For the most part, churches are offline: we meet every Sunday in person. While we have some digital channels, like a website for newcomers and for churchgoers, a church database, and a digital version of our weekly bulletin, ministries and gatherings are all in person.

We’re still a proudly offline, in-person organization. And we built an organization around face-to-face relationships with people who share our beliefs.

But COVID19 and self-quarantine measures threw a wrench into our systems … And I’m willing to bet it threw a wrench into yours, too.

For example, when all the non-essential businesses were asked to close down, we had to inform about 400 people that Sunday’s service would be livestreamed. Apart from the fact that this would be our church’s first livestreamed service ever, this was also the first time we’ve had to close the church building down, for a reason other than terrible Toronto weather.

But here’s the reality of the situation: it’s neither good nor bad. It just is.

In fact, the self-quarantine and social distancing measures are a golden time to reach out to people online. You can take advantage of the fact that people are looking for ways to stay connected to their offline relationships and communities.

In this post, you'll learn what my church and I, as the communications coordinator, are doing that.

Have one message and one place to point people to

When the crap hits the fan, the first thing to go is the truth. This turns into a lack of clear direction and eventually, panic.

The only way to prevent or cure this is through simple and clear communication:

  • Have 1 clear message you broadcast to all your communications channels.
  • Have 1 central place people can go to get information.

Even before we put self-quarantine measures in place, we had one specific page on our website that people could check regularly for updates.

We included the date of when the page was updated so people could trust the information on the page was current.

And when we were ready to tell the congregation of the decision to close the church, we all copy-pasted one script:

”Effective Sunday March 15th, all church-related activities, ministries, and gatherings are suspended until March 31st 2020. This is includes all Sunday activities. Instead, worship services will be broadcast live. You may join us via live stream at 9:40 a.m.”

We may have had multiple channels that we used to inform people — email, the weekly bulletin, the website, and WhatsApp — but the dissemination was fast and clear — the team simply had to paste the script and add the link to the updates page.

Speaking of speed and clarity …

Use video as much as possible

Written words are for information, speed, and simplicity. Videos are for emotion, connection, and clarity.

If you want your audience to understand why they should pay attention to your message, you need video. Written words are for information, speed, and simplicity. Videos are for emotion, connection, and clarity. Especially in a time of change and uncertainty, words on a page or a voice on a radio can’t get the point across as well as a visible and audible human being can.

Another benefit of video is that it goes downstream into other mediums. As any videographer knows, it’s much harder to take a script or slide deck and create a video from it, than to do it the other way around. For example, I can take screenshots of a video and turn that into a slide deck. Or I can transcribe the video via Otter.AI (free for up to 600 minutes per month) and create a step-by-step instruction document. This speeds up and clarifies your communications workflow.

Video is the best way to communicate change to your audience

Video conveys emotion more effectively, and in much less space than words.

For our church, we had the logistics and information listed out on the website. But for the why’s — why and how the decision was made, how we’ll move forward, how we should approach this unique time in history — we filmed our senior pastor and posted the video on our website.

We embed the link on the website. We sent people the video link. We even posted the video in our Instagram stories (an even more personal way to reach people).

Video is the best way to communicate with a remote team

As church staff, we weren't used to being a 100% remote-working team. We were used to working in the office, coming in and seeing people and getting things done that way.

But because of self-quarantine, we now communicate via email, Slack and WhatsApp.

Here are some other effective tools we use to get things done

I send Loom screenshare videos to walk people through adding songs to Spotify playlists or how to use Zoom. This a time-saver because Loom saves videos to cloud storage. This means I can just send links to answer FAQs,. Whether it's teaching someone how to register for an event, set up an appointment, or order a dish, Loom makes the scary transition from offline to online easier.

For short or small team meetings, we love Whereby. It’s an app that gives you an easy-to-share room link. Folks can jump on a call with no installation or registration required. For example, we’ve started doing daily standup meetings via Whereby. Every person answers the following three questions within a minute:

  • What did you work on yesterday?
  • What are you working on today?
  • What do you need help with?

I also created a team wiki on Notion and a help page to transition our pastoral team and our congregation to online church. These are also filled with Loom videos.

Message in the moment, more often

Messaging the moment requires empathy with what your audience is going through.

Times of uncertainty call for clearer, more regular communication with your audience, especially if they deeply value your community. This means reassuring them that they’re not alone and that your organization will do everything you can to help them.

For example, here’s what my church is doing right now:

Sunday: A live or pre-recorded stream of the worship gathering

We pre-record each part of our service, stitch them together, then upload them to YouTube live. These online worship gatherings still happen at the same time each week as our in-person services. This gives a sense of normalcy to a community that’s used to meeting in-person but can’t.

Tuesday: A 30-minute Instagram Live during lunch time

This is something new, thanks to the pandemic.

The Instagram Live is meant to be an intimate, informal fireside chat between a couple of members of the pastoral team and the congregation. A place for them to task questions and connect with leadership outside of Sundays.

In addition, we’re posting on Instagram 3-4 times a week to promote Sunday services or the Instagram Live, or just to encourage the congregation. While we currently work with Brady Shearer’s pro church tools for graphics and ideas, we’re slowly putting out more content from our congregation - Bible passages, clips, photos, and quotes our congregation shares with us. We’ve found that this type of content — a.k.a. user-generated content in the marketing world — get the most engagement from our people.

Wednesday: A mid-week email

Another new initiative, as a result of the pandemic.

Kind of like how the Tuesday IG Live is an informal follow-up to the Sunday service, this mid-week email shares …

  • Behind-the-scenes on how church leadership functions
  • Resources from the pastoral staff
  • Engages the congregation with a question to email us back with

So far we’ve sent out three of these letters. We’ve asked folks to share about their favourite Bible passages, shared the team’s favourite worship songs, and sent them the Spotify playlist to all the songs we sing on Sundays.

Yet another way to foster community and engagement, while messaging the moment.

Saturday: The weekly Sunday bulletin via email

This is our usual bulletin. The only difference is that this has become the primary way people follow along the order of service. To make things easier for folks, we added links to the stream, Bible passage, worship lyrics, and online giving right in the email.

Don’t Panic. Think in Systems.

As the person running communications, I've worked hard to implement systems - not just one-off, duct-tape measures - into our workflow. As a team, we could definitely do more, but I’ve intentionally slowed things down. Regardless of what the media says, these lockdown measures change how the church and our world communicate permanently.

Any changes we make in our workflow and our communications strategy has to be sustainable and scalable. They have to be done with the long haul in mind.