I am not a digital native. Communicating online did not and does not come naturally to me.
I remember early on in my career as a pastor when Facebook first made its appearance on college campuses. As it began to open to the public, my initial reaction was to say, “Why on earth would I need to waste another moment staring at a computer screen?”
A few years later, Apple introduced their first iPad. As a proud owner of a small and sleek Nokia, I asked what the point of an extra large iPhone was. I thought the future of technology was in small screenless devices. Boy, was I wrong.
I have had to learn how to pastor in a day where half of my congregation would love a drop by visit and the other half of my church won’t pick up a phone call because they prefer texting. I have wrestled with the vanity of being always online, always boasting about the church, and always curating an idealized image. The thought of marketing Jesus and my church online does give me trepidation.
That said, there is a necessity to interacting online as the pastor of my church. For my older generations, there is a way of doing things. When a surgery happens, they call the office and let my secretary know. We write it on the hospital board, notify their deacon, and arrange care for them.
My boomers and younger generations are different. Everything happens online. It may be a simple status asking for prayer or a selfie in a hospital gown. If I did not spend time regularly on Facebook and Instagram, I might miss important opportunities to minister to my people. I’m learning every day how important it is to live online with my people.
Beyond care, I have learned there is an unprecedented opportunity online to speak into the lives of my people on a regular basis. The tools are there. About a year ago, we were talking in a staff meeting about how we could further apply the Sunday sermon into the daily lives of our people. One of my staff members suggested a weekly Facebook live where I would “have lunch” with my people.
Lunch with the Pastor was born. It is a weekly time that my wife and I (and our church) Facebook live and talk over the sermon. At first it was very formal and rigid. My wife and I spoke like it was a conference podcast, sticking to the topic. Those early episodes were painful to watch. Since then it has become much more informal and fun. We strive to have a conversation at the lunch table, joking around and seasoning truth along the way. It is amazing how well tough truths can be communicated with a smile.
This weekly gathering perfectly positioned us for the crazy corona crisis. We had learned how to communicate naturally to our people even though all we saw was the camera lens of our iPhone.
Another gift we have realized God gave us leading into the coronavirus was the online relationship we had with our community. Last fall, I was given the opportunity to support my local paper by taking pictures at our area’s sporting events. I believe God showed me a ministry at that moment. The ministry God gave me was to give all of my sports pictures away. Then coming into football season, I noticed the band, the cheerleaders, and everyone involved in Friday nights. I took thousands upon thousands of pictures and posted them on Facebook.
What happened with those photos online can only be attributed to God. As those photos were posted, I was able to build online and real friendships with students and parents in my community. I believe this ministry opened the door where people who would not normally know the pastor of the local Baptist church saw me as a friend.
Today, in my community, I am not the pastor who takes pictures. I am the photographer who also pastors.
Back to the coronavirus. This perfect storm of being the photographer and online pastor prepared us to embrace the challenges of having our facilities closed.
As the church first closed its campus, I felt it necessary to get online every day and encourage our folks. Instead of our weekly Lunch with the Pastor, I was going on Facebook live every day.
As I watched the ebb and flow of my people’s struggles I would write mini blogs on Facebook to encourage and challenge my people where they were.
I have worked diligently in this time to keep both Sunday worship and Wednesday night Bible study as normal as possible, even preaching from the worship center to an empty auditorium.
We purposely launched online small groups as soon as possible, equipping our people to lead Facebook live small group Bible studies.
I have done my best to communicate not just what the decisions of the church would be along the way but also my heart as I made those decisions.
I have been purposely forward with my struggles in these days so that my congregation could see that we are together every step of the way.
Because God worked through these online opportunities, we saw people connect to our church in ways that surprised us regularly. We have reached more people with the gospel during the stay at home orders that we did when we were meeting in our building.
In the midst of the corona craziness, God opened opportunities for service as well.
I got the opportunity to take pictures for complete strangers, doing front door pictures which benefited our local benevolence fund. I was thrilled to take a dozen senior pictures for students who still needed them.
Perhaps the greatest opportunity was an offhanded idea towards the beginning of the crisis. As the government defined essential businesses, I saw many of my friends worry about their safety in this new day.
I threw up a quick post online. “Who needs prayer? Who is working?” Over a hundred people responded. Each person was prayed for by name. Most of those asking for prayer do not belong to FBCV. This has become an every week ministry.
This blog has become far longer than I intended, but I do think it is important so that I can look back at these strange days.
Through the online ministry of our church we have seen people saved and baptized weekly. God provided the opportunities, and we got to be a part of it.
Looking forward, I do think much of what we learned to do on the fly will become normal practice for our church. Early on, many will be slow to reenter the physical building of the church, and both online church as well as Sunday school will become normal. I do not think it is an ideal permanent solution but perhaps a long term gift for those who cannot attend.
I am excited to see what God will continue to do with our weekly Lunch with the Pastor and the ministry of taking and posting pictures.
Perhaps the greatest lasting effect is the way I have learned to talk pastorally with my people through the online medium. Not just about church announcements but about life.
I’m ready to gather again, but I am thankful for the gift of Facebook, iPads, and iPhones. Those technologies that I could not see the benefit of 15 years ago are the very tools God is using for His church today.