Session 3c: Navigating a New Phygital world by Chris DeVos

Thanks. So I think Chesley’s story is one of trying to build relationships through digital ways with youth and then plant a church. Aaron’s reminding us of what’s out there in the digital world, in the virtual world that’s been really exposed much more because of COVID perhaps, because now can’t gather as much and we have more time. And also is reminding us about some of the staggering statistics of social media usage and time online and so forth. I remember hearing someone say, if you really think that you can influence people with one hour on Sunday, when they’re spending three hours a day on social media and online, you’re crazy. You’re absolutely crazy. It’s never going to do anything of any significant difference in their lives. That’s depressing.

And also we hope that the holy spirit does a little bit more too, as we gather together in our relationships and in our time together as churches. Let me just tell you a little bit about our story, and it’s just a story of how we’ve been wrestling with digital ministry and digital tools. I think we went through at almost every church did at the beginning. I wasn’t really here at that time, I was working with the [inaudible] forum, but early on, there was a sense of denial, right? That this would last a couple of weeks and we’d be back on board. And it was a little bit of a break, a give me sabbatical for everybody for a couple of weeks. So we’ll try to bridge the time with a couple of interesting things. We’ll try some things. I think our staff tried sort of live stream conversation between pastors that really flopped and didn’t go very far, but then soon we kind of moved to the phase of, well, it’s going to be awhile, but let’s bargain a little bit.

Let’s go into the bargaining stage. So we’ll do a little bit better effort in hopes that six weeks from now we’ll be right back to normal. That didn’t happen. So I think that then we moved into some of the anger phase provided by the culture around us, with people talking about masks and vaccines, and there was an election to throw into things. So we dealt with anger and then depression and fatigue, and then adaptation or adapting in the end. And the real question is what do we adapt to? Where do we get? It’s like grieving anything, right? Where you end up, where you move to eventually is never really one place, but it’s not the same place that you began in. There’s a new territory. And those who grieve well begin to see the possibilities of the new situation they’re in as difficult as it may be.

And so we as a church have been really tracking, what did we do? What have we done that we feel has worked? And what can we do given the tools that we have digitally as we move ahead? And one of the key questions at the heart of it has to do with discipleship and relationship. So we have all these people watching our posted video service, which we edit on Sunday morning. We know people are watching from different places in the world. We’ve had people asked to join our church from other places in the country, but what does that mean? And who are they and how do we know if they are really following Christ or they’re just wanting to be a part of what they think we’re doing? We don’t know the answer to those questions yet, but we’re moving to ask, how can we find out, how can we engage?

What does it mean to develop a relationship with people if they connect with you through online resources? How do you follow up? How do you connect people together in small groups? How do you connect people physically, locally with others, which are important questions to us. That engagement pathway is something that’s really on our minds, but we don’t have the answers. We’re at that place of asking the questions, moving towards researching and finding answers and experimenting with what we come up with as we move ahead. I think one thing that we’ve discovered along the way though, is that there are times in which digital versions of what we do, for instance, small groups in particular, can actually work better. We’ve had some experiences, I did actually, when I worked for the [inaudible] forum, we are an organization that trains small group leaders to do in-person small groups that met 10 times for 90 minute sessions.

And to have that suddenly taken away was really, really hard on our basic ministry model. But I thought we should try an online group. So we invited people from across the country to be a part of an online group. And one of the strange things I discovered after leading lots of other groups myself in-person was that people, several people in the group tended to be more honest and vulnerable through Zoom than they were in person. They were able, with a structured time, you could also manage the time better in conversations, but people were more open about their questions, about questioning others, about talking about what they believed and where they struggled then they were in person. That was a big surprise to me. We’ve discovered, I think through alpha moving online, Jenna, Pastor Jenna Barber who’s on our staff, led an alpha ministry group that met completely through Zoom last spring.

Right? And discovered there the same thing that there were several occasions with people who had serious questions about God and about faith were able to express those questions and have conversations at a deeper level than what has happened in the in-person group that hasn’t led us to say, oh, let’s drop all the physical stuff and go digital. But rather to say, okay, wait a minute. Maybe this is just a tool and resource for us actually to have in our tool kit of things to do to engage people with the Gospel and to disciple them and bring them along even deeper. So we’re starting to look for those occasions that we can use it. And where it does in fact, perhaps work better than in-person opportunities or work as a supplement, if it’s true, for instance, that we’re heading for another strong wave of Delta variant, I mean, the Greek alphabet goes on for quite a bit farther than Delta, I still remember.

Maybe we’re going to be going into seasons of pulling back and heading in. Maybe it would be helpful for us to learn ways to adapt for seasons, to engage both in small groups, fellowships, and also as a congregation. So we’re asking those questions and trying to stay flexible. One of the words that John Brown, our lead pastor, uses right now comes from, I think it was an New York Times editorial written by a rabbi who talked about this being an opportunity actually, the great upheaval of COVID being an opportunity for us to get our serious questions about faith asked and answered or not answered necessarily, but asked and discussed and out there.

It’s an opportunity for people of faith. And the key is whether we’re going to be nimble enough for the moment. And that’s the word that this rabbi used, nimble. It’s been the theme word of some of our recent meetings as staff. How can we be nimble in this moment to still preach the Gospel, to proclaim it, to live it out and to grow in it. So that’s where we’re at as a congregation. I think we’re about up on our time and we’re going to turn it over to the groups at this point. Okay. So you have your questions and you’re turned loose.

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