Navigating new territory: Moving ministry online

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

3. Empower your small group leaders and volunteers for connection

Right now the need and opportunity for pastoral care is high. You may be having a hard time checking in individually with each student and getting a sense of how they’re doing. Encourage your small group leaders and volunteers to reach out to students they are connected with.

Give leaders contact numbers (with families’ permission, of course), and some questions or prompts for reaching out to students. Some of your leaders are naturals and won’t need your prompting, but others will need those tools. Consider asking a range of questions, like:

  • What’s something new you’ve tried since being home more?
  • What are you doing with your time these days?
  • What do you miss about normal life?
  • How are you feeling about everything going on?
  • Are you exploring your neighborhood more these days? What do you notice?
  • How have you seen or felt God recently?

“We are starting a daily prayer practice at lunch time that will be live, and they can post their concerns and prayer requests, and even respond to each other. We will do different prayer practices, devotions, and maybe use songs/hymns and art as well.” – Theehostetters via Instagram

4. Embrace the new opportunities

Collaborate with other ministries at your church. A household may easily have multiple kids in different stages of life, so make sure you’re aligned with the others on your staff or leadership teams ministering to each of those groups. You can also share the workload for family devotionals, prayer times, or whatever other ideas you’ve come up with. This is a great time to lean into—or increase—your collaboration with other ministries!

This time is a great opportunity to re-engage disengaged students. There may be students who you haven’t seen at youth group for any number of reasons, but they might respond now. Whether it’s because they typically have a really busy schedule, have a hard time getting a ride, don’t feel like they know anyone, or haven’t felt the need for youth group—many of those obstacles could be removed now.

“A bunch of our recent grads have just moved home or are now at home for classes online so we're reaching out to some of them to see if they'd like to do Faith in an Anxious World too in a video conference style.” – Janee Walker via Facebook

This time is a great opportunity to partner with parents. As many of you know firsthand, parents are stressed! Between job and financial concerns, suddenly having their kids at home, possibly attempting to homeschool or facilitate online learning, and the general uncertainty all of us are feeling—parents need help. We can support them simply by coming alongside their kids, but we can also encourage them directly. Check in with parents, ask how they’re doing, and ask how you can support their family.

This is a great time to embrace keychain leadership. Our students are more familiar with online engagement than we are, so let’s let them teach us! Several leaders online mentioned they have students taking the lead in various aspects—from checking in on each other, to hosting social gaming, to teaching the leaders about how to use these platforms. Invite your students to join or even lead you in your plans, and to see what ideas they come up with to help the group stay connected.

“On the advice of some of our high school guys, we are going to try Discord for our small group Bible study group tonight. Some of the guys were quick to volunteer to serve as host/admins so that I could concentrate on teaching and discussion, while they worry about handling distractions.” – Leo Barnes via Facebook

This is a great time to be great neighbors. Encourage students to reach out to one another, to their neighbors, and to brainstorm how they can love and serve those who are especially vulnerable right now. Let’s invite and empower our students to enter into that mission field.

“I challenged [my youth and their parents]…to reach out to the older people in our church or their neighborhood. Call them to see how they are doing or if they need anything. I also offered an option of sending notes of encouragement for those who may be uncomfortable calling… I feel that this is a mission field that has been dropped in our laps and it is my prayer that it will make us stronger.” – Paula Sandoval via Facebook

Embrace trial and error. As my pastor put it recently, “How often have we wished we could reinvent how we do things? Well, now we have to!”

Embrace the opportunity to experiment, try new things, get creative, and adapt continuously. There’s no right way to do this, but if you are trying something, doing what you can to stay connected to students and families, loving them, and praying for them—you’re doing great.

Lastly, grace upon grace.

My student director told me he’s been learning these three words, “grace upon grace,” perhaps most acutely in the last few weeks. As he put it, “They don’t teach you this in seminary. Give yourself grace.” Moving ministry online is new territory for all of us, and we are all dealing with our own reactions to this global pandemic and the constant changes.

Youth leaders, we see you, we’re praying for you, we’re with you, and we’re cheering you on. Grace upon grace.

Tweet this: Check out these 4 intentional ways leaders are staying connected with students & families as we move ministry online.

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Related links:

Faith in an Anxious World: A 4-week High School Curriculum

Doing youth ministry during a pandemic

Naming loss and gratitude with young people in these uncertain days

Helping kids experience Emmanuel—even when they’re anxious

Connecting with college students over break: they’re bringing home more than their laundry