the two together into a hybrid organism.

Inviting new people in

More people are able to hear the good news now than ever before, said Beck. The church has little competition since there aren’t sports on TV, youth sports leagues, vacations, or farmer’s markets to compete with on a Sunday morning. But viewers don’t equal church visitors. So how do we engage new people and invite them into a deeper relationship?
At Wildwood UMC, the response has been to make online worship a conversation and to provide guidance that enables laity to lead it from their living rooms. The church also trains digital ministers to connect with new people and converse in the comment section of live-streamed worship services. These ministers treat each service as an opportunity for evangelism and reaching someone new.
After each worship service, Beck and his wife set up digital home visits to get to know each new person and invite them into a deeper relationship with the congregation. Rather than inviting them to become members of the church, they invite new people to be “network partners.” Network partners live all over the country, and many will probably never set foot inside of Wildwood UMC, but they participate in the church’s movement and mission.
Beck offers this advice for online worship:
  • Make worship engaging and conversational with a variety of speakers. Make sermons dialogues, not monologues.
  • Get contact information from new viewers, then follow up with every visitor.
  • Create opportunities for feedback with free survey software. Ask how digital worship is going and what can be done differently. Inquire about what can be eliminated from the way we used to do church once we can meet again in person, and what things we’ve learned in this time that the church should be sure to keep doing.

Creative approaches to digital gatherings 

Whether it is discipleship resources for home use, relief from isolation, or a restorative yoga practice, Wildwood UMC is intentional about finding needs in the community and finds ways to form new disciples while meeting those needs. Some examples:
  • The church has paired older folks who less comfortable with digital technology with young people who are well-versed in it. The result: Older generations are seeing the value of relationship through online worship and social media, and younger adults are learning the value of old-school acts of love, like phone trees, care packages, and snail mail. The church provides the young person with a list of conversation prompts or questions to ask the older person. They learn from each other and develop a relationship.
  • A church service that meets in the dog park has gone digital, with a Zoom session for pets and pet owners to connect.
  • A yoga church is using Facebook Live for a weekly devotional and yoga practice.
  • One simple idea is a dinner table church that gathers via Zoom each week. Leaders could announce a theme, like taco night or Italian night, and everyone can join for a prayer, a story about Jesus, and conversation while eating their meal. 
Beck warns pastors to not try do this all by themselves. “We have to equip teams of spiritually mature laity to sustain the movement and lead it,” he said.
Watch the full webinar with Q&A for more details and advice from Beck, and then sign up for the June 4 Reach! webinar featuring Dr. Phil Maynard.

Karla Hovde is the communications specialist for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

122 West Franklin Avenue, Suite 400 Minneapolis, MN 55404

(612) 870-0058