Over the past few weeks all of my pastor friends have done the unthinkable and become televangelists. Among the many disruptions caused by the coronavirus, church leaders have found themselves suddenly faced with the challenge of shepherding their flocks without actually gathering corporately. This means that churches everywhere, many for the first time, are exploring how to deliver teaching content online.
I work at a small Bible college based in Southern California. About 10 years ago we began offering classes online out of a desire to keep students in their local church context while they receive biblical training. Our transition to online classes wasn’t a Plan B response to a global pandemic, so we had the luxury of time to prepare.
Churches everywhere, many for the first time, are exploring how to deliver teaching content online.
Even then, we made just about every mistake in the book. Of course, we expected a learning curve, particularly with all the technical aspects of filming courses and delivering content online. But the biggest lessons we learned along the way weren’t technical. We needed to change our overall approach to online education, and refine the process long before ever touching a camera.
We learned a lot from our failures, so I figured I would share three of these lessons and maybe save you some time.
1. Embrace Change
As some of you have discovered over the last few weeks, teaching in an online environment is very different from teaching in person. You’ve likely learned how to engage your congregation and make adjustments based on real-time feedback. But now you’re looking at a camera, and there’s a real chance your viewers are chasing kids around the living room. The mode of delivery has changed, so the mode of teaching needs to change with it.
Our first batch of online classes were basically video recordings of in-person classes. We soon learned that we couldn’t replicate the in-person experience by setting up a camera and hitting record. We made few changes to our teaching delivery and style, which worked fine for the students in the room, but not for those watching online. It was like a bad photocopy of a beautiful picture. Of course, it’s not impossible to learn in this way, but we’re asking a lot of the online learners when we give them teaching materials designed for in-person engagement.
The goal is to create opportunities for online learners to actively engage with the teaching content. Sure, people can waste hours watching Netflix, but that’s mostly passive participation. We want our congregation to connect with the teaching and apply it to their lives.
We want our congregation to connect with the teaching and apply it to their lives.
- Keep it short: When our teachers focus their preparation for an online audience, their content is more refined. Rather than creating a 30-minute video with three points, consider making three shorter videos with one point each.
- Include more voices: Incorporate dialogue between pastors, leaders, and church members into your online service (there is biblical precedent/allowance for interactive teaching).
- Add breaks for reflection. Break up the teaching with guided discussion/reflection questions. This will help your points land and give opportunities for your viewer to engage the material with others (either in their home or online).
2. Continue Fostering Relationships Online
Our college places a high value on relational learning, which is much more natural on a campus where students and teachers get to interact during and after classes. Over the years we’ve found that cultivating these relationships online is possible, but takes great intentionality.
True learning is not simply transferring data, it’s applying content into a specific life and situation. This necessitates fostering relationships so we know how to apply truth into our student’s lives.
True learning is not simply transferring data, it’s applying content into a specific life and situation.
We have created time throughout the week for students to interact, via virtual office hours, discussion boards, Zoom meetings, and more. This gives our teachers insight into how their students are thinking, and gives them insight to keep their material directed toward the lives of real people. We also encourage all participants, teachers, and students to respond in a timely manner, because it demonstrates a value of relationship.
- Become more visible: However much you might disdain social media, this is the way we are connecting during this season. Post regularly on social media (use a variety of platforms: Instagram, Zoom, Marco Polo, and TikTok).
- Engage: Respond in the comments. Send out emails, and don’t make people wait for days for a response. You may even want to consider handwritten notes (while antiquated it can still be a means of engaging).
- Create space for relationships: Give some time before and after a streaming service to allow people to comment and engage.
- Allow people to see your humanity: Not all of your posts need to be serious, or Bible verses. Post snapshots from your daily life. Allow people to connect with your humanity. Pictures, experiences, doubts, and uncertainties level the playing field and make you accessible.
3. Be Creative
Throughout history, the church has benefited from incredible acts of creativity.
Praise God for the printing press, the microphone, the amplifier, and more. These acts of creativity have helped us communicate truth more effectively. As difficult as this transition has been for many, it’s also an opportunity to innovate and try new things. Who knows—this experience might actually affect how you teach in person or plan your services when we start gathering in person again.
Also, remember that you’re going to need the giftedness of others. I’m sure many of you have dramatically increased your amount of interaction with your media/video team and whoever manages your website. But this time might also give you the chance to embrace teaching gifts that might ordinarily go unnoticed.
One thing I’ve found is that effective online teachers aren’t necessarily the same people as effective in-person teachers. Some of our most effective online teachers would struggle in front of a live audience, but they have a depth of insight that elevates their online teaching, or a relational gift that comes to life in the discussion boards of our classes. You might find that God has placed people like this in your church, so be creative and equip these workers to build up the body with you.
- Interactive Teaching: Include a time of reflection/conversation during teaching. It might help anchor a teaching point if there is some space to process what’s being communicated.
- Include a Q&A time: Create space for interaction and discussion. Host a Q&A session or other avenues of responsive teaching.
- Take a chance: Don’t be afraid to try something new. Disruption is a natural time to innovate. People will extend grace, because they recognize that we’re all trying to figure it out.
Shepherding and Edifying (From a Distance)
Remember, this isn’t the first time people have shepherded from a distance. Paul provides a great model for us in his letters. Even though he was at a great distance, he was clearly committed to both a relational foundation for instruction and also learning that produced transformation and action.
Even though he was at a great distance, Paul was clearly committed to both a relational foundation for instruction and also learning that produced transformation and action.
We should strive to emulate Paul in these two commitments as we shepherd from a distance. Paul did not hesitate to preach when provided the opportunity, but he also recognized other means of communication that edify the body. Paul used the platforms of communication available to him; yes, I think he would use FaceTime or Zoom or Instagram if he were alive today.
These are indeed trying times, so I hope this perspective encourages you. You’re not alone in this endeavor. You’re surrounded by many who are working through the same challenges as you. We’re all being asked to “build the plane in the air,” but this can also be an incredible time for teaching and discipleship in your church.