Go ahead and try it. Go to Amazon and search for church hospitality. It’s a pretty popular topic. In fact, back when I was beating the drum for innovation in church technology, I was often drowned out by the call for different forms of radical hospitality. The church took cues from hospitality masters like Disney, Southwest, Marriott, and other companies that prided themselves on making people feel welcomed and valued.
More recently, the church began to move away from such a laser focus on hospitality and realized that there was more to it than welcoming people. We might actually have to go out to talk to people and meet them where they are. But that’s a subject for another post.
Many churches took hospitality seriously, training ushers and greeters, being intentional about welcoming new people, avoiding insider language, and generally being more hospitable to guests. Others are still working on it. However, I did notice that churches that offered live streaming options failed to provide the same level of hospitality to their online guests.
In my 2018 post, “1 Thing that Could Drastically Improve Your Church’s Live Stream Ministry,” I recommended that churches consider how they were welcoming members and guests to online worship. I had been visiting churches in the area online and was noticing that for most, there was no interaction or even acknowledgment. The best I could hope for is that the pastor might take a moment to “welcome those who are joining us via live stream,” and remind us that, “we could participate in the offering by giving online.” In the blog post, I even made the radical suggestions that “churches that offer live streaming should have a designated volunteer (or even a staff person) to engage with guests who join worship online.”
Well, in case you missed it, everything has changed. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, so many churches started live streaming that several platforms crashed. Other churches that already had something online have revamped and upped their streaming game. And some have made an effort to improve the level of online hospitality. But we have a long way to go. People need the church right now, and the church has stepped out of its element.
So, how can we offer something resembling face to face hospitality in the digital space? Here are five things you can do right now to provide welcome and affirmation to your church members and guests in this time of crisis.
Help Them Get to Worship.
Truly hospitable churches know that some people need help getting there in the first place. Some have ministries that transport people from nursing homes or connect individuals to members who are willing to give them a ride. This is basic hospitality. If we want people to come to church, we need to be a part of removing barriers. But what about people who may have trouble getting online? I used to recommend inviting those folks over to your house to watch with you, but that isn’t a great idea right now. So, what can you do? Simply find out what the problem is and address it. Connect the tech-savvy with those who need help. I know it can be challenging when you can’t go to them but, trust me, a lot of help and support can be offered over the phone. If the problem is a lack of hardware or internet access, address it. I’m not going to go into how to do that because there are smart people in your church. The church can be a powerful force. Figure it out.
Pastors, this is what we do; we lead people through scary places. Make suggestions, try new things, help us.
Help Them Get Comfortable.
There are people in our churches who have attended worship nearly every single Sunday of their lives and never thought they would find themselves sitting in front of an LCD panel seeing and hearing worship over the internet. Even for digital natives, online worship can feel strange. Of course, it does. Everything about worship was designed to be done with other people. But we can do this. We may all just need a little help.
If you are leading worship online, own the tension. Lead your people in being okay with being uncomfortable and then guide them to a place of comfort. It feels weird for me to sing hymns by myself in front of my computer. So, how can you help me? Pastors, this is what we do; we lead people through scary places. Make suggestions, try new things, help us.
I am aware that many churches have made Herculean efforts to get some form of sermon or worship online. I have been inspired by the tenacity and creativity of many pastors and churches. I have witnessed people who have trouble checking their email get their sermon online. Staff and volunteers with an iPhone and duct tape have done miracles to stay connected. So, don’t read this part as a criticism because I am already impressed, but keep getting better.
Every step you make to improve the quality of your video, your audio, your lighting, your presentation, etc. makes the experience better for those at home. I also get that money is tight for churches right now, so I realize that not many will be pouring money into video upgrades. But, do some research, reach out to people who know their stuff, and make any improvements you can to improve the worship experience for your members and guests.
Offer a Way to Connect.
Truly hospitable churches have multiple points of human connection. From the greeter at the door, the attentive member in the pew, an invitation to pray with a pastor or leader, Sunday school, to informal gatherings around the coffee station. With online worship, there is often nothing. There are quite a few options here, some I mentioned in the post I shared earlier.
Maybe it is just about being available in a chatbox. In smaller congregations, it might just remind everyone about how they can get in touch with the pastor or other leaders. This is also where I have witnessed churches being creative, offering interactive Sunday School, bible study, and even pastoral care via video conference. Again, pastors, you can figure this out.
Some churches are knocking this out of the park. Some of them have been live streaming for years. Others have tens of thousands of dollars of equipment and even dedicated staff. You don’t need that the be the church right now. You are going to need some technology. You are going to have to learn new things. You are going to have to lean on some people to help. But, in the end, this is really just about being the church. For years, my ministry was about leveraging technology to help the church reach people. It was never about the technology and it’s still not.
Technology is just a really great tool especially right now. So, be the authentic church you are Sunday after Sunday. Yes, it will be different online, but don’t try to be something you are not. Instead, simply find ways to authentically translate that for the digital space.
You can do this.