Things I Learn From My Digital Ministry Journey
Philip Yan is the founder of GenesisXD in Toronto, a digital design consultancy. He connects the dots with his design thinking, ministry experience and mobile technology to build a full-service digital ministry.
Pastors who embrace their leadership over the COVID-19 pandemic with courage are heroes: tackling multiple challenges while fostering spiritual growth within the community. One of the many questions you may have is: how far in digital transformation would a people-focused ministry go? Here is my journey towards digital transformation with a humble, non-digital beginning.
Watching a movie 20 minutes late
Back in 2005, my wife and I engaged in young adult (YA) ministry for university students with a different approach. The focus was on a much smaller group size and on paying more attention to each individual. We would extend our care to their peers as well. After a while, we realized our conversations with these young people were "incomplete." Every time we met, we learned that certain things in their lives had moved on. It felt like watching a movie 20 minutes late – something was amiss in our connection. It dawned on us that not only were we not current in their culture, but the mode of communication among young people had also moved to digital space.
Exploring what works for a deeper connection
We started to puzzle out what was missing. A discovery… the students were talking on MSN at night: after 11 pm was the best time. Signing up for a new platform is simple today but back then I had to look up a technical manual to get the connection. We would log on and say hi to our young friends. They were surprised to see us there, but eventually they got accustomed to our presence in that space, after consistently showing up at 11 pm. We needed to turn on the app on our desktop computer, log in, then we could chat with them as texting did not become a common culture until six years later in 2011.
The versatility of multi-channel conversation
Later, I saw the number of people using MSN drastically decreased. Upon asking our young friends about the phenomenon, they surprised me: "Have you heard of Facebook?"
What? Young people would swing from one platform to another just because of a new and cooler option? I was shut out because Facebook restricted university students’ access only… until late 2006. One student offered me a Facebook account from his two accounts at his university and business school. That was my first taste of engaging in multi-channel conversation with multiple parties simultaneously. Young people would pop in from one channel to another, and there is no need to "complete" any exchange as we do in person.
The calling for omnichannel spiritual engagement and community building
I learned that we older folks need to be in step with digital communication as the world keeps advancing and the culture keeps evolving. Suppose we want to serve the next generations. We need to show up at different touchpoints—meet them where they are, via the website, Facebook, private groups, Instagram, private message... to name a few. Here is some of what I gathered in my YA ministry journey:
The scattered coffee moments work just as fine online. Remember how you build relationships with your colleagues—the impromptu conversation with a coffee in your hand, by the water cooler or in the hallway? Similarly, our conversations at church could be around the coffee station or in the foyer before or after Sunday service. In the same token, the at-the-moment terse exchange on social media is a way of showing interest in people. These scattered virtual ‘coffee moments’ are micro-engagements that may eventually lead to something meaningful when we interact with people on their digital platforms.
People want to know that somebody cares. Private messages, comments on their posts, sharing helpful information, etc., are some of the best expressions in showing our care today. In real life, people are selective in opening themselves up to their pastor. In the digital realm, the connection makes it easy to see what the person cares about and helps build a bridge to talk more.
The pitfalls of one-way communication. A church website, sermon broadcast and social media announcement have their place as well as their limitations. For our 2005 YA group, I created a photo-rich website so that our young friends can share our gatherings with others (with a member-only section). When Facebook became public use, we closed the website because the communication via a website is one-way and passive. Broadcasting and announcing are useful for informing but lacking in direct engagement, two-way dialogue, and analytics to review the reach and adjust the manner of messaging.
Micro-engagements enrich the spiritual pathway. Authentic sharing builds trust. When people share their faith journey and follow each other's life path, they may gain insights into different facets of a person’s life. Engagement in small bites is conducive to connecting the community with encouragement. Accumulated meaningful micro-engagements become a fertile base in touching lives, as water is needed to nurture crops. Digital tools open windows to all kinds of micro-engagement opportunities in enriching growth in a faith community.
There’s power in showing up. There is indisputable value in the traditional ministry approach that focuses on creating invitations to participate. In biblical accounts we notice that God shows up in ministering to his people in addition to calling and inviting. Once, we visited a student who was studying away from home. He insisted on paying for our dinner because we were in ‘his hood’. Our visit turned out to be a wonderful bonding time. Similarly, in the digital space, we can do the same—show up for meaningful relationship building and work on earning trust. Showing up means we care.
God works out of the box
By now, you can see my digital transformation journey is not about upgrading digital technology. It is a deliberate walk to follow my ministry calling by utilizing the tools that work for the purpose. In the Old Testament I see God has His unusual ways to reveal himself beyond signs and wonders. For example, He designs a giant ark and has it built for a family and all kinds of animals; He carves out a portable tablet in the early stone age to declare His ten commandments; He architects the tabernacle as the temple on-the-go; He instructs a healthcare guide for best health practices in the wilderness. Being innovative is one of God’s attributes. He uses cutting-edge technologies that suit the time in delivering His work.
Ministry is to touch the heart first
Three things we rarely address in Christian ministry:
Innovation – You read my above mentioned references to God’s employing unusual ways to execute His plans. In human history, those were indeed innovative advancements at the time. God never hesitates to ‘rock the boat.’
Experience – God does not restrict our experiences only in form. His “design thinking” allows us to cultivate an intimate connection in worship, function, and creative cultural expressions. In today’s language, it is the contemporary practice of experience design
Minister to the heart – In church, we talk a lot about teaching, learning, knowledge, and practice. Before a change takes its form, the heart is first moved. In the Bible, we learn that when God shows up, it is never about knowledge first. He would use a "small voice," "unexpected appearance," "the speaking animal," a "ladder to the heaven," “food delivery by birds”, to name a few examples… to touch our hearts through an intimate experience.
Digital technology is a necessary communication tool, not the end goal
The ever-evolving advancement in digital technology facilitates our learning about faith matters. I believe God wants to see us break through the old ways and innovate new ministry channels to engage the heart. "Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets" (Heb 1:1). Today, we are called to carry out God’s mission in "many ways, many times" where the Church and people can efficiently connect for mutual edification.
The digital ministry framework can further enhance multiple pathways in ministries. It is a powerful tool to measure growth beyond physical attendance. It supports different front-end touchpoints with specialized applications and backend CRM, automation, and AI.
Are you ready to go further in advancing your ministry and broaden your digital ministry framework?
My other articles on digital communication and ministry:
Three Pillars of Digital Communication That Leaders Cannot Ignore
Three Misunderstandings of Full-Service Digital Ministry in Church
What We Are Reading
Signs of Life: Catholic, Mainline, and Conservative Protestant Congregations in Canada
Bill McAlpine, Joel Thiessen, Keith Walker, and Arch Chee Keen Wong
Signs of Life, summarizes brand new research on churches in Canada, a significant sampling of over 250 congregations, structured as an appreciative inquiry into the life of the Canadian church (Catholic, Mainline and Conservative Protestant). The book is well laid out and has thirteen easy to follow chapters covering three main areas with a total of eleven subsections. The stated intent of the authors is to create meaningful conversations at multiple levels, be it within a local church, a ministerial, or between denominations. The book breaks down as follows:
Self-Identity – What is your core identity or purpose for existence and how well does your church articulate that identity?
Leadership – Discussion starter on servant leadership or as the book asks: who are the umbrella holders and key sharers?
Innovation – The impact of change on the congregation, positive, negative, or no change at all.
Structure and Process – Is your church more like a bicycle or a frog? Mechanical or organic? Four years from now what might be different in your church?
Discipleship – How explicit or implicit is your church growing in worship, communion, volunteers, prayer, small groups?
Engaged Laity – How are we reducing the number of “free riders”? To help create a conversation around more laity involvement.
Hospitable Community – How we create space for others and the challenges we find today.
Diversity – Are all welcome? Is diversity in all its forms good or bad?
Neighbourhood Involvement – Who is my neighbour and what does my neighbour need? How is my church active in the neighbourhood?
Partnerships – How do we leverage our strengths with others? Why, how, and with whom do we partner with?
Evangelism – What does this mean in my context? Is there room for a conversation to create understanding of other traditions around me?
Our Banff Ministerial is composed of six pastors from small churches (Full Gospel, Presbyterian, Anglican, Catholic, United, and Associated Gospel Church). The effect of Covid-19 in our community has revealed different degrees of relationship and commitment among the local believers in all our churches. We picked two chapters; “Engaged Laity” and “Hospitable Community” and had a conversation around how these areas have been affected over the course of Covid-19. How do we work at re-engaging our volunteers and parishioners as restrictions are lifted? The conversation narrowed down to how we need to respect and give space to the different levels of where people are at. Some folks may be hyper vigilant, and some folks may be a bit too cavalier. Our conclusions revolved around the careful intentional choosing of our language to reflect our own Mission, Vision and Values and call believers to be Christ-like in each of our individual traditions. The book, Signs of Life, can help you to frame many different conversations that will bring trust and understanding within the local church and between churches and is an asset that will help the Canadian Church move forward with confidence through these uncertain times.
Buy the Book
Rev. Dr. Kevin Driver
Banff’s Full Gospel Church
Resources for Church Leaders
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Join Dr. Bridget Stirling (epidemiologist and former missionary), a team of public health specialists, and church leaders from around the world in the ARCC.
The Application to Reduce Communicable Diseases in Churches (ARCC) is a program that increases safety through Risk self-assessments and guidance, church-specific training and an interactive forum. Visit us at stirlingharmston.com
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April 21 from 7-8pm (Sydney time)
The Holy Spirit wants to animate our lives and impact the ministries of Catholic leaders. How do we respond to this call? How can we help people in our parishes experience the Holy Spirit in a profound way? Relying on the power of the Holy Spirit is one of the three keys of Divine Renovation since we know that parish renewal cannot happen without his power. Join us for a webinar with Deacon Peter Pellicaan Executive Director, Evangelization Brisbane, and Kevin Bailey AM as they discuss how to increase the experience of the Holy Spirit in your parish. https://subspla.sh/p3sdx38
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Several research studies are emerging on the impacts of Covid-19 on congregations. Click Here to learn from these data-driven insights.