Many churches in The United Methodist Church have found great success with online ministry during the COVID-19 pandemic – and with the surprise success, many of these congregations are planning to continue ministering in the digital realm.
This is a world that was previously unknown to so many, but now, they flourish.
Online ministry – what does that even mean? Most people – over 50 percent of the world – use social media on a daily basis and many people found their connection to their church completely disrupted due to COVID. Then, churches that had once been opposed to engaging in online ministry found hope and opportunity in this new digital realm.
The Rev. Ryan Dunn, Minister of Online Engagement for United Methodist Communications and host of a new podcast titled Pastoring in the Digital Parish, knows a lot about engaging an audience online, having managed the digital brand presence of Rethink Church for more than four years now.
“A key component of the early Methodist movement was meeting people where they gathered,” said Dunn. “Today, we realize that people increasingly ‘gather’ in virtual spaces.
What makes for good daily ministry in an online space? Dunn shares: "It's one part content creator, one part internet troll (for Jesus!), and one part pastoral shepherd. Essentially, I’m using digital media to connect with people outside the community of faith and invite them to be part of the life of a local church. I envision the job being an iteration of the early Methodist circuit riders—where an open-air preacher acted as an evangelist for local Methodist communities."
"In order to connect with people, we need to build content that speaks to their individual needs. So I anticipate the questions people are asking in life and then build content that offers insights on how faith and church speak to those questions," Dunn shares. "Then I have to figure out how to get that content in front of the right audience. We push a lot of our content through social media — recognizing that is the open-air space where people are gathered these days."
Dunn's background includes experience in online marketing and content management in addition to having 15 years in professional ministry—a helpful combination when ministering to a virtual audience. "Whether they like it or not, all pastors engage in marketing to some degree. Marketing is the means of generating interest and loyalty towards a product or idea—which is certainly a behavior in which pastors engage,” said Dunn. “For years, the church has assumed (through practice) that the key point of marketing boiled down to a Sunday morning sermon. Working in the marketing world has shown me that is a pretty limited means for disseminating a message. Marketing helps us figure out how to bring the church into the world, as opposed to trying the bring the world into the church."
"I wish we could somehow record how many people found churches because of our content and advertising. Instead, I have to accept the social media comments saying ‘I love what you do,’ and the email messages thanking us for writing something or for helping direct someone to a local connection. The comment I really love to get is ‘this is just what I needed today’ - that's one of the best compliments you can get!"
With the ever-changing digital world, it's a matter of fact: online ministry is here to stay. The United Methodist Communications team is here to help you and your church effectively navigate this online ministry world.
For more information on Rethink Church, visit https://www.umc.org/rethink-church.
*Crisler is a senior public relations specialist at United Methodist Communications.
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