Back in 2019, Aaron McRae and Brian Wurzell of Hillside Church were hoping they’d explore digital outreach more in 2020. When the pandemic hit, they realized those plans would have to accelerate. Now, months later, they’ve seen unexpected fruitfulness, with over a million views on their YouTube—and they’re gearing up for Christmas.
On the most recent ChurchPulse Weekly episode, David Kinnaman summarizes Barna’s latest research, and podcast host Carey Nieuwhof sits down with McRae and Wurzell to discuss how the Church can minister during this year’s disrupted holiday season.
The Church’s Future Is Hybrid
As data in Six Questions About the Future of the Hybrid Church—an upcoming report from Barna—show, the future of the church is not a simple divide between digital and in-person offerings. Instead, congregants want hybrid options. Summarizing congregational data, Kinnaman recommends that pastors plan ministry for three groups in their audience: those preferring digital-only, those preferring in-person-only and those interested in “a hybrid spiritual experience.”
McRae and Wurzell, along with pastors nationwide, are preparing to combine in-person, livestreamed and on-demand elements—and they’re hoping it’s a chance to think outside the box.
Since the packed Christmas services of pre-pandemic years won’t be an option, Hillside will be creating “something unique … family-centric and friendly—almost [like a] TV Christmas special” as online content. They’re encouraging members to invite their families, friends and neighbors to viewing parties, essentially creating mini-congregations in each household.
With ideas like these, says McRae, the Church doesn’t have to choose between online and in-person engagement. Instead, churches like Hillside have the opportunity to pursue a “both-and” approach, with digital content sparking in-person connections.
This Christmas, Pastors Can Focus on Gospel Outreach
Pastors are worried about evangelistic outreach this Christmas, with 76 percent expecting that their Christmastime outreach will be disrupted. But Wurzell and McRae are optimistic that, in fact, this Christmas can be centered around sharing the gospel.
With their family-focused approach, “we have a unique opportunity to put the sharing of the gospel as a central part of a family’s Christmas experience.”
And while online fatigue is a real issue, the Internet also provides great potential for making personal connections. Wurzell reminds leaders that “there’s always a story connected to a share”—thousands of likes are thousands of individual humans hungry for the gospel. At Hillside, one online service prompted a visitor to profess interest in Christ; several months later, team members flew out to baptize him into the Church.
In this light, each Facebook post or YouTube video is an opportunity to begin a relationship and spread the gospel. And at Christmas time, people will be especially in need of connection.
Christmas is already a lonely time, McRae points out; this year, as the coronavirus shows no signs of slowing down, individuals may find themselves even more isolated than in the past. Churches can step into this void to share the most precious family of all.
No Matter the Medium, It’s All in God’s Hands
Digital outreach can be challenging; for Wurzell’s worship team, the lack of human interaction has been “such a missing piece.” And McRae struggles with receiving no real-time feedback while he preaches.
But as real as these challenges are, McRae and Wurzell agree that the peculiar circumstances of Zoom church can help spread the gospel in new ways. Wurzell points out that through online content, “the presence of God and the power of God is now entering more spaces and places…than we could ever have imagined.”
And McRae says that preaching online has forced him to place more trust in God’s message. In preaching, says McRae, “I’ve had to be pretty certain that I’m saying what God wants me to say, and that the spirit of God is going to use it to accomplish what His purposes are.”
Ultimately, it’s a matter of letting God work through individual discomfort. “God can use that medium that I wasn’t comfortable with to do amazing things—even though I can’t see it in real time.”
About the Research
COVID-19 Data: Barna Group conducted these online surveys among Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–September 28, 2020. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Church Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size.
Data Collection Dates
Week 1, n=222, March 20-23, 2020
Week 2, n=212, March 24-30, 2020
Week 3, n=195, March 31-April 6, 2020
Week 4, n=246, April 7-13, 2020
Week 5, n=204, April 14-20, 2020
Week 6, n=164, April 21-27, 2020
Week 7, n=167, April 28-May 4, 2020
Week 8, n=165, May 5-11, 2020
Week 9, n=184, May 12-18, 2020
Weeks 10 and 11, n=191, May 19-June 1, 2020
Week 12, n=203, June 26-29, 2020
Week 13, n=256, July 9-14, 2020
Week 14, n=285, July 24-26, 2020
Week 15, n=336, August 13-17, 2020
Week 16, n=315, August 27-31, 2020
Week 17, n=422, September 10-18, 2020
Barna Research is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2020