Digital Connections aren't just for Millennials
Has your church ever made a video?
What was the purpose?
Perhaps it was a welcome video, with a clergy person and parishioners extoling the warmth and vibrancy of the congregation. Perhaps it was a holiday video, emphasizing the joyful celebration of Jesus’ birth or resurrection.
But I’ll ask again: what was the purpose of your video?
Chances are that the purpose was to encourage viewers to come to church. No matter how low-key or subtle the invitation, the call to action for most church videos is to come to the local parish and partake in all the community has to offer.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. While the idea of church “marketing” may make some of us uncomfortable, from the time of the first disciples the church has grown by using the most effective marketing platforms of the day.
Could a church video have another purpose?
Recently I came across a video for which the only purpose seemed to be a desire to wish viewers a happy Easter. Parishioners young and old, of different races and ethnicities, in different languages and accents repeated again and again the simple message, “Happy Easter.” I was charmed and intrigued, so I contacted the Rev. Sarah Lamming, rector of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, who had created the video with her parish.
Using Video to Make Connections
Sarah arrived at the parish only 18 months ago and immediately set about trying to build connections between parishioners, not just across generations, but across the multi-cultural congregation, whose members hail from over 30 different countries and enjoy services in both English and Spanish. Initially, she used Facebook Live to stream a service so that hospital-bound parishioners could stay connected. But with a large population of elderly congregants and shut-ins, Sarah realized that the value of video extended beyond those in the hospitals. She began taking her cell phone along with her communion kit when she visited parishioners. She not only shared pictures and videos of what was happening at church, but she videoed the home-bound as they offered greetings in return. She then shared those videos with the rest of the parish. Even parishioners who were not tech-savvy enough to record themselves were thrilled to participate when she took responsibility for recording them; and the she recognized the increased sense of engagement and connection they experienced. People who hadn’t been able to attend church in ages suddenly felt as though they were once again a part of the congregation.
At Christmas, Sarah used iMovie to compile clips of her parishioners offering holiday greetings, some in English, some in their native languages. Not only did this invite members of the Spanish-speaking service into a fuller relationship with others in the parish, but the resulting video became a message of hope and reassurance that international parishioners shared with their families all over the world.
Sarah has since assembled a team of volunteers who not only take responsibility for creating video and managing the church’s social media accounts, but who also assist in hosting a weekly evening Compline service using the Zoom web conference platform. Her parishioners who do not have internet access are able to access the service via the audio phone-in option. Between 16 and 25 people regularly attend the service - a significant number for a church whose average Sunday attendance is around 160 people between three services. Yet Sarah is quick to stress how participation in digital Compline has served to enhance rather than replace or detract from Sunday morning worship. Connecting over the phone helps to break down the artificial barriers of ethnicity and age, and helps people build relationships between those who worship at different services. She tells the story of two women who were in the habit of attending different services who knew “of” each other but didn’t really “know” each other. Yet after weeks of deep sharing during digital Compline, on Ash Wednesday they joyfully “met” at church, not as strangers but as friends. Participants in the Compline service view it as a must – without it, their week isn’t complete. One parishioner explains that she rushes home from work so as not to miss Compline.
Finding a Way for All Generations to be Involved
Since Sarah accepted her call at St. Mary Magdelene, the congregation’s average age has decreased from the high 70’s to the high 60’s, not because they’ve lost older parishioners but because they’ve added younger members. Today, her vestry’s average age is 47. There is a seismic shift coming in her congregation, and parishioners young and not so young share a passionate desire for the parish to thrive and grow. And they are enthusiastic about using technology to facilitate this growth, for potential parishioners of all ages.
A Few Tips
Sarah offers a few tips for others who are considering using digital ministry to build connections between parishioners:
- Don’t assume older parishioners aren’t interested. Find ways to include them in digital initiatives. Facilitate their participation through individualized support and take steps to make their participation easier. In addition to a team of “Holy Connectors” who helped parishioners learn how to access the Compline service on Zoom, Sarah paid for a phone number. Having this pre-established consistent number makes it easier for participants to remember how to dial in and ensures that they do not incur long distance charges if they are not connected to the internet.
- Find a way to include people who don't have access to the internet. By creating a phone-in option to participate in digital Compline and by using her own device to record greetings from parishioners in nursing homes, Sarah ensured that even people who did not have access to the internet were included in the parish's digital ministry initiatives.
- Build a digital communications team. On a Time, Talent & Treasure survey, Sarah specifically asked about digital fluency and digital communications skills. Parishioners may not realize that the skills they use every day could be used for ministry.
- View everything as an experiment. Sarah tells her parishioners that they will try new initiatives for 6 weeks. What works, they keep and refine. What doesn’t work, they stop doing and regard as a learning experience. For example, Sarah thought to generate video content to support her parish’s participation in the Good Book Club. But the time commitment was too high. She quickly realized that it made more sense to curate and utilize content being produced by other organizations.
Often, we think of video only for outward-facing “promotional” purposes. But with enthusiasm and intentionality, video and other digital connections can be used to enrich existing relationships among parishioners even through something as simple as wishing one another a “Happy Easter!”
- Lisa Brown, Director of Digital Ministry
What can we create together? Contact Membership Vision to learn more!
Our goal at Membership Vision is to help churches and other faith communities to tell their stories in the digital space. Each church, irrespective of size, has a living and active story to tell, and technology provides an opportunity to share that story in a way that is welcoming and engaging. We ease the burden of keeping communications current, by leveraging content, and harnessing the many ways that members of our communities connect with each other, both inside and outside of the church walls. We aim to remove technological hurdles and allow churches to communicate online in an effective and sustainable way. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (805) 626-0143 to talk about the ways we can help your church build a digital presence.