How can church leaders embrace rather than fear the future? Olu Brown shares how leaders can “normalize next” and begin living their future now by engaging innovative thinking, creative partnerships, and hybrid strategies to fulfill their mission.
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How can church leaders embrace rather that fear the future? In this episode Olu Brown shares how leaders can “normalize next” and begin living their future now by engaging innovative thinking, creative partnerships, and hybrid strategies to fulfill their mission.
Douglas Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center, and your host for this talk. Joining me is the Rev. Olu Brown of Impact Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Our focus for this podcast is Normalizing Next, his new book. I’m really excited for this podcast for a couple of reasons. First, this is our 100th podcast and we’re celebrating that we have made it to 100. It doesn’t feel like we’ve done 100 of these, but we actually have. Second, I’m celebrating because I get to do the 100th podcast and hang out with one of my buddies, Rev. Olu Brown. So, Olu, welcome to our 100th podcast.
Olu Brown: Thank you so much Doug. It’s great to be here with you. And I thank you for the work that you and the team do.
Douglas Powe: Well, I want to get started, and I’m really excited about your new book Normalizing Next. And I think that the title itself is so very interesting because most people have been focusing on the “new normal.” But you are suggesting that we look ahead to figure out what we call normal. Is this a fair interpretation? And why are you so future-oriented, if I’m reading this correctly?
Olu Brown: Yeah. The whole passion genesis for the book is to give some hope and inspiration to leaders in the church, those who are lay and also those who are clergy. And this is how I define “normalizing next”: when leaders and congregations determine that “next” is not to be feared but embraced. And as they engage in creative and innovative thinking and partnerships, they will begin living their future now. So, now is also current, but it’s also the future. And I believe the reason this book was written was to encourage leaders to think about tomorrow but also tomorrow next year and a decade from now because, as leaders, we can not only look at where we’ve been or where we are, we have to project ourselves into the future. That’s the whole idea around Normalizing Next. And, of course, what does it mean to lead and live in a post-COVID-19 world?
Douglas Powe: Absolutely. And I appreciate the way that you think about this. A part of that, of course, is that you talk about the dreaded word that everybody — well, I won’t say everybody — that many people in the church try to avoid: the word change. People sort of get uptight when you start talking about, “We need to change things”, or “We need to do something different.” Of course, during the time of COVID, people didn’t have a choice. They had to adjust or to make changes. The question is, though, how can leaders help congregations see change as an ongoing work and not something we do just to get to a settled place? Because, coming out of the pandemic prayerfully, it feels like people are going to want to be more settled again. But the reality is, we still are going to have to continue to change.
Olu Brown: Yeah. This is where we don’t just look into the future only, but we also look to the past. And as we look to the past, we understand that organizations — in particular, churches — that have become vital and sustain vitality over history have always changed and adapted to the change that is around them. So, the inspiration for helping leaders normalize change is that we’ve always done it and, whenever we do change consistently, we’re able to speak to the current culture, we’re able to reach and evangelize, and we’re also able to better resemble being the kingdom of God here on earth.
If you think about Jesus’ ministry, it evolved and it changed. And how he reached out to particular disciples to onboard them wasn’t the same for every disciple. He spoke to their culture. He spoke to where they were and then onboarded them and took them into the future. And we know Matthew ends by saying, “but go into all the world …” And that’s Change 101. If you’re going to be serious about the Great Commission, you also have to be serious about making adjustments and changes along the way to really fulfill the commission that Jesus has given us.
Douglas Powe: You said something really interesting at the end. You said “If we’re serious about the Great Commission,” and I’m just going to play angel’s advocate — we won’t be the devil’s advocate.
Olu Brown: I like that.
Douglas Powe: Do you think that maybe not enough congregations are serious about the Great Commission? And what I mean by that is it seems to me the challenge of “going” really is where a lot of congregations really do fall short, which connects to what you’re saying in terms of change. If I really don’t buy into the Great Commission, then can I really buy into change?
Olu Brown: Well, for me, what I’ve found from coaching churches and leaders across the country is that they are serious but don’t have the strategy. And it doesn’t matter how serious you are about fulfilling the Great Commission. If you don’t have a strategy to do it, you won’t see the fulfillment of it. This is what I’ve been teaching and sharing. I believe we are living in the greatest evangelistic season of our lifetime. Now, that’s one thing to believe it; it’s another thing to position yourself to achieve it. That’s why I wrote the book, and we talk about generosity and raising generosity in this culture we’re living in, structuring your church for growth, what is leadership, what is vision casting. And a lot of churches need the basics, if you will, to evangelizing in this post-COVID world so that they can show how serious they are about the Great Commission and partner that with strategy and fulfill the Great Commission.
Douglas Powe: Let’s talk a little bit about vision as we start thinking of that strategy, because you talk about the importance of vision to help congregations move forward. And I want to use your words and to have you respond to them. How do we help to elevate the imagination of a congregation that wants to return to their prior way? There are congregations now who are saying “We sort of liked it over there in Egypt. Let’s go back to the pre-pandemic time. Let’s go back to Egypt.” And there are congregations that, of course, have always wanted to return to the tradition of the church and didn’t want to move forward, so how do you think about vision that moves forward? And then, how do you think about that vision in terms of helping the people who want to go back to prior times to buy in?
Olu Brown: First, the vision of moving forward and congregations that are at that point. We have to do everything we can to inspire and give them the right information to continue moving forward. The inspiration comes from Scripture. We think about the prophet Joel, or we think about Habakkuk writing a vision. We are living in a season where we are casting vision about the future. And future may be about a program for the church or ministry for the church or reaching the community in a different way or going back to the drawing board and revisiting and rethinking everything. A lot of pastors and leaders during the pandemic realized that church didn’t have to last two-and-a-half hours. We can really revision our program and our order of worship. And, oh, by the way, we had great worship in one hour, and it was very effective.
We need to resource and give churches and church leaders that type of information. And that’s what you and the Lewis Center are doing and others across the country. And we need to make sure we give those resources to as many leaders as possible. Then, secondly, for that group that wants to go back to Egypt, here’s what I’ve been telling individuals. To go through the trauma that you’ve experienced in the last two years and then to return to the way things used to be — what does that say about all that we’ve had to experience over these past two years? It has been traumatic. It has been difficult. And it has nearly been impossible for so many individuals. Everyone, whether it’s a friend or a family member or an associate, if you are still alive, in the last two years you’ve lost someone or something over the last two years. Why go through so much just to go back to the way things were?
My hope is that you will take the lessons learned, even the hardships over the past two years, and transform that into a new energy and a new resolve to ask this question in your local church: what is God asking us to do right now? And as God answers that question, charge forward with all the energy, the anointing, the passion, and the resources you have. That would be my response to those who want to go back to the way things used to be.
Douglas Powe: I really like what you said. And I really liked the question, “What is God asking us to do now?” I’m going to play angel’s advocate one more time because I’ve talked to some of these congregations. And I can just imagine, I’m just curious if you had to coach or deal with a congregation who responds, “Well, God wants us to get back in our building and to start doing in-person worship, again.” How do you respond to someone who answers that way?
Olu Brown: Well, one thing we realized over the past two years, and we’ve been saying it historically, the building is not the church. It holds. It resources. It allows ministry to be facilitated. But the building is brick and mortar. And my hope for those congregations is that they’ve learned that lesson. The building is not your church.
Then, secondly, as it relates to going back inside so that we can hold worship — and I’ve had some of our congregants say, “it doesn’t feel the same watching online” or “now that we’re back, this feels like church again” — you really have to question that theology because, if you look at Jesus’ ministry, it was predominantly outdoors. It was in community. It was on water. And we know, as we prepare for Easter, Calvary’s cross was on a hill. So, 99 percent of Jesus’s ministry was on the outside. What does that say about us today where 99 percent of the ministry we do has to be on the inside?
So, here’s the advice I’ve been giving individuals. And I know you and the Lewis Center have published in resources a lot of information about hybrid worship, in-person and virtual. Here’s what I’m telling people who ask, “Olu, how long should we do online or virtual worship?” Here’s the answer. “Until Jesus comes back. I would do in-person and virtual worship until Jesus comes back. I would even go up a stage or two. I would start having all our programs be built on two platforms, in-person and virtual. Vacation Bible School, in-person and virtual. Sunday school, in-person and virtual. Wednesday night Bible study, in-person and virtual. Not only Sunday morning, but every major program we offer — how can we build it on a hybrid platform so the whole world can see it?
Douglas Powe: I love that answer. It ties into where I want to go next and that’s thinking about technology and actually hybrid worship. But I want to start with technology. I can imagine that many people who know you know that Impact has always been in the forefront of technology. But what I’m going to hear is, “Well, you know, Olu has all those resources at Impact, so he can afford to have technology.” What do you say to small congregations that don’t have the funds, but they have to do exactly what you said — they’ve got to do in-person and virtual. They have to start thinking in these ways. So, how do you help them to think about, “You, also, can use technology. You may not be buying the most expensive technology, but you still need to use it. Here’s how you think about using it.”
Olu Brown: Well, I’m glad you mentioned that. There’s an entire chapter in my book Normalizing Next on technology because technology is important and it’s vital. Here’s my response. Focus on two different types of technology, low-tech and high-tech, and find your fit. For instance, I was talking to a pastor who is worshiping with his congregation via a conference call line. They can’t see each other, but they can hear each other. Now, that’s low-tech. But it’s still impactful and effective, and it works for them where they are.
Use what you have. A more high-tech version would be what we’re doing right now via Zoom or another video conferencing system. And what we’ve discovered is even our older adults will buy into technology if we introduce it in a way that helps them understand. They can use it and they can benefit from it. For instance, our churches are hosting baptisms, and a grandparent who lives in another state can’t travel because of physical ability or because of COVID or both. And you help that grandparent understand that our church is offering in-person but also hybrid. The grandchild that you love so much is going to be baptized on Sunday morning. Well, that grandparent can participate in the sacrament of that church through technology.
So, it’s not just about having a smart phone or a laptop or having a computer. It’s about helping an individual understand that they can still be (1) connected to their family, (2) connected to the church, and (3) be a part of God’s global community. When you can introduce it that way instead of the nuts and bolts and bandwidth and all these kinds of technical phrases that we use — “This is about you participating in your grandchild’s baptism. Would you like to do that?” If their answer is “Yes”, which it will be “Yes”, then you simply show them how. And guess what? You’ve got a committed online viewer for the rest of their lifetime.
Douglas Powe: I think that’s helpful. You have termed it in language that I have not heard many say, in terms of really helping the individual to understand how connecting in this way is a benefit to them, instead of just simply saying “Here. Use this technology.”
Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is a turnkey tool kit to help your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for its future. The resource guides your church in discovering clues to your vision in your history and culture, your current congregational strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of your surrounding community. Learn more and watch an introductory video now.
I want to now connect to hybrid worship, and you have started down this path. How do we help individuals really plan to think about doing in-person and virtual worship? Because what tends to happen, which I’m sure you understand, is that we say, “Okay, let’s get a camera so you can watch what we do in person.” But that’s not really inviting to those people who are joining us virtually. You really have to think about how to create an experience that integrates them into the work we’re doing, and they’re not just onlookers to what we’re doing. Any advice for how we can create a really good hybrid worship experience?
Olu Brown. One, they need to watch your podcast on hybrid worship [“Imagining a Hybrid Future” featuring Rosario Picardo] so they can get some really great details.
Douglas Powe: I appreciate that. Thank you.
Olu Brown: And, secondly, it goes back to the way we think about it and introduce it. Even before the pandemic, one of the very harmful things I heard related to online or virtual worship is that some pastors and churches were concerned that if they offered it, fewer people would come in person. And then guess what happens a year or two later? A pandemic. So, one, we have to dismiss and dismantle these false narratives about the way the people of God gather and appreciate and value both in person and virtual. So that’s the first thing — building a culture of acceptance around allowing people to worship in the way that’s best for them and not demonizing virtual worship. The second is we’ve got to get the resources to know the best practices. I mentioned your podcast, and there are other folks who also teach and train on it.
Then third is you’ve got to start at your level. We would love to have a fully engaged online campus. But that may not be the reality for most churches in the United States of America or around the world. Where do you start as it relates to virtual worship? For some people, it may be their smartphone in their living room on a stand and you’re preaching and teaching and singing in your living room.
But it continues to evolve. How does it evolve? By investing in a software platform that then allows you to interact with the individuals who are watching. In our church we call them host team members who are online. The same way you have a physical in-person usher or host, you also have that person who is online. Someone will say, “Well, Olu, you have a ton of people in the Atlanta area.” Well, guess what? You can have a volunteer who is a virtual volunteer helping in another part of the world. Say, for instance, your local church has a college student that’s a freshman in college in another part of the country. Well, what if you reached out to that student and said on Sunday mornings, “Will you volunteer where you are in your dorm room, in your apartment, to be our online host?” They don’t have to physically be there. And guess what? You’ve now scaled up your online experience. As a viewer, I have no idea that’s a college student who’s interacting with me, and I have no idea they’re in the building. That’s not important. What I appreciate is you’ve thought enough about me as a member of this congregation, or as a guest to this congregation, to engage me and not just treat me as somebody who’s watching you have a wonderful worship experience and then I log off after it’s over with.
Douglas Powe: Again, I think that advice is helpful because not only is it important to really be aware of your context and where you need to start, but then it’s important not just to stay there but continue to move along that continuum where you’re working, to take that next step in what you’re trying to accomplish.
Let’s stay in this vein but move to preaching. In the book you talk about the importance of preaching. As we think about preaching contextually, which I know you believe is important, how do you preach contextually when you have people who are in person in Atlanta who know what’s going on in the city, but now you have people all around the world. They may not care what’s going on in Atlanta. How do you continue to preach contextually when you’re working in a hybrid format?
Olu Brown: What I’ve told individuals is practice before you preach, in particular if you have one worst experience, because if you don’t practice before the worst experience you’re basically practicing on people and that will never yield you the best results. One of the reasons we practice before we preach is to go over the words and the different phrases and the different examples, and hopefully there’s someone to give us feedback. Guess what? You can practice preaching with someone virtually. They don’t even have to be in the room with you and they can give you feedback.
The second suggestion is language, meaning if you’re preaching in a particular city or part of the country but you’re broadcasting around the world, you want to be careful not to use specific examples for your region only. For instance, you’re preaching a sermon and you happen to use a story about going to a grocery store to buy groceries. In your state there is a grocery chain that is very popular and everyone knows about it, so when you give the example, you name that store, and you know it and the handful of other people close to you know it. But if I’m watching in Milwaukee or if I’m watching in Asia, I have no idea. But I do know what a grocery story is. I do know what a food service store is. So, it’s using that type of general language around certain examples so that you can reach the highest number or largest number of your audience.
That’s something I talk about in the book and other previous resources, as well, because when we think about hospitality, we often think about it in person, but as we’re broadcasting more virtually, you also have to think about online hospitality and what it means to help your viewers and members of the congregation who are watching feel welcome and accepted. And guess what? You practice. You plan. And you prepared for them. You just didn’t wake up and say “Oh, by the way, we’re going to post this online.” No. “We thought about you the same way as we thought about individuals coming in person.”
Douglas Powe: I think that’s really important. And I think that even small congregations need to take to heart the practicing before they go ahead and put it out there. I think too often we skip that step, and we get sort of frustrated when it’s not the product that we would like it to be, but part of it is because we haven’t done our part and practiced as you’ve suggested.
Olu Brown: Just a funny note. You know, I’ve announced that I’m retiring from the local church. And I’ve got about three months left when this broadcast airs. But one of the things I won’t miss is every Thursday, whoever is preaching, we practice our sermons. Every Thursday. And on Sunday morning, we also have to arrive earlier than the worship experience starts. And that’s not only for who’s preaching, but that’s for the liturgist and whoever will be talking from what we call the stage. We all have to practice. So, I’m looking forward to coming into worship in the future at the time worship starts, as opposed to getting there hours earlier.
Douglas Powe: Just make sure you’re not one of those people slipping in 15 minutes late in the back.
Olu Brown: Hey. I might become one of those.
Doug Powe: Let me connect some of these pieces together with something I found really intriguing in the book and I really want you to share a little bit more about in this podcast. You talk about the importance of getting people moving in the same direction, and that’s a lot of what we’ve been talking about in this podcast — trying to help people understand the importance of moving into a vision that helps them really live out the Great Commission, if we want to simplify it. And you talk about how, in moving together, what’s important is doing it in three simple steps. You can’t overcomplicate it. You’ve got to make it easy for people to get on the same page. So, I want you to share a little bit about that. But then I want you to respond to this: if you break it down to three simple steps, have you made it too simplistic for people? Have you gone in the other direction?
Olu Brown: Yeah. Well, thank you. That’s in the chapter on church structure. We call the philosophy “three steps or less.” This is why: when we think about the typical human experience and all of the things that we manage in a single day. If I’m passionate about the church and I want to volunteer at the church, and I’m already managing 50 or 60 things, but I want to volunteer my time — and the most valuable commodity anyone has is their time — and I give you my time to volunteer in an area that I’m passionate about, I have to go through 20 different steps with three or four different people. What we discover in church is that it’s not that they didn’t want to volunteer. They just didn’t have the time or the patience to go through all the adjustments that we were asking them to go through.
So, here’s what I tell volunteers or those who are building volunteer systems for me to engage with your ministry. Make it three steps or less. Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t do background checks in areas where we have to do background checks or practice safe sanctuary. We still do those things. But as it relates to engaging with a particular ministry or support or helping out: three steps or less. For some it might be four. For others it might be five. But it doesn’t need to be numerous steps. They’re very simple. Not complicated. They’re very visible, whether it’s in digital or it’s on paper. And everyone who has responsibility over those three steps is held accountable.
For instance, what can happen with some volunteer systems is this: as a fellow volunteer, I sign up to take the names after church and I leave church with a list of names. That list of names sits in my car for two weeks, and no one gets a call. No one gets a text. No one gets an email. And other leaders are saying, “Well, I know we had a ton of people sign up.” Yes, we did. But someone didn’t follow through. So, it’s not enough just to have a simple system. It’s not enough to have three steps or less. You also have to be accountable as leaders. Because as I said earlier, the most valuable commodity we have is our time. And we never want to waste anyone’s time, in particular, in the life of the Church of Jesus Christ.
Douglas Powe: Olu, as we get ready to draw to a close — and again I really appreciate you being our guest on this 100th episode of our podcast — I’m always curious, if you had a crystal ball, as you get ready to take the next step for your life, what do you see as really critical for congregations in the next three to five years if they’re going to thrive?
Olu Brown: Well, several things. One, I think churches that will thrive in the future will be boutique style churches, meaning they’re very clear and very focused on missions and outreach in their particular context and passion, and they don’t try to be all things to all people. They are okay referring people out to other churches that do certain things better. So, it’s a boutique, very focused, streamlined ministry.
Two, they have a very clear vision and a very clear mission, and they overemphasize it. They market it all the time, internally and externally. It’s in the lifeblood of every leader. It’s in every sermon, every song, every volunteer opportunity, the vision, the mission is a part of the core DNA.
Third is leadership development. Externally they’re searching for the best leaders to help move their ministry forward. So, if you happen to be — once again, in that grocery store example, and you’re checking out and the salesperson is singing a song, well, invite that salesperson to be a part of your church choir. We’re always looking for people to help resource the ministry, but also internally we’re resourcing our volunteers. With the Lewis Center, we’re saying, “Hey, here’s a great podcast you need to listen to because I believe you’re a great teacher, but I think you can be even greater if you will check out some of these resources.”
So, it’s the leadership development, internally and externally. It’s the clarity of vision. And it’s being very focused as a boutique style and size church. And then finally it’s taking some crazy risks through the power of the Holy Spirit and asking ourselves, “What is God up to right now that we want to be a part of?” And not being afraid of the future or hostage to the past, but truly believing the scripture, Ephesians 3:20, God will do exceedingly abundantly above all we can think or act or imagine, according to the power — and the translation is dynamite — that is at work within us. So, my encouragement is, God is with you. You can’t fail. Take a risk and trust that. As you “normalize next,” the best is yet to come.
Douglas Powe: Olu, thank you so much for being a part of this. This has been great. Again, the book is Normalizing Next. It will be a book that will help you, particularly as you look forward towards the future.
Olu Brown: Thank you. Happy 100th episode.
Announcer: Thank you for joining us for Leading Ideas Talks. Don’t forget to subscribe free to our weekly e-newsletter, Leading Ideas, to be notified when new episodes are published. Visit churchleadership.com/leadingideas.
- Normalizing Next: A Post COVID-10 Resource for Church Leaders (Culverhouse LLC, 2022) by Olu Brown, available at Amazon.
- Moving Forward With Hybrid Worship by Olu Brown
- “Dream Big to Reach New People,” a Leading Ideas Talks podcast episode featuring Olu Brown
- 5 Keys to Great Online Worship Hospitality by Olu Brown
- “Imagining a Hybrid Future,” a Leading Ideas Talks podcast episode featuring Rosario Picardo
- Discovering God’s Future for Your Church Video Tool Kit