Breathing New Life into Ministry

Published on: May 9, 2016

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Wow, I can hardly believe I have been doing ministry for twenty-five years in one spiritual community (Unity of Washington, DC), and ordained for thirty years. I spent so much of that time trying to build the ministry that it was quite a surprise to find out recently that the way ministry needs to be done in this day and age is somewhat different than when I started. It is obvious we have moved from the information age into the digital age, and yet this simple move will vastly change the way ministry is done in the future.

I came to this understanding while contemplating how to bring more young people into my ministry. It dawned on me that they were not as conditioned to going to church on Sundays as were people of my generation. For me, it was always church and then Sunday dinner as a family and you had no choice as to whether this was an option for you—it was just the way it was.

While young people may not be trained to attend church per se, it does not mean they are any less spiritual. We just need to reach them in a different way; meet them where they are—and where they are is online, on the phone, and on their computers. This being true, we are going to need a whole new paradigm of ministry.

Under the old paradigm we are very focused on ministry being done within the brick and mortar, within the confines of the church itself, with people coming to worship together, holding classes with a facilitator leading the course, and all sorts of programs and activities on site. We see physical bodies in the place. But this notion is so limiting because it restricts us to the capacity of the building. But imagine reaching people far beyond the limits of a physical building. That is what the digital age offers us. Instead of 300 people we can touch 300,000. Imagine teaching a course with 300,000 people in attendance. That’s pretty exciting!

So, What Might a New Paradigm Look Like?

Well, how about having an interactive website, virtual online courses, online workshops, live-streaming of Sunday services, a video newsletter, online bookstore, inspiring videos; connecting with “meet-up” groups around current issues from a spiritual view, video messages to new members after they have joined or to the congregation quarterly; online radio, blogs, and a presence on all the forms of social media in general? [Editor’s Note: Attend Unity People’s Convention this year for a robust offering on Technology in Ministry.]

Now, while we have not put all of these ideas into play yet, I do believe that we are on the right track. And, yes, it is a different approach to ministry, but we must not close our eyes to the changes taking place in society; the digital age is here whether we like it or not.

And, while it has taken me a bit to get on board, I do indeed see the need for a new vision of church and ministry. I had to overcome a very real fear of the possibility of the loss of revenue if people are not present in the church! My main thought was, “Well if they can simply stay home in bed and watch the service through live-stream, why wouldn’t they, and how would we receive their love offerings?” We have not gone with live-streaming yet, but I am going to take the plunge and here is why.

Yes, the possibility exists of losing love offerings from my known congregants who now choose to stay home; however the possibility to receive revenue from hundreds maybe even thousands that I do not know is real. There is a great big world out there and we must begin to think globally! You would be surprised how many people are on the Internet simply looking for a way to receive a spiritual message of some sort. Again, it is how people are beginning to communicate and interact.

Now, while we are venturing into the digital arena, it doesn’t mean we are abandoning our traditional form of ministry. In fact, we are working on ways to enhance the experience for those who refuse to touch a computer. The flip side of all of this high-tech virtual reality stuff is that people will also crave human interaction. There is still something very real and palpable about being in the presence of other like-minded people. People want to “feel” the presence of Spirit; they want to share those subtle but vital exchanges of energy with another soul. There is something beautiful when we fellowship, laugh, eat, pray and worship together. We need one another and we need to connect in ways that may not be measurable, yet their experience is life-affirming.

So, with this in mind, we have combined the two paradigms. We have installed two large projection monitors and several TVs so that not only is the service seen on the screen, but we can use it to show video clips, trailers, messages, congregant’s photos and the like. Those who are serving while church is happening, like our Sunday school teachers and our hospitality team who are down in the kitchen, can also see the service.

We also have a time at the beginning of the service where we ask everyone to pull out their devices and “check-in” with their friends telling them they are in church at Unity of Washington, DC. It is great free advertising and folks like doing it. I also ask them the tweet some quotes directly from the service. From time to time, I pull out my phone to read a quote and they love it. (I still read from the Bible, but again, even the Bible is digital.)

Friends, these are exciting times and challenging times and the timeless message of Truth must find a way to be heard and shared. Unity can no longer be the best-kept secret in town; we must spread our wings and expand our reach! The future is bright and we are being called to soar into it. Who is ready to fly? The air waves are open!

Sylvia Sumter

Sylvia E Sumter is senior minister, Unity of Washington, DC. Through her teaching, ministry and counseling, she helps others live to their fullest potential. Prior to 1991 she taught at Unity Institute and counseled at institutes of higher learning.

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  • Judy Grimes

    Great article, Sylvia. Very helpful even to an “old timer” like me. I’m moving into actual retirement this Spring,
    but do look forward to seeing you at conference. I hope everyone, even those of us who are tentative about going deeper into techno ministry for all the reasons you mentioned, will attend the Conference workshop.

  • Ellen_Debenport

    Bravo, Sylvia! Also at the conference, Ogun Holder and I are doing a workshop called 50 Years of Ministry: Looking Back, Looking Forward. I’m excited about it. We’ll be talking about the need for new delivery systems as well as the enduring, maybe increasing, desire to come together in groups for spiritual learning.

    Ogun is already doing something called “pub theology” — a weeknight gathering in a bar to talk about all things spiritual. His podcast is even sponsored by a beer company.

    The workshop is also about how ministry has changed in the past 50 years. (I’ve been watching old Billy Graham videos. We’re all sinners, fyi.) Changes in technology AND theology seem to be on every minister’s mind. See you there!

  • Elizabeth Mora

    Thanks for the article. This is an important topic, as staying up-to-date is important to being a thriving church. That seems like a no-brainer. The harder part, I’m finding, is knowing which technology has an impact and which things sound good but don’t really make a difference.

    I’m also curious if anyone is seeing financial support from the technology audience? While that is certainly not our driving motivation, it is important to look at. For instance, newspapers are moving away from free content to finding ways to charge money in order to be profitable. Curious what moves churches may make. Is it worth the investment to livestream? Does a Facebook ad see a return? Is tweeting worth your time?

    I agree the possibilities are endless. It would be great to know which ones “pay off,” in money, attendance, impact, etc. I know one minister paid for an online ad and then asked the audience of the event how many came from it, and not one person had seen it. I met a minister who was stressing out over having to tweet and post to FB because technology is so important that she felt she should prioritize over all else. Yet I trust a team to do it and we actually find it makes almost no impact on our audience, so we’ve de-prioritized it. We do the basics, but we focus more on using e-blasts, showing video on Sunday, incorporating current music.

    We continue to experiment and test the “NEW conventional wisdom of technology” to see what has a worthwhile return. Just because everyone’s on Snapchat doesn’t necessarily mean it will have an impact in our church. I look forward to talking with people about what works in practice.