6 Strategies to Serve Your Church When You Can't Gather | Interview with Ray Johnston

With the onset of COVID-19, the church is continuing to find new and creative ways to reach its community, meet their needs in this difficult time, and worship together virtually.

In this interview, I had the opportunity to speak with Pastor Ray Johnston from his home in California. Ray is the Lead Pastor at Bayside Church in Northern California and is also serving as the interim Senior Pastor at Willow Creek in Chicago. Bayside Church is a church with campuses in multiple different cities in Northern California with the smallest church serving about 150 members and the largest church serving about 9,000 members. 

Ray shares a few things that he’s been implementing at his church in California while taking necessary precautions over the past few weeks. These strategies focus on helping the church continue to function and make the maximum impact in their community during the COVID-19 crisis.

Here are 6 strategies of serving your church community during this unprecedented time. 

1 - High Touch Before High Tech

Ray explained that this is the perfect time to make a personal connection with every single person in his church despite the physical distance restrictions. To engage with his congregation, he asked all of his church staff and small group leaders to contact every member of the church. They checked on how each person was doing and took prayer requests over the phone. Small gestures can make a powerful impact against stress, loneliness, and fear. The Church has an important duty to show love and be love, especially during these times of uncertainty. Taking time to speak to each person builds strong bonds that will last even after this trying time.

Moving into shepherding mode right now is critical. The leaders at Bayside Church have also asked their small group leaders to contact everyone in their small groups to gauge their needs and do their best to provide assistance. Ray shared a story of a church member who was in need of a few items from the store. Someone on the church staff was able to pick up the needed items while at the store and bring them to that member in need. Don’t underestimate the power of a helping hand. It’s not part of our everyday routine to consider gestures like picking up items at the store, but making an effort to ask what tasks we can do for others, like mowing a neighbors lawn or lending an item to someone in need, will share God’s love in unique ways that we haven’t had a chance to practice before.

Tip: Text your church members first before you call them. The odds of them answering increases after they know who is calling. 

2 - Serve Your Local Food Banks 

Ray shared the way he and the church staff called their local food banks and simply asked what they were in need of. Turns out one of the important things they needed was people on-site to handle packaging. This is not only a tangible way to help your local community during a time of great need, but it’s also a good excuse for in-person fellowship during an isolating time. Each state has different regulations in place during COVID-19, so be cautious during social distancing. However, there are likely ministries in the area that can still use help while practicing appropriate social distancing. It can be easy to fall into a routine of sitting at home when the world seems to be on pause, but getting out to make an impact can help boost your own mood and sense of purpose while making a positive impact.

3 - Meet the Needs of Those At-Risk

Try to think of people you know that might be at-risk. Reach out those individuals first to see what needs they have. Ray shared how his team helped to install technology in some congregation members’ homes. 

They would make sure no one with symptoms delivered food or installed technology in homes. Those who did were six feet away from others and didn’t touch the same surface in order to follow doctor’s instructions of social distancing.

As for the smaller campuses, Ray shared how they called everyone over 60 years old and informed them that church services would be online. They then began asking questions like, “Do you know how to connect online? Do you have what it takes to connect online? Do you need any training?” For the members who needed help, their team bought the necessary technology for them, installed it, and showed them how to use it so those members could attend online church. 

4 - Incorporate Zoom and Other Video Conferencing Platforms

Ray held a video training for all of their small group leaders on how to lead a small group over  Zoom or other video conferencing tools. His wife leads a women's Bible study, and they were able to use video conferencing to talk and share about life. One of their members was even able to show the group their newborn baby during their small group time.  That’s when Ray realized that video conferencing can feel way more personal than he initially thought. Now all of their small groups are starting to meet online, and many people are discovering that it's better than they originally thought. 

Also, Ray and his team have implemented Wednesday night prayer meetings with Microsoft Teams. Ray gave six people a topic to pray about and had a worship leader in his living room with a guitar and iPhone. Approximately 18,000 people ended up joining in with their prayer meeting online.  

5 - Use What You Already Have 

Ray mentioned that he shared with their smaller church campus in Davis that they could even use their iPhone and microphone to share a church service. They  shared two worship songs virtually. A good idea he discussed with his church was to share what the audience tuning in could expect before the streaming began. He also used this time to give updates about what was happening in their church, how their churches impacted the community, and how others could help. Ray shared the importance of keeping the message down to about 20 or 22 minutes total. He and his team discovered that most videos drop off at about 40 minutes. 

Tip: When leading video services, speak as if you are talking to one person so that it is very personable. 

6 -  Prepare to Gather Together Again 

During the interview, Ray expressed that he believes God is in this situation and is very present as he refers to the verse, Romans 8:28. He believes God is pressing the reset button on the American church and thinks this reset button is giving us a chance to think about and relaunch all of our churches in new ways. 

Social media has given us a chance to engage with people in their homes 24/7 instead of the typical one hour a week at church. When we get to gather and keep the heightened engagement from this time, he believes we are going to see God working in people 24/7. He and his team are currently brainstorming a 7-week grand opening series for coming back together as well as a corresponding sermon series.