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New Faces in Virtual Spaces

By Rachel Gilmore

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No one could have predicted times like these, yet, as church leaders, we have a great opportunity to use this time as a season of innovation. The apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians when imprisoned in his home and disconnected physically from his faith community. Although he suffered hardships, his message to the Philippians centered on joy. How can we find joy during this time and connect with those who are in our faith community or are longing for one?

The apostle Paul planted churches in the first century, so church planters in the twenty-first century might be able to inspire us with their insights and innovations at this time. Church planters are trained to think adaptively in their context and cultivate relationships with others. Here are some ways we can learn from them to see which of their ideas and approaches might fit in our context.

How can we find joy during this time and connect with those who are in our faith community or are longing for one?

The first step in any church plant is to meet people, because relationships form the basis of any faith community. In church plant or Fresh Expressions trainings, we learn that third spaces are where to forge these relationships. A third space is a space other than work and home where people gather in a community. Think about all the third spaces in your community: from the YMCA to the public library, from the gastropub to the golf course. Third spaces are an essential way to meet people and understand your community. But how do you reach people in third spaces when they are closed? When you can’t spend hours at Starbucks, meet people at the gym, or host festivals at the local park, how can you build relationships in your community?

Church planters are building relationships in two ways – by finding and/or creating online third spaces.

1. Finding Online Third Spaces

Planters are finding third spaces using popular apps, websites, or other platforms. We don’t have space to provide all the possibilities, but here are some of the most popular.

  • Tabletopia lets you play popular board games online with people you know or others who sign up for the same game.
  • Roll20 is a website that does the same thing but is popular for fans of Dungeons & Dragons. One avid Dungeons & Dragons player in North Carolina finds people who live near him to join in online gaming. His hope is that when shelter-in-place orders end, they can gather in person. They know he is a United Methodist pastor and they aren’t religious, but their shared interest in Dungeons & Dragons is helping them form a friendship during this time of social distancing.
  • Houseparty is an app where you can play games or video chat with up to seven other people. Church planters start a video chat with one friend who then invites his or her friends to join. This way the planter can meet friends of friends of friends and broaden the network. Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest were discussing the social benefits of this app on their show recently.
  • Slack is a platform that lets you communicate and work remotely with others. One church planter in Atlanta is part of a co-working space that has a public Slack channel. He uses Slack to reach out to connect in that virtual third space. He shares events or opportunities that his faith community is offering to those who are also on that channel.

2. Creating Online Third Spaces

Planters are creating third spaces in high-tech and low-tech ways

  • Zoom room wine tasting. One church planter in Virginia has reached out to a local winery to arrange a Zoom room wine tasting coupled with a Bible study on themes related to wine, vines, and vineyards.
  • Neighborhood groups. A leader in Fresh Expressions in Florida created a Facebook group for her zip code, and more than one thousand people have joined. They are building community and breaking into small subgroups based on neighborhoods to support and encourage one another during this time. A church planter in Western North Carolina wrote letters to his neighbors to introduce himself and offer help. A church planter in Tennessee made driftwood crosses for Easter and advertised in a Facebook neighborhood group that the crosses were free to anyone who wanted one. Dozens of people picked them up, and those people have continued to connect through Facebook messenger and snail mail.
  • Zoom room discussion groups. A church planter in Georgia hosts bi-weekly “Conversations that Matter” on Zoom that are open to anyone in the community. The conversations are advertised on Eventbrite and meetup.com; topics range from dealing with anxiety to managing finances.
  • Facebook Live. A church planter in Texas and another planter in Wisconsin are offering Facebook Live yoga classes that are popular and are creating community online. Their plan is to meet in person when social distancing restrictions end.

When we find and/or create “third spaces,” we are reminded that Jesus connected with all kinds of people in a variety of places. Many of our neighbors feel isolated and alone. We all need to experience God’s presence during this unprecedented time. Jesus was called “Emmanuel,” a name that means, “God with us.” So, know that God is with us; even when the church doors are closed, we are still the church wherever we are. We are called to bring God’s presence at all times and in many ways, even online. As people called Methodists, we are part of a great cloud of witnesses that has adapted throughout the ages to reach new people with the love and grace of God.

Who is God calling you to connect with today and how can you use these ideas or others to get started?

Rachel Gilmore is the former Director of Recruiting, Assessing & Training for Church Planting with Path 1. She stays away from foliage but loves to plant other things like churches, preschools, and ideas in the minds of those looking for innovation and inspiration in the church.

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