Navigating new territory: Moving ministry online

Lisa Hanle Image Lisa Hanle | Mar 26, 2020

Photo by Levi Elizaga

It’s stating the obvious to say we are in an unpredictable, unprecedented time. With the rapid spread of Coronavirus cases, some ministry leaders have been mandated to stay at home, while others have been given recommendations and size restrictions—but all of us are adapting and figuring out how to move a lot of what we do online.

While there are about a thousand blogs going around about how to work from home efficiently, or hosting a good virtual meeting, we want to offer thoughts and questions to keep in mind as leaders explore moving ministry online. None of us are experts on this, and my church has never offered livestream or recorded services before. But because I live in an area that was affected quickly, my family ministry team and I had no choice but to adapt immediately.

On FYI’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter channels, we’ve asked you to share your ideas, innovations, questions, and concerns with us. And we’ve been excited to see the great ideas and really thoughtful ways ministry leaders are staying connected with students and families!

As we explore new territory together, these are a few of the lessons ministry leaders—myself included—have learned through early trial and error.

1. Name your goal before choosing your medium

When you’re hosting a gathering online, are you hoping primarily to deliver content (like teaching or a devotional)? Or is your biggest goal to engage dialogue and grow closer as a community (such as discussion, or praying together)? You might be able to do both, but platforms have different strengths and weaknesses, so let your goal inform your platform.

For example, livestreaming, posting a video to YouTube, or even emailing out short videos (using apps that make it easy, like BombBomb or Video Email for Gmail) is great for delivering content, but it’s a one-way interaction. On the other hand, video conferencing apps like Zoom or Google Hangouts are great for community engagement. Zoom even allows the host to send the group into small breakout rooms, so you can easily go from a “large group” to a “small group”! But you might feel a little more awkward looking at your own face while teaching, and students might get more distracted from seeing each other. Other platforms like Discord are better for social engagement or gaming together. Use different mediums to serve each of your goals.

“At the moment, we have encouraged our students with a Bible reading plan for the week. Then check-in times with their small group leaders with Google Meet or text message, etc. for conversations, questions, and prayer. I'm working to post weekly videos on the upcoming Bible reading for encouragement.” – B_stokes7 via Instagram

Stay connected during COVID-19 with a collection of free and digital resources to help you move your ministry online.

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2. Maximize video conferencing for youth group

  • Walk your students (and parents!) through the basics of how to use your chosen platform, and be ready to troubleshoot basic problems. Think about the basic protocol and “environment” you want on a call. Do you want them to use the chat feature freely throughout your time, or be “quiet” during the talk? Do you want to let anyone share their screen, or only let the host do this?

“For what it is worth, junior high seemed to go much better in this [video conference] format than senior high…Many students stayed on long after the meeting to just connect and laugh together.” – Leo Barnes via Facebook

  • As you plan for meeting online, consider your group’s size. A group of six, 12-15, 25-30, or 50+ is going to feel very different. You’ll need to adjust your expectations for conversation, teaching, games, or other interaction accordingly. The bigger your meeting size is, the crazier interaction will become—and also the more likely many students are to go quiet or even get self-conscious about being on screen. In those cases, use the chat or breakouts feature. Make sure you learn how to do this and set it up before the call. If you get to know the ins and outs of your chosen platform, you can even simulate the “large group” followed by a “small group” experience.
  • When you teach online, lean into visuals using the screen share feature. Whether using a simple slide with your main points or showing a video, it doesn’t have to be fancy. But it’ll go a long way in helping your students follow along. My youth group is smaller and lessons tend to be pretty interactive, often with discussion and writing on a white board throughout the lesson. Those aspects are difficult to replicate online (we’re a little too big to have a whole group discussion on Zoom). Using a slide or video helps students follow along instead of simply listening, especially while they’re also distracted by all of their friends on screen.
  • At the same time, consider shorter, simpler lessons than usual. The medium will be different than meeting in person, and it’s even easier for students to be distracted, tune you out, or literally turn you off. Students’ needs are also different. As we listen to ministry leaders, we’re learning that students mostly crave connection at this point—even just having one or two key ideas to discuss in a small group is enough to get them to think a little more deeply and engage spiritually with everything they’re experiencing. So take some of the pressure off your lesson prep, keep it simple, and leave yourself more time to connect relationally.

“I think the teaching was just much shorter and really flowed out of our discussion about what is going on right now with the health crisis around the world. We shared the disappointments and challenges and fears and why we were online and that led naturally into me saying, ‘Well, I just want to encourage you with a few words tonight.’” – Santacruzfaithyouth via Instagram

  • Lastly, missing youth group games? Get creative with playing them online! In addition to dedicated gaming sites like Steam, Discord, or countless others, you can leverage screensharing in platforms like Zoom to play games together. For great ideas and resources on this, I’ll point you over to our friends at Download Youth Ministry, who have tons of games formatted for slides. This means you can easily load them on your computer, share your screen, and play the game almost as usual.

"We used my XBOX to download a game series called Jackbox. Series 2 is what I purchased because that is what my students recommended. PUT THE FAMILY FILTER ON! Then, I set up a Twitch account as well. Students only need their phones…They simply go to and enter the code for the game room. It wasn't perfect, but …the laughter was needed and awesome." – Matt Overton via Facebook

Lisa Hanle Image
Lisa Hanle

Lisa holds a BA in Sociology from Stanford University and an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary. Lisa has been pastoring for over 10 years at a nondenominational church in Silicon Valley, CA where she continues to support the staff and serve with the high school youth group. Lisa lives with her husband and two kids in the Bay Area, CA.

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