Episode 69: “Practicing Ministry in Digital Spaces” featuring Keith Anderson

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 69: “Practicing Ministry in Digital Spaces” featuring Keith Anderson

Most churches moved so quickly into digital ministry in 2020 that they have not had a chance to think about lessons learned or what comes next. In this episode, digital ministry expert Keith Anderson reflects on what we’ve learned and how our pandemic practices might reshape the future narrative of the church.

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Most churches moved so quickly into digital ministry in 2020 that they have not had a chance to think about lessons learned or what comes next. In this episode, digital ministry expert Keith Anderson reflects on what we’ve learned and how our pandemic practices might reshape the future narrative of the church.

Ann Michel: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks podcast. I’m Ann Michel, associate director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary. I’m pleased to be your host for this episode. I’m talking today with Keith Anderson who is pastor of Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, Pennsylvania. He’s also a thought leader on the subject of how our digital culture shapes faith and the practice of ministry and on how to extend ministry into the digital sphere. He’s the author of The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World, and he is co-author with Elizabeth Drescher of Click to Save Reboot: The Digital Ministry Bible. So Keith welcome to this episode of Leading Ideas Talks.

Keith Anderson: Thanks, Ann. It’s great to be here.

Ann Michel: So I want to begin by asking, you’re someone who’s been thinking and writing and innovating in the realm of digital ministry long before the pandemic put this issue front and center for the rest of us. And so I wanted to ask you, what have you learned in this period when so many churches have been forced really into the digital space? And what new questions has it raised for you?

Keith Anderson: Well, it’s interesting. I’ve been doing digital ministry and, in some way, talking about it, giving workshops or speaking or blogging for about 10 years, and always trying to encourage people to try things and use these different tools that are available to us. And I think that people made more progress in the last six months than they did in the last 10 years when it comes to using digital tools in their ministries. Simply because they’ve had to. We had no other choice but to figure out how to do Zoom meetings and webinars, and how to use YouTube and live video, and maybe podcasts, and figuring out how we do education with our confirmation or adult ed online as well. So I’ve been really impressed with all the ways in which ministry leaders have jumped into that space. And I’ve seen it coming out of a real love for their people and a desire to love and support them and share the gospel and help people stay strong in their faith during this time. So ministry leaders have been very game, very resilient, and very creative. We’re all doing things a little differently. And I love seeing all the different things ministry leaders are doing.

Ann Michel: Yeah, I really agree with that. I think that one of the lessons for me in this is that we think of churches as so resistant to change, and you know, they are, in normal times. Many are. But just how nimble and adaptive so many church leaders have managed to be when they’ve had to be. And I think there’s a message of hope in that. That we can make significant changes when we’re confronted with the necessity of it. So the main messages that I took away from your 2015 book The Digital Cathedral is a plea really to connect with people in the places where they live their lives, and one of those being digital spaces. But underlying that message of the book, I think, is the important notion that churches are no longer in a place where we can just wait for people to come, and that our thinking really needs to shift from “come here” to “go there.” And we can’t assume any longer “if we build it they will come.” And that’s another way of saying that we can’t all rely on what a lot of people call “the attractional model of ministry.” And as we find ourselves in this place where so many churches I think have been impressed with their ability to reach people in the digital realm, I’m a little bit concerned that as churches are seeing new people being attracted for example to their digital worship, that they may unintentionally just be transferring those attractional assumptions into their work in the digital realm. So my question is, how can churches avoid the trap of developing digital ministry that just assumes the same old assumptions? How can digital ministry become a more missional way of connecting with people?

Keith Anderson: Yeah. I think you know that Elizabeth Drescher and I talk in our book Click to Save about how we’re so accustomed to living in a broadcast media environment that we can look at social media as kind of just being the same kind of thing. That it’s about getting our message out. Or in this case, we’re operating under this attractional model of being church in person prior to the pandemic. And I have to say, I mean I have to confess, I wrote these books, but when I looked at my website during the pandemic, so much of it was “when you come to our church, these are the things you will experience”. And we had to really revamp our website. Because I realized people can’t come. So then what? What kind of message are we sending? What kind of interaction do we want to create? So we kind of went back to the drawing board on our website. But yeah, I think maybe it’s the same kind of pitfall — that we can look at these tools and we can improve. We can buy better cameras for our livestreaming. We can get more sophisticated on these kinds of things, the technology we’re able to use, and get infatuated with that technology and the way it looks and the way it feels. And you know in addition to seeing what other ministry leaders are doing and being very grateful for what they’re doing, I have to say that I have to confess to feeling a little competitive and jealous at times for some of the ways that other people are doing things. So I think it’s very easy to fall into that trap of just taking what we’ve done and that kind of mindset around it and just projecting it into digital space.

But what the digital space really is asking of us, which I’ve always felt is kind of a corrective for the church, is to really continue to focus on the relationships and the connections that are possible and that we’re experiencing in very real time, that are happening. So I’m somebody that loves all the bells and whistles and all the tools, hardware and software. But you know keeping it simple enough and not getting so consumed with those things that we miss out on the most important thing which is connections. And one of the challenges for us moving forward will be we’ve made these connections online. Now how do we nurture and sustain them in the longer term when maybe some people will have the opportunity to go back in person to their churches.

Ann Michel: Yeah. I’m so glad you mentioned that. Because I do think that for churches that have managed to transfer some of their worship and their programming to the digital sphere, that their next question is, “as we are beginning to engage people through these media. How do we then nurture the connections and build relationships?” Do you have any tips or strategies for let’s say a church that is having online worship and somebody new shows up? What do you do?

Keith Anderson: Yeah, it’s a great, great question. We’ve had that ourselves. We also have a lot of former members who’ve moved away to North Carolina that come and worship with us on Sundays. We have this huge North Carolina contingent for whatever reason. So that was an existing relationship that’s carried forward. But for new people, how do we create opportunities to really connect with them? I mean by and large, if they’re engaging with us and worship on a livestream, they’re just watching. So we’re not getting that feedback unless we’re getting some prayer requests in the chat on YouTube or Zoom. So I think creating venues say on a Zoom meeting after the livestream for people to come and just do a “Q and A” with a pastor that’s geared to newcomers. You know The Digital Cathedral is a book about moving between digital and face-to-face spaces. So if those people who are connecting with you are local — right now we’re mostly outside and we’re not doing a ton of stuff in our building as yet — but creating those invitations to be together in person, even with just smaller groups outside at the moment can be a way of reinforcing that relationship, so that when we’re back online together we have more of a story, we have more of a connection.

Ann Michel: You know, I think another assumption that is changing in how churches connect with people — and you know I think what’s happening during the pandemic is just a trajectory, it’s a hastening of trends that were already underway. But one of the trends that we’ve paid attention to is that worship isn’t always the first point of entry for somebody in a church anymore. And so I read an article just the other day that was talking about setting up online book groups and looking for existing online book groups and figuring out the interests and groups and relationships that people already have online, and then connecting through those. Have you done any of that kind of work? Or do you have advice on approaching that?

Keith Anderson: We’ve done some adult educational programming since the pandemic started. So it’s a Zoom either meeting or a webinar. And we posted it. We recorded it and then posted it on our website. So the image I have for our website as we go forward is that we’re creating this kind of catalog or library, a digital library of resources. We did one on parenting. We did one on mental health during the pandemic. And we’re sort of in the process of doing the same thing for our confirmation classes. So that when people come to the site they can grow in their faith, they could watch something, they could listen to something. And so they’re engaged with that. And you know some of these gatherings are larger than our adult education gatherings that we were having in person, depending on the topic. They’re not just theological or biblical, though they’re very much connected. But we’re talking about mental health in a pandemic, that casts a wide net for people. Or parenting in the pandemic, that’s a wide net. And I guess I’ve just always felt that if we start where people are, if we start with the questions they have, the challenges they’re facing, you know there’s a lot that our scriptures and our faith and our traditions have to say about that. But let’s kind of meet them in those pressure points in their lives where they are and then see what our faith has to say about it.

Ann Michel: How are you using social media to interface with those kinds of events?

Keith Anderson: We’re using YouTube a lot more than we ever did. We have a cool series at church right now that our adult ed director came up with called “Walks in Faith.” And at the moment there’s about a half a dozen short videos from members of our church who talk about their faith journeys. We have a member who volunteered to edit them. And they’re really cool, to hear first-person stories about where the rubber hits the road with faith. And so that’s on YouTube. That’s also housed on our website. So we’re using a lot more video now than we ever did. And when the pandemic started, we decided our website was — and I’m the webmaster so I can take responsibility — our website was just not very user friendly, although it looked very nice. So we redid our website when we went into lockdown recognizing we were going to need a much better platform. So we’ve used our website in really good ways to pull together a lot of the materials.

We have a Facebook page and we don’t use that as much as we should really. Early on I was doing Facebook Live videos on our page. I was just pulling a book off the shelf and talking about the little lesson, you know a little reflection off of that book. And that was well received. But with all of the technology that we have to be involved in now with the livestreaming and the slides and the production that’s involved, it’s actually taken some of my focus away from the social media — you know Facebook and Instagram side of what we’ve been doing. And we’ve been using MailChimp a lot. I mean it is like the most basic thing. But trying to use that email marketing platform in a more effective way. We’ve spent some time trying to get that in better shape than it was.

Ann Michel: Yeah. That really leads into the next question that I wanted to ask you. I think in the initial months of this pandemic so many churches were just kind of in crisis management mode. How do we get our worship online? Everybody was scrambling. How do we get our giving online? How do we get our groups online? For what everybody thought was going to be a relatively brief interruption in their normal practice. And I think as it’s beginning to dawn on people that as we come out of this disruptive period that the future of ministry, at least successful ministry, you know we’re probably never going totally back to where we were. And people are talking about a hybrid future where yes, you have a place-based ministry, but you have a virtual ministry as well. And so I guess my question is, if that’s the reality that we’re headed for, or we’re already in really I guess, what do you think that pastors and other church leaders need to be doing now to prepare for that future? And what kind of things need to be given priority? Because you said you had to put your emphasis in one place in order just to meet the moment. If you were thinking, if people were thinking about “how do I prepare for this new reality?” What are what are some of the things to be focusing on?

Keith Anderson: So some of the things that they’ll be focusing on are really I guess I would call infrastructure — that probably would consider very mundane. But you know over the last year we worked on getting away from desktop computers to laptop computers for staff members, having better file sharing on Office 365. We had to get a new database anyway, so it’s a web-based database, and having a really good online giving system. So maybe some people moved to online giving when this all happened because they didn’t have one, or they weren’t happy with what they had. And now is the time to be thinking about what’s a long-term sustainable giving platform, because it takes a lot of time and effort. We switched over our database and online giving last year. So we were lucky. We had already done that. But I think there’s how do the ways that we work and we coordinate and we communicate remotely giving access to our staff members for documents. All of those things like we did that in 2019. And we’re lucky that we did. But people probably this year have had to kind of make do with things. So what does it look like moving forward. Where do you want those things to be? I think that’s really important. I think like investing in your website. So again infrastructure. But like really having that be something that’s going to be a landing place that’s more engaging and interactive and if you’re trying to teach adults or confirmation or having worship materials available or some kind of series, whether it’s member reflections or something else, having that be like a really welcoming good platform that you could use as new things emerge. I mean I think all of those are going to be really important.

And I think starting to think ahead now, which I have to say for us I’m really only just starting to be able to do that now, as much as I think about these things. Because we’ve been making do and figuring things out and trying to get our feet underneath us with the pandemic. But to say ”Yeah, we are going to be hybrid for a while as much as we would not like to be.” So what are the things that we could have in place if we can’t we can be in-person. We’re going to straddle those two things. Maybe there’s gonna be a moment when we have to be all online you know. So you might reflect on what we have learned in the last six months? What skills have we learned? What worked? What didn’t work? What would we continue? What we not continue at the moment? I don’t think many of us had the opportunity to actually do that kind of reflection and to say “what do we want to carry forward? What new skills can we put into place?” And then just kind of then taking this forward and refining them as we go.

Ann Michel: Yeah. I think stopping and pausing for that reflection. I think a lot of people just haven’t had the time. They’ve been just trying to meet the moment. To stop and reflect about where they need to be going next. And it’s hard because it’s hard to see down the road right now. But I think the questions that you just raised are really important.

Keith Anderson: So I could just add one more thing. I think an important part of pausing to reflect is also to look back and be grateful for what’s happened. Because this whole time that we’re living in, it’s just so overwhelming. And it feels like such a huge challenge and it just doesn’t feel like enough. And it can be really disheartening. And when you look back and say “Look at what we’ve learned! Look at what we did! Look how we’ve gotten better!” I was just saying this to somebody at church the other day. When we look back like that, it’s an encouraging thing to think about, a way to look for the positive in a time that’s been really difficult. And then I think that’s some encouragement for us moving forward as well.

Ann Michel: Yeah that’s a really excellent point. I also wanted to ask you about the different resources that are brought to bear in the online sphere. I know in so many churches the person who handled tech for worship was an important player but not the most important player. And now all of a sudden they’ve become the most important person on the team. And the skill set that preachers and musicians and others are needing to bring to worship are in many cases new. And that probably has implications for the kinds of talents and resources that churches need to deploy. I just wondered if you had any thoughts about how you see churches being able to develop the skills and resources that they’re going to need for this new reality.

Keith Anderson: Yeah. It’s funny. I talked to some youth ministry leaders. And they’re all of a sudden the most important person at the church because they know how to use all these digital tools. Or the person that runs the soundboard at church on Sunday morning. And just did that. And all of a sudden they are the techiest person around and so they are being called on to do all sorts of things. So yeah, I think we need to 1) identify the people in our congregations who can help us and know these things and 2) I think we need to invest in developing those skills ourselves. And some of it’s just giving ourselves the time to practice on things. There’s a ton of online resources and from the Lewis Center. And I’m associated with Virginia Theological Seminary as well and a lifelong learning department. There is a ton of resources on faith formation and digital ministry. So there’s a lot that’s really been put out. And there’s been so much I think having to respond to this time that we haven’t even had the time to catch up.

So if you are taking this pause and you’re looking around you, there are a lot of resources that have been generated in the last six months that are available. Like how to do retreats online. How to do youth ministry in a hybrid environment. And things like that. And if there’s more formal training, and I don’t know exactly what that would be, but if there’s more formal training for staff members we all need to get up to speed. And you know as we look ahead it’s just an important role or a skill set. And really, I’ve thought for a long time a very essential skill set for people in the ministry to have to be able to connect and support the people that we minister to, I think. Church offices. I’ve long thought church offices will look different and just be much more digitally oriented as opposed to kind of secretarially the oriented. There’s definitely a shift that I think will be accelerated on the administrative side of our churches by this pandemic as well.

Ann Michel: I do think that’s a good point. I can see that in my own church the nature of the office work has totally changed because everything’s electronic. You know nobody’s folding bulletins. Nobody’s doing that work that was just sort of stock and trade of what went on in the church office on a weekly basis. I hear from so many pastors and so many church leaders that they are under immense pressure from their congregants to reopen their buildings and that there’s just this underlying strong desire to want to get back to normal and be able to return to doing things the way that they used to do them. And you know I totally sympathize with that because I feel that. Every day, every week I feel that. And yet I know that’s probably not where my church needs to be now and it’s not where it needs to be going forward. So how would you recommend that people push back — maybe that isn’t the right word — but how do we respond to that dynamic, the strong nostalgia for the way that things used to be, and yet we want to see things continue to move forward.

Keith Anderson: Yeah, I mean that’s super hard for everybody right now. I’d say by and large my congregation is very supportive of what we’re doing. But there are people on all sides of this issue, right. Some people want to be back in right away. They wanted to be back in months ago. And some people aren’t going to come back in until there’s a widespread vaccine. And everybody in between. And ministry leaders are in a really difficult place. You know some of the things that we found out, and in some ways the hard way, is the importance of communication. You know we used to have so many more ways to communicate at our disposal. And there was so much communication that was happening just on a very informal basis. What would happen on a Sunday morning outside of the slides or announcements or the formal ways that we would communicate. So we started doing a paper newsletter again which we hadn’t done in years. This was very successful for us, we hosted a town hall. It was like a Zoom webinar town hall gathering for members of our church after church on Sunday. And that was really, really good. People submitted questions in advance so we could be ready to respond. And then people could ask follow up questions or make comments. And that was really good. So I think if you can’t throw the doors open, you can communicate better.

We learned that we needed to be communicating better. I think people want to have a sense that things are happening at church even if they’re different. You know we were going to have a men’s retreat weekend. Can’t do that. But we had a campfire here on Sunday night at church. And that was just all spread out around the campfire. And that was great. So there’s the sense that things are happening. And then I think there’s also the sense of this line we’re walking — people want to continue to have hope that things are going to get better and that we’ll be able to be back together and we’ll regain a sense of normalcy. And there’s this kind of line of being really realistic about where we are and what’s happening and the forecast for the winter in particular and also holding out the hope that things could improve, that we could do things, that we can hold on to some sense of normalcy. So I find people struggling with that sense of trying to hold the hope. We want to be realistic but not kind of rip that hope away either.

Ann Michel: Yeah. I think your point about communication is so true because I find that just as you said normal patterns of how people share information with one another have changed so much. And I don’t think people have really figured out how that’s impacting things. Over communicating. I think we have to be really intentional about over communicating. So I want to begin to draw this to a close, but I’m going to give you a hard question to end on. Just a preface it, in this liminal time I have such a hard time knowing what’s even going to be happening two weeks from now, much less what’s going to be happening in six months or 12 months or a year or two years from now. I know we’re at a point where we can only see through the glass dimly. But I did want to ask you to prognosticate a bit, if you’re willing to take a try. And the question is, how do you see this period that we’re in changing in the narrative of where the church is headed?

Keith Anderson: I got to say that I’m not sure that I see it changing the narrative as much as accelerating the narrative. So you know I read along with you the research about mainline Protestant traditions and attendance and membership and giving and all of those things. And that we certainly have some really powerful headwinds working against us. And there have been many small churches that have been very vulnerable and that the pandemic is going to accelerate I’m sure accelerate church closings. You know may or may not accelerate kind of a mainline decline to see how people respond in faith. This very well might be a time that rekindles our desire for community and need for a grounding in faith and hope and reclaiming some of the spirituality of our daily lives. So I tend to think that it’s going to accelerate a lot of the trends that we’ve already been seeing and have been seeing for the last 20 or 25 years. And so there’s certainly a lot of sadness about that. But I do think it’s also accelerated our capacity to respond to changing times.

So having had to go through this, the skills we’ve learned, the flexibility, the nimbleness that we’ve talked about, those are things I’ve been trying to encourage ministry leaders to do, to embody these last many years as a way of preparing ourselves for a future that we’re not quite sure what it looks like. And we’re being equipped whether we like it or not to respond to this time. So, I do think there is hope that for those churches that continue, for people that continue in ministry that those are the things that we’re learning now, whenever the pandemic comes to a close, are really actually going to help us respond and to the future and lead the church into the future. The Digital Cathedral is a hopeful book about the ways that we can be church. And I think we’re living into those right now. Certainly in a painful and unwanted way. But in ways that I hope will be able to take us forward.

Ann Michel: I do think this period has been revelatory in so many ways. Crisis has a way of doing that, of revealing things. And I have seen so many hopeful things emerge in this time that I think in many ways it’s renewed my hope in the church’s ability to change when necessary. Keith, this has been a fascinating conversation. I am so delighted that you’ve been willing to share your thoughts with our listeners and so grateful for the work that you’ve done over the years and for your willingness to share what you learn and your perspectives with others. So really appreciate you talking with us today.

Keith Anderson: Thanks. Thanks for having me and thanks for all you do.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks we speak with Jacqueline Jones-Smith, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, Florida, about how a church can turn itself around by taking stock of its assets and leveraging them.

Thank you for joining us and don’t forget to subscribe free to our weekly newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

The Digital CathedralRelated Resources


About Author

Keith Anderson

Keith Anderson is pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church near Philadelphia and coauthor of Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Church Publishing, 2018) and author of The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World (Morehouse Publishing, 2015).

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.