Everyone has felt the pressure of trying to navigate through the COVID-19 crisis. Many churches have been hamstrung by the inability to gather for corporate worship and found themselves pivoting to online services and resources to facilitate ministry in a self-quarantine situation. Remarkably, while some would feel defeated in this situation, many churches are actually thriving, not just surviving, by finding new avenues that will change the landscape of relational ministry, moving forward in a “post-COVID world.”
One of these churches is Cross City Church in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in Texas. They’ve done an excellent job mobilizing their team and making improvements to their online services, while finding new ways to minister and engage people they believe they would have never had the chance to talk to before quarantine came into effect. I spoke with Josh Merriott, Cross City’s Communications and Technology Pastor, on how their church experienced breakthroughs instead of breakdowns.
Our full interview with Josh is available to view or you can read the transcript of our conversation, below.
Zach Merritt: “Well, thanks so much Josh for spending some time with us today. I just had some questions related to your role and how your church is handling things right now in the midst of this current crisis that we're all in together, and would love to hear some insight and thoughts from you as you and your team have been working together and in terms of communicating and distinguishing ways that you guys can effectively still operate and do ministry in this sort of environment. So I appreciate you taking some time today to hang out with me and just go through these things.
Josh Merriott: “You bet.”
Zach: “So Josh, why don't we start off, I'd love to hear more about your background and your role and what you do there at your church and about your church as well.
Josh: “Well, my background. Actually, I started like a lot of people did, in student ministry. Back in the day, I was a junior high pastor for a while and worked with a good friend of mine for let's see, several different churches and was always his communications guy in the background. I loved the frontline ministry, loved that part of my job where I got to create, do media and so it really developed into more roles at my church doing, you know, helping out with our bigger communications department. I eventually took a job leading the communication department, a church where I worked. So I actually went to another student ministry job and I got offered a communication job and came back.
I don't have a lot of boxes checked when it comes to me being a communications professional. I just [went to the] school of hard knocks and learned the ropes watching good people do it and try to learn the best practices and try to lead as best as I can and rely on people that are actually talented to do most of the stuff. But yeah, that's the short story is I just ended up doing this. And now I really have loved it. Like, this is mine. This is by far my favorite position I've ever had. And I'm just enjoying it.
Zach: That's awesome. Well, and I'm sure that there's plenty of talent that you have, whether you want to acknowledge or not, but definitely having that supporting cast that can work together with your strengths is a huge, huge thing for sure. And you are, by the way, the Communications and Technology Pastor at Cross City church and you guys are in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, right?
Josh: That's correct.
Zach: Okay, great. I just wanted to make sure. And we can tell folks to check out your church at crosscity.church if they'd like to see more about you guys
So now I wanted to take things back a little bit, so that way we have an idea of what you guys already had foundationally before we're here in the midst of COVID-19 and all this stuff going on.
Before all this took place, what things did you guys have or did you have anything already as far as digital ministry opportunities or solutions through your church?
Josh: We did. I would say that we were primarily an in-person ministry based ministry. We stream our services and formerly we were set up to broadcast. But DFW (Dallas-Fort Worth) is a crowded market. There wasn't a lot of play for broadcast and so broadcast was never something that really became a huge ministry of what we did.
But we focus mostly in the room and streamed our services. We've had a strong digital presence. We were one of the first churches that I knew about at the time that had hired someone dedicated to social media. There were churches that were larger than us that were already using it, but we had hired somebody pretty early on to focus on social and help protect that or help develop that online presence from that standpoint.But most of our energy and effort was focused on communicating with people that were there in real life that came to our services before COVID, that's where most of our resources were set
Zach: So you guys are active on social media beforehand; what kinds of channels do you guys see the most engagement and things happening with your church?
Josh: You know, we established ourselves on Twitter and on Facebook and Twitter was just not where our people were. I mean, people watch Twitter, but we didn't get any interaction. So we largely focused on Facebook and have started using Instagram a lot more, but that's really mostly where we've lived and tried to develop. Especially since COVID started, like we poured a lot into being very interactive in that content, you know, things that encourage people to produce a lot of animation. We've spent a lot of time in After Effects and things like that that are more eye catching.
When you're not maintaining the day-to-day, you find yourself with some time to explore some other things which has been a blessing. I mean, I hesitate to say anything positive about COVID, but the experience that it's forced us into has been really healthy. So it's led us to try some new things that have been, in my opinion, successful and that we’ve loved. We’ve loved that form of interaction through our digital channels.
Zach: So that was actually going to lead into my next question then, as things have happened with this, the changes that you guys have seen in terms of how you're engaging your people, how you're reaching to them, what sort of things have you guys changed or added to your tool kit through this experience?
Josh: Well, like everybody, when services became completely online, we really hustled to change that experience completely. I'll focus on video for just a second, because that's been a primary change that we've done, but we decided early on that we were going to abandon pretending like there are people in the room. And so, you know, we still see a lot of churches doing it, and there's a lot of merit in what they're doing, but we felt like we wanted to engage people on a more intimate level because we didn't think that that experience was the same when you're away.
If your brain doesn't put people in the room and you're not used to watching a live service from the road, which most of our people weren't, we wanted to make something that was tailored to them. So I sat our pastor down and pointed him at the camera and made him engage, from here to here [motions hand in front of chest to just above his head].
Cross City updated their services page to draw people towards online service options, while keeping people informed with links to resources and announcements in regards to COVID-19 and self-quarantine.
And we turned all of our worship facing inward in a circle and we filmed it with a lot more up close. So, a lot more three-to-four second changes and get it just really engaging. We try to take the emotion from our people and put it out there. That has been one of the most important things we could have done in this season, to remember that people were wanting to engage. They long for engagement because we're wired that way. And so the best thing we could do was give them some form of engagement with our pastor and with our worship team; make them feel like they’re with them. And so that was one of the most important things we did, to change the format to engage people where they were, not just what we were used to doing. And that trickled on into the way we handle social media as well. All of our ministries, of course, went online, that's not a new story. Everybody did something, but we saw our people step up their game in a huge way through this season. People that are not online content developers, really aren't developers of content at all, started developing content, shooting videos.
And we've seen that, beyond the methodology, we've seen the empowerment of our ministries to do those things, and the unleashing of them to do those things, create an incredible refreshment of ministry, an incredible revival of passion for ministry and just unleashed some things that people didn't know they had. That, to me, is really satisfying because it's going to force our church as a whole to think differently about things moving forward and to think, to melt some of the “sacred cows” to make room for the things that are really going to be effective in a, we'll call it a post-COVID world, but really, just in a digital world. I mean, it's things that have been there. But for us it's going to be COVID that's the catalyst for making a lot of changes.
Zach: So what kinds of things have you guys experimented with? I mean obviously you're talking about doing this new approach to streaming your services? Is there anything else outside of the service model that you guys have been experimenting with that, even after reopening and having that in-person ministry in place again, you will want to carry over past this time, as well?
Josh: I think literally everything we're doing right now will in some way be carried over. We're going to have to modify our workloads, we can't maintain the current level of production, but it will influence what we do moving forward. Everything from our general online strategy, communication strategy, and the services themselves, all that will change. And one of the things I failed to mention, that we did jump into, is before we had really a one way communication style where it's just one channel, you watch the service, you consume the service, and then you're done.
We added the online platform that allows people to interact and chat and we had it on Facebook, but we added it to our website. And that was a huge boost. I mean, like, I know a lot of churches do it, but man, it really was an effective move and we'll continue doing that.
Right now, we’re going live this week, going back to live services in person and our pastor is going to sit and he's going to be behind the table. We're going to shoot him from here to here [front of chest to just above his head]. We're going to get his face and and take those expressions and get those captured and projected
We're thinking or thinking a lot more about how we connect with people, whether that's in the room or online. And there's a lot of similarities to it. It's just a matter of the medium by which it's conveyed.
As a means of setting expectations and encouraging public safety and awareness, Cross City set up a page dedicated to explaining the conditions and timeline for re-opening the church to corporate gatherings again.
Zach: So that was something, too. Because we definitely understand we've had to change in many ways, the production of our services, the ways that we are engaging in mass communications and things like that.
Has there been anything that you guys have done though, for the sake of keeping that connection with your people, your members who are, part of the church? What have you guys done to, on a more intimate basis, stay connected with people and keep those relationships with those folks during this time?
Josh: We made a goal when we started to contact every single one of our members. And so our ministers have gone through call sheets and have made phone calls and email wasn't an option. It wasn't just “Thought we’d shoot you an email…”, it was try to hear voices, we’re going to try to connect on Zoom or FaceTime, and so that has been, it's been a really important piece of what we've done. Our connection strategy probably isn't any different than what most churches have done
We were primarily a “Sunday School church” in the sense that our groups meet on campus. And so when this happens, you're really forced to think differently about it. But a lot of our groups, most of our groups, switched over to a Zoom online platform for their meetings. And most of them saw growth. Most of them were able to connect with people they hadn’t connected with before and combine that with people in terms of unrest that seek connection and it was a formula for growth. And so we've seen our groups are going to be hesitant, they're going to want to get back to meeting together, hugging each other around the neck and all that good stuff, but it's gonna be tough.
They're going to miss some of those people when they make the transition, which is one of the reasons why we're delaying that connection transition back into live experience, because it's one thing I can be in the room where I can watch online and I can have a worship experience; it's way better in a room, I think. Sensory wise, I'm able to respond better, emotionally connect better if I'm in the room that I'm surrounded by and I don't have the chips right there and it's convenient, but it's not. It's way more distracting when it comes to a work environment to be at home, clearly.
But connection in front of a screen. There's something about how it can involve so many people. The barriers of going somewhere, people still want to get connected. I think that we've delayed that, not just because it's not safe, but because people connect better. We feel like it's going to be a better connection for them to stay there for longer.
If you try to mix the environment, it doesn't work. If you have five people that want to stay home and you have 10 people that want to be in a room, those five people get left out, just like that. So the longer we can hold on to this format, until more people are ready to be back in, then we'll make that shift. I don't know if that answers your question, but that's the reason why we've taken that strategy, we really like what Zoom's done for our groups.
Zach: Yeah, that's a great point. You know, I've even recently myself been involved in some meetings where there's a portion now that are able to meet in person. And so they're doing things like that.
But then when you do try to mix it up and include folks who are unable to come, like for where I'm at, I'm still meeting through Zoom for a lot of these things. And so when you are just on the laptop, so to speak, in the middle of the room and it's really hard to capture all the conversation still, it definitely isn't the same as feeling like you're actually as much a part of the meeting. And I would say that, given the option, it does make more sense to just stick to one form or the other, at least in my experience, as well.
So, I mean, I would agree with something like that and churches who are considering those things right now, I think good insight for them to consider when they're looking at, especially with their small groups or studies or anything like that that involves those more intimate settings, how best to look at doing that, where we're at right now. I think that's a great point.
So, flipping the coin to communicating with those who are already with your church, who are familiar and engaged and connected in some way, have you guys noticed anything in terms of differences with new people and what that connection is like for people who are new to your church?
Because now, they're not coming through the doors and seeing the greeters or stopping by the Connect desk or anything like that. But they're seeing services online and I would imagine you guys are still seeing new faces or names pop up and come in who are being introduced to Cross City for the first time. What's your strategy or in your experience been like with those cases during this time?
Josh: Well, it's funny. I think our numbers would say that we have people that are new that are experiencing our services. The people that are actually interacting with us are... it's very low when it comes to the people that are giving information. I just think that's the nature of online platforms, that you have to find different ways to engage them. One of the things we've done is a little bit of A/B testing on messaging on how to get people to find out more. And so we've done a little bit of that, but haven't found a ton of success on onboarding people to a guest link.
And so I will say that our strategy really hasn't changed much. As far as flow, but the influx of those people has been pretty small, because the people that are willing to come into your room, they are a lot more willing to give you information than the people that are just stopping by online. So the numbers have shown that it's been successful. Converting them is something that we'll have to see. I think we'll continue to try different strategies to get them to connect with us, for them to volunteer their information, and hopefully over time we’ll be able to capture them.
I will say that we've captured some people. The most successful thing we've done with Zoom, we encourage people to join an online connection group. I would call it a discovery group, a Connection Discovery group, and it was for people that wanted some connection during the season, but didn't really know where to turn. We found a really big response to that and that did include a couple of new people that we didn't know, weren’t on our rolls, hadn't shown up or filled out a card for us before. So that was successful, but it wasn’t by volume, by quality that was successful. Those are going to be really good contacts moving ahead. I hope that answers your question.
Zach: Yeah, those are great ideas. I love that idea, having a discovery group. I think every church right now has that question for the foreseeable future (how to connect with people online), because even as things open up, we're talking very limited in terms of what churches are able to do, still. And a lot of hesitation in the general public for going into any sort of large gathering. So I think, ideally, as we're still all navigating possibilities for entry points for newcomers and continued infrastructure, as far as facilitating their discipleship and growth once they are part of the church.
Well, thanks so much. Josh, I really appreciate your time. Before we wrap things up. I was just gonna ask if you have any parting thoughts or advice for churches who are at this stage, still trying to bolster their digital ministry and communication and looking to fortify essentially what will be the new normal that we're anticipating, going forward.
Josh: Well, my biggest thing that was big for us was we just decided that we've been looking for an opportunity, as a communication department, to really put aside some of the things that had been using our time, to work on things that we felt like were new and different and opportunities to reach people that we thought were sitting there and I would say to use this time, it's not too late in the season for people to seize opportunities that are new. Don't think the same way that you had been doing and just transfer that to online. Find new strategies and experiment and explore and be different, be novel. And find ways to engage people. That's been the most successful thing for us.
We've seen in our numbers... a lot of our churches, we’re in groups with churches that are… we're not a huge church. But we’re in an association with some other Southern Baptist churches that are 2,000 in attendance and up. We're about 2,100-2,200 in attendance. And their numbers were tapering and ours stayed pretty strong online. The last couple of weeks, it fell off with holiday last week and everything, but man I really attribute that to the fact that we broke free and tried some new things. It wasn't an easy season for us. It hasn't been, it won't continue to be an easy season for us. A lot of people talk about taking breaks and extra time.
But the extra effort has paid off and it's not too late to seize the opportunity right now to try those things that you've been wanting to try. Don't miss when there's when there's opportunity when there's a disruption. Don't miss the opportunities that sit behind that disruption and be relentless about pouring your effort and energy into those things so that when you come out of it, those things will be a catalyst for positive change if you'll let them be.
But that's what I've been working through, spiritually and emotionally and all this stuff through this season, [the question] is, “How do we seize it and make what is really a tough thing, and in many cases a terrible thing, and make it a positive thing for the Kingdom?”
Zach: Well, that's awesome. Well, thanks so much Josh. It's been awesome just hearing your experience and your feedback and as you've gone through together with your team on these things, just how you guys have been innovating and experimenting and trying new things. It's great to hear that you guys are seeing such great feedback from the efforts that you're putting forth. And it's awesome to hear that the Kingdom is continuously being served and built and growing, even through an epidemic, like the one that we're facing today. So I really appreciate your time and your input.
Josh: Yeah, you bet Zach. I appreciate the opportunity and have a good day.
Zach: All right. Thanks so much Josh. You too, sir. God bless.