As with many other churches across the world, Box Hill Baptist was thrown into the deep end ofa digital revolution by the coronavirus crisis. This is a brief telling of our story and some of the learning that we’ve had to (quickly) acquire!
In late 2019, Jim Barr, our minister, was having a chat about this newly appeared coronavirus which he’d heard about in the news. In this lengthy and detailed train of thought (which Jim is prone to!) he considered the potential implications for our society – Not just a flu-on-steroids impacting a few of our people and requiring a few extra hygiene measures – but one which could result in the entire church, in all churches, being shut down. Where gatherings of people together in places of worship, or even their homes were banned and our members sent into separation and isolation.
Of course, as a good administrator I nodded and patiently amused the pastor’s wild train of thought… Well, who’s laughing now?
Of course, none of us are actually laughing. Millions of people infected, hundreds of thousands dead, and the livelihoods of the majority of the world’s population severely disrupted. And in the midst of this, we continue to try and bring hope and love to our local community in new and challenging ways.
I have spoken to theological colleges which implemented 3-year digital strategies in the space of 3 days to deal with this challenge. It’s fair to say that Box Hill Baptist Church didn’t even have a digital strategy! In mid March, as we were aware that some vulnerable members of our community may choose to stay away on Sundays, we had our very first experimentation with livestreaming a service. Using nothing more than Facebook Live and a phone, we took our first steps into delivering worship online. Despite such humble beginnings it was very well received, with many views from our congregation and beyond. Feeling pleased with ourselves we took notes on what tentative steps we might take next.
But as we all know, only a few days later our entire world had changed and we soon realised that it was all or nothing. For the first time in Box Hill Baptist’s 118 year history, worship would not take place together physically (Even the Spanish Flu and both World Wars hadn’t been able stop that!) But now, we were needing to go 100% online delivery.
So, what are we learning?
- That the skills, knowledge and technology needed to go fully online are, surprisingly, not that hard to come by. Smartphones, free video editing software, cheap websites and the ubiquitous social media platforms make going online surprisingly barrier-free. Skills and knowledge are a different matter of course, but a ‘learn as you go’ approach, supported by the endless availability of online tutorials and help guides meant that we were able to stitch our first digital online service together in less than 3 day – with just what we had lying around.
- Flexibility and creativity are key. We realised at the beginning that just attempting to put the same kind of service online was not only challenging when you need to be social distancing, but was missing the opportunities that the new medium presented. So from week one, we took our services out of the usual format and out of the building. Sermons by Blackburn Lake. Reflections whilst walking. Interviews over Zoom. Bible readings from peoples’ homes. This not only made it safer and easier to get our community involved, but created intrigue and enthusiasm as we discovered new ways to share God’s message and worship together. Thankfully we also have a congregation who are very open to new ways of doing things and never demanded ‘the same’!
- Deliver less, more often. We knew that an hour long online Sunday service would be missing the point, so have instead spread out our content across the week. Using a mix of video and written material we pop small chunks of inspiration into the lives of our community and beyond. This has included weekly devotional reading guides, video tours of some of our members’ extraordinary backyards, in-depth blogs from Jim, and twice-weekly Zoom gatherings for those keen to get together, chat, and pray.-Look beyond your own buildings and borders. Ironically, all of this segregation and isolation has encouraged us to more deeply engage with our neighbour churches. With Easter approaching we realised how powerful it would be to have many of the churches in Whitehorse share greetings with each other – and with this new online world we had the perfect medium to share that. And so utilising the existing networks of Whitehorse Churches Care we hijacked a pastor’s breakfast and quickly recorded each pastor sharing a few words. This super-easy and quick video was incredibly well received and was shared & viewed more than any other piece of video we have developed – showing the power of working together (Click here to watch video). As this pandemic continues we are looking at more ways to share our content and others across our church networks, and hope that will continue beyond lockdown.
It’s felt like an age, but we know it’s only the early days. And while doing this was largely forced upon us, the direction we have taken is already having positive results. Foremost, we are continuing to keep our community engaged and encouraged, and are hearing many of them appreciating the opportunity to stay connected and hopeful when they might otherwise be quite isolated. We are also seeing our content being shared across churches in Melbourne and beyond (including internationally), and are expanding our community to new people across the globe.
This is now leading us to consider what church will look like when we all return from isolation.We have no doubt that it will not look the same, nor should it – and are very excited by that potential. We are already beginning to explore how church can continue to engage digital audiences and bring them and our ‘physical’ congregation together in a hybrid community and blended worship. The coronavirus has taken it’s toll on our community, as it has on all communities. But in that it has brought new people into our community and created opportunities for us to share the love of God and bring hope, encouragement and practical support to people who would likely never graced the doors of our physical buildings. In that, God is bringing light through the darkness, and we’re excited about the journey that God is now taking us on.
Box Hill Baptist Church