There’s no limit to how creative you can be

Ninety percent of your social media presence during this season should be about things you are doing for the city, not your weekend experiences or our own church community. | by Dean Curry

A crisis is anything you cannot control. With the shutdown of nearly every physical church location in the country and around the world, pastors and leaders are brainstorming ideas on how to best “be the church” for their congregation as well as to the greater community in which they’re located.

This is having decidedly mixed results. It could even be said the global pandemic crisis is giving rise to an identity crisis for some churches. Who are we and what do we do if we aren’t allowed to meet in our buildings?

It’s time for those of us who lead churches to shift from sermonizing to hands-on service quickly, to show the community we are living in the words of Jesus and that we love and want to be useful to the world around us.

First, the issues:

Gatherings banned: Churches have long thought our primary product was producing an engaging weekend worship experience and a compelling message. Due to the call for widespread quarantine, most of us have been forced to shut our doors and go online. Here’s the issue: ninety-nine percent of our city/community didn’t care about our weekend experiences when there was no health threat. Why would these services have value to them now? They don’t.

Buildings empty: Congregations have shut their doors because they cannot gather, and the valuable space and resource is being wasted. If you have property, and even if you don’t, it’s time to use your gathering spaces as centers of healing and service within the bounds of current mandates and wisdom.

If you look around, Starbucks drive-throughs are still open. I don’t know about your city, but all of the marijuana stores in my town are still open. And yet, as churches, we feel like we have to shut down.

What else can we do to safely, legally “gather” our people, whether virtually or physically?

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First, we need to up our contact not just via social media, but by email and even phone calls. My team and I are taking the time to call through our whole contact list. We’re sending two or three emails a week as well as a daily email devotional of encouragement. You don’t have to do all of this. But whatever you do, be thoughtful about it. Get creative.

In terms of social media, ninety percent of your social media presence during this season should be about things you are doing for the city, not your weekend experiences or your own church community.

Our goal as “The Church” is to show people what Jesus is all about. Perhaps the following are some of the things that Saint Francis of Assisi might have thought of when he famously wrote, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.“

1. Let the local blood bank use your building. Blood banks across the nation have had to cancel their mobile drives, but they need blood more than ever. Think about allowing one of these banks to move into your building for six weeks. Let it become a mobile but semi-permanent “pop up” for a month and a half. Let’s face it: Jesus has already provided these buildings. Now we need to get the community in them.

We did this. On our first day as a blood bank, we were able to see enough people come through to provide blood for 100 lives to be saved. You can do the same for your area’s blood bank.

2. Initiate pop-up food pantries. Previously, we didn’t have a food pantry at our facility. Several organizations were meeting this need well for our community. However, we quickly recognized the current crisis would increase the need. So, we asked our church community to fill their trunks with groceries to donate, drop them off at our building, and sign up to help staff the pantry’s distribution hours. Voila: pop-up pantry is open.

We got approved by the city and are now on the list of food banks sent to every school student in our small town. As an organization, this has cost us almost nothing, but it is meeting practical needs for some of the most vulnerable in our community. Each person who receives a pantry donation also receives a little card that says, “Never, never, never give up.” This old Winston Churchill quote has become a motto for our community of Jesus people.

3. Deliver groceries to seniors. We called our mayor and asked if we could deliver groceries to the seniors in our city. She connected us with senior services and we became their preferred outlet for going to the grocery store and bringing stuff back for seniors. Of course, each recipient also gets our little card: “Never, never, never give up.” These are activities your congregation loves to be a part of—being active partners in making a tangible difference in lives.

4. Give ice cream to the kiddos. With all the kids at home, we thought of some creative ideas to be a blessing. We contracted a local ice cream delivery truck to go from neighborhood to neighborhood, giving out free ice cream bars. We set a price limit for the first day, and the driver drove until he hit the mark. Then we did it again and again on different days in different neighborhoods. Sometimes, something sweet for the kids can help hold the whole family together. We also sent the ice cream truck to the local hospitals with a special delivery for medical staff. And you guessed it: each child or medical staff member got our little card: “Never, never, never give up.”

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5. Support small businesses. Purchase and give out gift certificates or cards for local businesses that are most hurt by all of this. A few hundred dollars in gift cards to strategic places that are partners with you gives a little hope to the business owners and a little joy to those who receive cards. It’s a small gesture, but it’s a blessing.

6. Call your mayor and leaders regularly. Ask what the greatest civic needs are and how your congregation and team can help. Send text messages and emails with encouragement. These folks are working around the clock and doing their level best. Don’t ask for a callback. Just encourage them to call you if they have a need you can help with. And always leave an encouraging thought.

7. Be creative with your weekend experiences. Don’t give up so easily on your gatherings. Remember this little maxim: “Conformity makes you friends, but distinction makes an impact.” Think about ways you can create connection and community for people.

When the numbers for church gatherings were first reduced by our state’s governor, we added more weekend experiences and distanced our seating to continue to provide a place for people to gather safely in smaller numbers.

Online: When in-person gatherings were banned altogether, most churches immediately moved to creating online experiences for their communities. Isn’t it great we have technology to help us all connect during this time? We, too, are providing an online experience for our church community.

Drive-In: We’ve also created on-site “drive in” experiences at our regular weekend times. With the purchase of one $75 piece of equipment, we were able to turn our parking lot into a drive-in. It has been so much fun for everyone to drive up in their cars, tune their radios to a common station, and hear the message.

My team and I are physically on the roof so they can see us, too. It’s just a couple of worship songs and a talk from Scripture, but it’s a powerful way to create a sense of gathering while staying safely separated. We have little sanitized packaged snacks available and portable disposable communion cups so everyone can take holy communion together in their respective cars. People can respond with horn honks or flashing lights. (Remember the old bumper sticker, “Honk if you love Jesus”?) Some bring handmade signs to hold up in their car windows. On a phone or tablet, kids can watch an online experience created just for them.

The power of gathering can’t be overstated. The writer of Hebrews counseled us to never give up gathering. The persecuted church does it underground covertly; nothing so clandestine is required of us right now. In fact, if you think creatively, you can have fun with it.

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