Episode 56: “Online Worshipers: Moving From Viewers to Participants” featuring Orlando Evans

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 56: "Online Worshipers: Moving From Viewers to Participants" featuring Orlando Evans

How can your online outreach grow beyond just streaming worship? In this episode, we speak with Orlando Evans, Online Pastor at Impact United Methodist Church in Atlanta, about how to build relationships with online worshipers and engage them in studies, small groups, and even membership classes.

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How can your online outreach grow beyond just streaming worship? In this episode, we speak with Rev. Orlando Evans, Online Pastor at Impact United Methodist Church in Atlanta, about how to build relationships with online worshipers and engage them in studies, small groups, and even membership classes.

Doug PoweWelcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I’m Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is the Reverend Orlando Evans Associate Pastor of Impact Church in AtlantaGeorgia. Our focus for this podcast is best practices for online outreach Reverend Evans, I’m so happy that you’re joining us this morning and pray that you are staying well and staying safe during this pandemic time. 

Orlando EvansDoug, it’s an honor and privilege to be with you this morning. And yes by the grace of God I am well, I am safe, and I’m excited to be here with the online community. 

Doug: Well thank you. I want to get into it because Impact has been one of those congregations that’s been a leader in the online community. So you have been committed for a while to cultivating an online community alongside your gathered community. Can you share why you all made this investment? And what have been the results of the investment? 

Orlando: Yes. One of the things I want to do, and I think it’s only appropriate to begin by saying this, I want to honor our lead pastor, Pastor Olu Brown. From the very beginning when he was planning out this church plant more than 13 years ago, he had a vision to be able to include people that were not traditionally included in the church culture and the church environment in worship. And so from the very beginning he had a foundation of injecting innovation into our culture. So, from the early years — I’ve been at Impact for five yearsthe church has been here for 13 — but even since the early years they looked for ways to record messages provided on YouTube or Vimeo or be able to circulate it through email or other electronic devices. So, what made it easy for me is that the culture invited innovation. And so, when I came in initially as a staff person five years ago, I initially was at a church plant that we had, but after a year and a half, I transitioned over to the online pastor. And what we were doing at the time was streaming worship through our website. One of the first things that I noticed was that it’s great to broadcast worship or services. But we don’t want a situation where people are viewing like they’re watching TV. So, one of the things that our team did was put some initial scripts in place. You know, things like Say hello or telling people how to give. I took that foundation and evolved it even more to make it more of an interactive experience where our online host was more of a worship companion. So, we had opportunities to not only say hello but when people joined, we would greet them by name. When it was time to give, we would encourage them to give. But even before that we would share links to things that were talked about in the announcement. We would foster a sense of community and we would offer them moments of reflection. By that, for example, imagine a worship song that’s sung by the worship team and that song may be “Lord You Are Good and Your Mercy Endures Forever.” What our online hosts seek to do is offer an opportunity for reflection. So with worship songs, they typically repeat the same lyrics over and over. So, with that particular song we would say something like How have you experience the goodness of the Lord in your life?” Nothing too formal. Nothing too complex. Nothing that people will feel shy or intimidated about answering. And people would type their responses as we’re engaging in dialogue via typed messages on our platform. And so, what that does, it creates community where people who are virtual can share in celebration, they can share in testimonial, they can share promoting their experience of how God has been good in their life. So, it’s just been a wonderful thing we initially started on our website and we also expanded to include that type of engagement on our Facebook platform. 

Doug: Orlando, thank you. And you touched on something I wanted to lead into — that many congregations have thought about online worship simply as streaming what was taking place in person. But that doesn’t actually develop an online community, as you pointed out. It requires taking the extra step. Have you since the pandemic struck taken that even further? And how you’ve thought about developing online community? 

Orlando: Yes, we have had an opportunity to evolve some of the things that we already had in place. For example, with the online hosting we noticed that we went from having a weekly attendance in person of close to two thousand a week in an online attendance to close to fifteen hundred a week. During the initial weeks of the pandemic we had close to six thousand people attending. And so, we had to quickly evolve how we were accommodating people. One of the things that we noticed was the volume was too significant for one person to handle. And so, we evolved our model to say “Well, rather than have one host we’re going to have a team of hosts.”  And we’ll have one person responsible for offering the scripting. Scripting handles the things that we do all the time like saying “Hello!”. Teaching people how to give. Telling them where to go for announcements. Letting them know how they can stay in touch with us throughout the week. etc. So that’s the scripting piece. It’s the standard things that always happen all the time. But then we had an engagement piece where it’s more of directly interacting and responding to community members. And so, with hundreds of people and even thousands of people being online with us, there was no way one person could effectively acknowledge, exchange, comment or reply to people who were looking to engage. So we took a team approach where we were able to have two or three people serving as a team. And it created a stronger sense of community where people who are online felt like they were valued and felt like we wanted to hear from them and connect with them. So, it’s really been a blessing. Some of the other things that we were able to evolve. We’ve always had small groups where people would come together to talk about perhaps a study, or even in recent models we’ve been talking about the weekly scripture. And so, we’ve gone from a situation where earlier this year we had twenty-five groups with six of them being online. Now we’re 100 percent online with the groups that we’re offering. And we’re offering a chance for people to easily go to our website, enroll in the study, receive information. It can make it a creative way. We’ve organized interest groups. So we have studies related to young adults. We have studies related to married couples. We have studies related to professional interest, etc. So, we’ve been able to respond creatively. Another thing that we’ve been able to do is offer live webinars that are talking about things that our community members have interests in Pastor Olu at the very beginning of the crisis recognized that finance was a concern for many people. And so, he partnered with some financial experts to put together a webinar and be able to give wisdom and to share insight and address concerns with people proactively. And that was well received. One of the things I helped to coordinate was a health webinar that we actually had last night talking about how we can respond as a community of faith to the COVID-19 and making more wise decisions in the long run when it comes to health. So again, that’s something that may have been held in a church building, or in a community center, or an inviting platform where we were able to connect facetoface. But since we’re 100 percent online, we were able to use a platform such as Zoom and extend the resources of our church to the global community online. 

Doug: Orlando, let me pick up and tease out a few things that you mentioned. And I want to start with the small groups. Because I think this will be something that congregations of all sizes should be thinking about and should hopefully be engaging even as we move towards hopefully some people being able to come back in person. But can you walk me through how people can go to the website and sign up to join a small group online? So then for that small group, do you personally have to run a small group? Is there a lay person that is responsible then for gathering the individuals online? And then are they meeting at a prescribed time each week for an hour or so? How do these small groups function in practicality? 

Orlando:  That’s a great question. So, the first step is for our planning team to offer what we call the curriculum. So, we identify books, studies, and more recently we’ve been concentrating on the Sunday sermon as a vehicle for discussion. So, we create a menu of options. And also with the summertime coming up, we’ve come up with some creative options such as reading stories to senior adults or reading stories to younger members of the communities. We have some things in the pipeline for yoga or fitness groups, or cooking groups for people that have interest in cooking. We also have groups that will be performing karaoke for people that like to sing. So, the first step is… 

Doug: We have to come back to the karaoke idea. That’s pretty… I like that. 

Orlando: Yes, we’ll talk about it. But the first thing to do is to line up some sound options. And what we try to do is balance it across what we call our holistic salvation spectrum.” So we want some things to talk about spiritual. Some to talk about physical things. Some to talk about relational, emotional, professional, or financial. So that’s the first thing that we do. The second thing that we do, we send communications out to some of our previous small group leaders, as well as to the broader community, to let them know the upcoming semester of our “Imprint”  (which is what we call our small groups) —  the upcoming semester of Imprint is coming up. If you would like to host, fill out a digital form. And what that form allows them to do is to share their name and contact information. It lets them specify which audience their group would like to serve. By that we mean do you want to serve middle and high school students? Do you want to serve young adults? And by young adults we segment them — I want to say 18 to 25 and then 26 to 34. Do you want to serve groups for women? Do you want to do married couples, singles, divorced, or senior members of society? etc. And then after selecting their target audiencewe let them select which medium they want to use. Do you want to talk about the Sunday sermon, which is a model that I developed called Sermon Rewind where we have comments and then questions for application of what was preached. Do you want to study this relationship books that talks about healthy relationships? We also have a course coming up for people who are expecting children and being able to prepare for that, and even a group that’s talking about adoption. So once our interested hosts fill out the form, we follow up and we make sure that the people that are looking to lead the groups are people that understand how to interact, how they engage, how to be respectful, etc. Once we have our pipeline of interested hosts, we know who they are, what they want to offer as a study, what day the week it is, and what time, we then market that to the broader community. And by that marketing we’ll let people know that small groups are available. Go to our website and select the one that you would like. So currently, if you go to Impact’s website you’ll see on our small groups page our Imprint Groups page. They’ll have pictures of the leaders. They’ll have descriptions of the groups. And they’ll have a registration link that leads to a Zoom registration where you would not only fill out your interest, but you’ll get a calendar invite to remind you. So, having a curriculum identifying leaders, offering the opportunities to people inside the church, but also outside the church, to participate. That’s been a model that’s been very successful for us. 

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Doug: How do you navigate the technological differences for some of the participants? So obviously I’m assuming the hosts have a certain astuteness when it comes to technology. But I can imagine there are other individuals that would struggle. So how do you sort to help people to become comfortable who have not engaged in a study virtually or online previously? 

Orlando: That’s a great question. We do a couple of things. One of the things is that we train all our hosts to be able to navigate Zoom. And zoom is a pretty intuitive tool. And before that, we used another tool. But we had to go through the same process of highlighting screenshots, walking them through the process, and explaining to them how to logon on and launch to group, how to manage the camera, how to manage the comments etc. We also put together participant guides for the online groups where people could provide to their study members a guide that showed them how to navigate interacting on the platform. The great thing about it is we realized that some of the members of our community are not technologically savvy. For example some of the senior citizens or senior adults within our community have a desire to participate in those type of experiences, but don’t necessarily have the computer resources. Or if they have the computer resource they don’t necessarily have the Wi-Fi ban that will allow them to connect in that manner. So we’ve attached a telephone option to some of the things that we’ve offered. In fact, this past Sunday, We connected through our Facebook live streaming a telephone number and the dial up option so that they can dial in to a telephone number, put in the access code, and listen to the worship. 

Doug: So really you have set up a system where people can connect in various ways. And it really becomes the job of the hosts to really be hospitable — to not only paattention to people on Zoom but also managing that people may be connecting by phone and really holding the group together even though there’s these various ways that you’re connecting.  

Doug: In general and particularly, you talked about the increased numbers in worship that you have been experiencing since the pandemic. How is it that you pay attention to or identify those anonymous people who have begun worshipping with you? Is there a process that you engage that tries to think about connecting with them differently? 

Orlando: Yes. And let me put some things in perspective so we can be a hundred percent clear. So when the pandemic first occurred, yes, we had extremely high numbers. Well what we found out is one of the things that helped us to draw those numbers is again we had systems in place where we had a firm foundation for online ministry. Since that time, other churches have made updates. Some churches have started broadcasting that were not previously broadcasting. And so some of that audience returned to their normal platforms to engage. But we still have very high numbers  — thousands of people a week coming to join with us. So to get more closer to your question, we have two platforms. We have a platform that’s integrated into our website. It’s a software called Church Online. And that allows us to dialogue through chat rooms. We can pray with people privately. And if we have a situation where we pray with someone, and if it’s an uplifting prayer that we feel that we’ve settled it and God is moving on their behalf, we pray with themwe say “Thank you. Stay encouraged” etc. But if it’s something that’s seems like it needs to have a little more touch during the week maybe it’s a surgery, maybe it’s a serious issue, maybe there’s abuse or something going on — we get that information from them in a private chat room. And we funnel a lot to our care team for additional follow up. For everyone else on that platform, we don’t have a system in place where that tool captures information about who those people areeven though it tracks the number of people that attends and we’re able to report on those metrics with accuracy. We also stream on YouTube, which we started doing since the crisis. We don’t engage there. That’s more viewing only. And that was to help extend a reach for people that look at that channel. We also stream, as I mentioned before, on Facebook. And Facebook is a little different from the website platform that uses Church Online. Because when people are on Facebook, you actually see their profiles. So you can connect with people, with our first-time visitors. We have offered them the opportunity to announce themselves so that we can share love with them. And as they do, we invite them to use a hashtag firsttimedcd.”  DCD is doing church differently, which is part of the Impact culture from the very beginning. So, if they put the hashtag firsttimedcd we’re able to immediately identify them, respond to them, share love with them. And then as we share the stream we can go back and search for those type of people who responded. But the analytics behind the tools will give us metrics related to the number of people that joined. We can even see the demographic  — whether it’s male or female, the age group that it falls into. And we have a clear sense of who our audience is. But in terms of direct individual follow up, one thing we also did on our website station is to put a contact form on there. So as people are joining, they can enter their information to sign on to us. And we’re able to reach out to them that way. But that’s something again we’ve done in response to the crisis. But in terms of direct individual follow up, that’s something that has limited capability. But that’s something that we’re exploring how to better do that if that makes sense.  

Doug: It does make good sense. Out of curiosity, the contact form. Do you find that many people actually take the time to fill it out? Or do many people just say, Nah I would just rather experiment and watch. I don’t really want them to know who I am.  

Orlando: You know, to be completely honest, I don’t think people like filling those out. I think we have some people that do. And what I’ve noticed is that I pay closer attention to the numbers and I notice that when we introduced that form initially, we had more people go over to Facebook to watch us. 

Doug: That’s interesting.  

Orlando: And so, think of it this way —  people as part of our normal community. I mean we have a trust relationship with them. They don’t mind because we already have their contact information. They don’t mind putting it in. But think about us reaching people who are in a crisis, may have never gone to church, or maybe haven’t been to church since two Christmases ago. And they hear about our church. And they see people talking about it. And they go over to it. And then the first thing that they see is something asking for their information. They may be a little leery just because of where they are in their right relationship or in their routine. But when they hear that there’s something like a Facebook option — that’s a platform that they’re familiar with. They know that if you go to someone else’s page you’re viewing it and it’s not intrusive. So when we put that form up, I did see a bump with our Facebook viewership  because of those very reasons that I’m sure many people understand. 

Doug: All right. Yeah it makes sense. And as you say it’s something that not only you all, but I think all congregations are going to have to continue to struggle with. How do you engage those individuals who want to stay anonymous?  

Orlando: Yes. 

Doug: You all have created what you call a “Virtual Impactor. Can you describe what is a Virtual Impactor? And how do you keep these Virtual Impactors engaged to do the work of ministry?  

Orlando: Well one of the things that I’m excited about — another one of our colleagues Pastor Paul Thibodeaux  he has had this as part of his vision for a long time. To be able to have people not only view Impact or engage with us online, but be able to actually join the church through an electronic means. So I’m pleased to say that earlier — probably about three weeks ago — we offered a new members class online. And we were able to share with people who had been visiting, whether in person or virtually, offer them what we normally would have walked through on a facetoface basis, including the history of the church etc., and give people an opportunity to join the church. And so that has allowed people that have that interest to do so. But even as I’m explaining that, I also want to highlight something that again Pastor Olu had initially injected into the culture. So at Impact we haven’t had as our highest priority having members of the church. We have had as a priority making anyone and everyone feel welcome. So if people never formally joined the church, we still will minister in love to them as if they had gone through a formal process. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve historically had large audiences coming. Because we were creative. We were different. But more than anything, we were loving and accepting of people. And what I found out as we continue to love on people, some of them want to volunteer and serve. And so we don’t say “No, you can’t serve because you haven’t joined the church. We welcome them in serving. And that offers a vehicle for discipleship. And then eventually, some people that have come as a casual browser and then got involved in some type of volunteer activity, study or team, they eventually move closer to joining. So I think even with the online platforms this is some of the same logic. We offer people the opportunity to stream first, you know engage with us and then if you want to go a little deeper and join a study you’re welcome to do that. We also offer prayer calls three times a week. So people are able to connect with us in that way. And at some point there may be something within people that say “Hey, I want to join.” And even if they live in California or Kentucky, they’re able to answer the process where we can engage them through our new virtual platform of welcoming new members. 

Doug: So just to sort of recap what you shared. What you all have really thought about is almost an online discipleship process where people may come at first and view through the website or Facebook. Then if they sort of say I like what I see they may get more involved with a small group study or something of that nature. And then they sort of move down the line where they actually become this sort of virtual impact or so you sort of have worked out a way to help people even if you don’t get a chance to see them in person to still have a discipleship process. Is that a fair statement? 

Orlando: Yes, that’s a fair statement. And then we also remind them that they’re able to view old worship sermons. And so you have something where we’re offering a vehicle for them to invest in themselves beyond the studies beyond the prayer calls beyond the small groups beyond the Sunday worship we have on demand service that they can go to and then we also promote people to follow us throughout the week because we do things to uplift them. One of the things that I love seeing during this pandemic we actually post quotes from some of the sermons from the various pastor not just from our lead pastor but from all the pastors will have an image of less preaching, and then we’ll have a quote which is a snippet from our sermon and we’ll circulate that and that’s been extremely and highly well received. Another thing that we’ve done is highlight some of our COVID-19 community efforts with us doing outreach during this season and put together a highlight reel and share that on social media so that people can see we’re not just about talking but we’re about doing and serving and giving to others. So we look forward to doing a lot of other creative things with our online community.  

Doug: That’s helpful. As we get ready to draw this to a close, I want to have you reflect maybe on the most challenging question, but I think one that will be helpful for many of our listeners. Many people listening in will say as you’ve already sort of stated, you had the advantage of having a lead pastor that was innovative and sort of forward thinking for getting a good base for you to be where you are today in terms of your online presence. For someone who just started an online presence during a pandemic, after thinking about continuing this work and trying to do some of the things that you all are currently doing, how do they think about doing this given they may not have a fulltime person like you? And how do they think about the resources that will be needed to do so.  

Orlando. That’s a great question and I would answer that by saying “Start Where You Are and be who you are because there’s nothing like authenticity.” So in terms of starting where you are. Everyone. I don’t care what church you are in or what type of organization or community of faith you belong to. Everyone has access to a cell phone. That cell phone is a mobile computer. It’s a mobile broadcast center. It’s a mobile podcast generator. So it can be something as simple as getting first on the social media channels not just as an individual who’s a leader at the church but creating a presence for your organization, your community of faith etc. And then once you have that, you have opportunities to post creative sayings of inspiration. There’s there is an application called Canva C-A-N-V-A. And it lets you generate postings graphics that you can incorporate images you can incorporate text and you can send inspirational sayings perhaps once a week or perhaps a Bible verse once a week or daily if you choose. You can put your cell phone horizontally and just make sure you get a tripod or something stable and you can record a one minute prayer praying for the community. You can go live on YouTube Facebook or Instagram invite people to join you say that we’ll be praying for our children as they finish school and prepare for the summer, we’re praying for our educatorswe’re praying for our government leaders etc. Also, we’re all as communities of faith connected to different communities. So, what are some of the needs in your communities. Be familiar with those and be able to pray or talk about that. You can even have a platform where you can have like a dialogue with people where you can go live, they can send a question to you and you can answer it. Another thing that she can do because it’s one thing when it’s just you doing it it’s another thing to be Invitational. One thing that you can do as I’ve called this favorite inspirational song.” You can record a video message and talk about one of your favorite inspirational songs how it’s uplifting you during this season include a link to that song invite people to listen include a hashtag and then invite people to post a similar response talking about their song that inspires them and connect it to the hashtag. And what that does that create something that’s fun, that’s easily too easily shareable. And it can create some traction and traffic towards the effort that you’re putting together so that more people are aware. And the next thing you know maybe they want to see the Bible verse that you posted maybe they want to see the sermon quote Maybe they want to post an inspirational song maybe they’re going to invite a friend to join you for worship this coming Sunday.  

Doug: Thank you. I think that was very helpful. And I appreciate particularly naming a resource that could be helpful for our listeners. Orlando, this has been fantastic and I appreciate the insights that you have shared. And I pray that you stay safe and you stay well and continue the good work that you’re doing. 

Orlando: Well thank you for the opportunity to serve. I have had a wonderful time and I look forward to connecting again. 

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks we speak with Michelle Van Loon about how church can better help people in midlife continue to grow in faith as they navigate their unique life challenges.

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About Author

Orlando Evans

Rev. Orlando Evans serves as Lead Pastor at Bright Star United Methodist Church in Douglasville, Georgia. He initiated several community programs including Coins & Care at a local laundromat and Coffee & Connections at a local diner. Rev. Evans also serves as Chaplain for the Douglas County Board of Commissioners meetings, the National Black MBA Association (Atlanta Chapter), and as 2nd Assistant Chaplain for Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. (Eta Lambda Chapter). Prior to full-time ministry, he served 25 years in Corporate America, including employment in the management consulting and banking industries.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.