This past winter, we shared with our readers a blog series…Including Kids and Teens With Mental Illness at Church examining components of an effective ministry strategy for outreach and inclusion of families of kids with mental health concerns. Astute observers of this blog may have noticed that we never really concluded the series. The most recent post in the series listed the components we hypothesized would be essential to an effective outreach and inclusion strategy and promised “A bold experiment…“
Making church available to families online through The Front Door is the experiment.
Those who joined us this past weekend for Easter worship experienced a brief glimpse of what we have planned for our online platforms. Let’s take a look back at the components of a ministry strategy we discussed last month and examine how the strategy could be implemented through an online church model…
The strategy would be outwardly focused. We need to take “church” to families who don’t currently belong to a Christian community. There’s a mounting body of evidence that they won’t spontaneously come to us. Making worship services, small groups and Christian education available online affords church members and attendees the ability through social media to invite their friends and neighbors to church in a socially acceptable and non-threatening way.
The strategy would promote integration of families into the relational fabric of the local church. An essential component of our online strategy is the use of technology in cultivating relationships between families impacted by the full range of disabilities and people who have been strategically positioned to assimilate families into their “bricks and mortar” church. Online church isn’t an end in and of itself, but a tool we seek to use to promote the opportunity for kids with disabilities to worship, grow and serve in the physical presence of other Christ-followers. What will that eventually look like?
Families who struggle to find child care or respite care will be able to join small groups online with other families with/without disabilities. We’re working with a couple in a church our ministry serves who are starting a small group through Google Hangouts for other couples in their church with kids with severe disabilities. One of the reasons we sought out Nils Smith as a ministry consultant was the extent to which Community Bible Church was connecting their online congregation through small groups.
Without getting into lots of technical detail, the software we’re using to produce our online worship services affords our worship hosts (who will be strategically-placed leaders or volunteers in local churches as our initiative grows) the opportunity to follow-up with people in need of prayer and the ability to cultivate relationships with online worshipers outside scheduled church activities.
The strategy would afford families the opportunity for an initial experience of “church” in the environments best suited for them. Earlier in this series, we looked at seven barriers that families of kids with mental illness are likely to encounter in our ministry environments that hinder active participation in a local church. The seven barriers are…
- Social isolation
- Social communication
- Executive functioning
- Sensory processing
- Recognizing the child/teen’s need for support
- The desire of kids and teens to not be seen as “different”
- Parents with mental illness
In helping local churches to make their worship services, Christian education, small groups and service activities available online, we’re providing them the opportunity to introduce the church to families in an environment that works best for that family. Parents are more able to focus on the content of a worship service very early in the morning or late at night after their kids are in bed? They can do that! A child has a sensory processing disorder? A parent can adjust the volume of the worship music on their big screen TV! A socially awkward teen struggles with the pragmatic language skills necessary for a great experience in large group worship? They can chat online during youth worship with other teens from their community in a discussion moderated by an experienced youth pastor or carefully screened small group leader!
The strategy would promote inclusion at weekend worship services and other church activities without the need for kids or families to self-identify. Earlier in this series, we discussed the propensity of many kids, teens and parents with more subtle disabilities to FLEE identified “special needs ministries” and avoid inclusion strategies that present the appearance of serving individual kids differently than their same-age peers. The beauty of an online strategy is that churches can target families impacted by mental illness or other disabilities in their local communities without anyone having to know they’re being targeted and without anyone requiring accommodations. Once you’re on the website, the teen with a disability or family impacted by disability is served just like anyone else. The “accommodation” is whatever works best for the viewer of the service.
The strategy would be simple for churches to implement at a modest cost in money and volunteers. Online ministry doesn’t cost a lot of money. We’re planning as a missional initiative for later this year to help a church with fewer than 100 weekly attendees to launch an online church campus to serve families impacted by disabilities in the city they serve. Technology is becoming inexpensive and ubiquitous. I’m familiar with a church that was serving 100,000 online worshipers per week with a paid staff of six people. We could help any church that’s currently video recording worship services to launch an online initiative to families with disabilities in their local communities for less than $10,000, using their existing content and volunteers and including a reasonable budget for local advertising.
Online church for families impacted by disabilities is an experiment. I’m not in any way suggesting that we at Key Ministry have all the answers for churches seeking to serve families impacted by mental illness. Online church certainly won’t be the only answer for inclusion of kids and adults with mental illness, trauma or developmental disabilities. We’ll learn along the way that some things we try will work and some things we try won’t work. We’re testing a hypothesis based upon twelve years of organizational experience in helping churches minister to families impacted by disabilities, and lots of observations of the struggles individual families have experienced in trying to “do church.” We very much appreciate your willingness to come alongside us as we launch our “experiment.”