Social distancing has emerged as a key term during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Pastor Mike Miller of Central Baptist Church (CBC) in Jacksonville feels it ineffectively communicates how churches should respond to this crisis. He has modified the familiar mantra to encourage healthier quarantining habits.
“We say, ‘practice physical distancing but not social distancing,’” said Miller. “Yes, we need to remain distant physically during this time, but that does not mean we should be distant socially. We’re encouraging our staff to be in weekly contact with their ministry leadership. This intentionality has filtered down from leadership to membership and is coming back up the chain. In many ways, there is a more personal touch. We want to keep that going even after the quarantine.”
Illuminating this important distinction between social distancing and physical distancing has made all the difference for CBC Jacksonville. The church has seen attendance and engagement on the rise and many lives positively impacted because of its dedication to fostering social closeness from a physical distance.
One way that CBC Jacksonville has begun to foster social closeness is by creating an Apologetics video series. Posted each Monday, these 3-minute videos address real concerns and questions that both believers and non-believers might deal with, especially during this time of global crisis.
The first four videos, of which two have been posted to CBC’s YouTube channel, focus on evil and suffering; what these things are, why they exist, why God allows them and how humans should respond.
Following each video, Miller and Student Minister Coby Duren have begun releasing a video podcast called “Miked Up,” in which the two discuss that week’s video topic to help generate conversation and discipleship in the home. The podcast is now being released weekly on various platforms.
“This series started when Coby came to me and said he wanted to get his families interacting with their students,” said Miller. “He wanted to see more home discipleship happen during the shutdown. We also knew that all our members were overwhelmed by an abundance of content on our social media. We wanted to narrow our focus, pick a digestible weekly topic and create more engagement through focused discussions. The video series has already started doing this.”
Miller plans to continue this series as long as it drives engagement and value for members. Potential future topics include the morality of technology, the resurrection and some of the arguments for God.
“My prayer is that the skeptics who view these videos get reasonable, accurate answers so they may realize ours is a rational faith,” said Miller. “And for the believers who view this series, I pray it would help them think through complicated answers, strengthen their faith and empower them to share their faith with unbelieving friends.”
An important part of fostering social closeness from a physical distance for CBC Jacksonville is to value and drive engagement more than viewership through its online presence.
This means the church is more interested in the number of online or phone conversations, people prayed with and virtual actions taken to reach others than how many likes or views their posts receive.
“At the beginning of all this, we flooded our social media with videos and posts, to the point that it just became noise,” Miller said. “Now we’re really regrouping and trying to push content with laser focus. This is important because it’s how you make content meaningful rather than just plentiful. Content is meaningful when people respond to it rather than passively watching it.”
One of the main ways CBC Jacksonville is driving engagement is through Church Online, a video streaming platform with more engagement mechanisms and insights than traditional platforms. Some of these mechanisms include video streaming, a live chat panel, personal chat rooms, chat moderation roles, a note-taking feature and YouVersion integration.
“One of the best things that happens during CBC Jacksonville Church Online streaming is personal conversations,” Miller said. “Our moderators are able to respond and engage in real-time with viewers. They can even enter personal chat rooms to continue conversations and answer questions that originated in the general chat panel.”
While engagement is the main priority, Miller is also excited to report that viewership is up as well. Before going solely online, the church would typically see anywhere from 100-200 individual devices tuned in across multiple platforms. That number has risen to approximately 500 on a typical Sunday since quarantining began, and on Easter Sunday, the church saw just over 3,000 individual devices across three platforms.
Miller said that platform insights show these devices were located all across the United States and even some in Europe.
“We are really invigorated by this turn of events,” said Miller. “We are sad not to be worshipping in person, but at the same time, it is exciting to be able to take the Gospel into more homes than ever before. I truly believe that around the globe people are hearing the Gospel more than ever in human history thanks to technology and the circumstances we find ourselves using it in.
“As we continue to weather this crisis, our church is choosing to view it not as an obstacle but an opportunity. I’m preaching through Philippians right now. Our church doesn’t want to waste these circumstances we’re in, just like Paul didn’t waste his circumstances as a prisoner in Rome. Those circumstances served to further the Gospel, and we know that our circumstances are too.”
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