Going “All In” With Church Online During COVID-19 – Interview with Jim Edwards

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Jim Edwards at Graceway Kansas City shares how their church is reaching more people online than ever before during COVID-19

Podcast Transcription


Jason Hamrock: Today, I’m talking with Jim Edwards. Jim is with GraceWay Church, it’s a church in the Kansas City area. Now, Jim is the communications director, although he wears a lot of hats working at the church.

Jason Hamrock: Well, today, he explains what they did right after COVID hit, and how they pivoted. And as a result of their pivot, they’ve seen a huge increase in their online traffic.  And so I’m excited for you to hear what Jim has to say. Check this out.

Jason Hamrock: Well, hey, Jim, thanks for joining us today, glad to have you.

Jim Edwards: Oh, I love being here. Thank you so much.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. So share with me a little bit about what you get to oversee and do at the church, all the hats you wear.

Jim Edwards: Yeah. Yeah. So my proper name would be the communications director. But that’s going to handle anything from our print material, or our website, any kind of marketing or advertising we’re doing. For most of the time, up until very recently, it was all of our video editing. So anything that fell in that realm, social media would also be us. So, yeah, it’s a few different hats.

Jason Hamrock: All right, so how’s COVID affected your job?

Jim Edwards: Well, it was just crazy in the beginning, you know. So we got the order to that we were going to stop services on March 15th.  And so we immediately started to work out how do we do this online? And we’ve been streaming since, I don’t know, 2011.  So you know, we were prepped for that, it was just a different procedure. So most of my job immediately transferred into editing the services each week. So you know, that was a big chunk of the time, was now taking all these individual segments, whether it was worship being recorded on Tuesday, or the sermon on Monday, and then the host moments, and kind of putting it all together into one package each week. So that that was the first initial change that happened. But, you know, then it was like, how do we begin to reach people and not just sustain where we were? And so on the marketing side of it, I really began to look at how do we how do we push this? Right?  So for so long in church marketing, it’s it’s come to this event. Come to Easter. Easter is a big one. And it’s all prep to that event and suddenly you don’t have the event anymore. So I felt it seemed really difficult to try to get you to watch something on social media that said you should turn on your TV on Sunday morning at nine a.m. when there’s there’s nothing prompting you through the process to get to that spot on Sunday at nine a.m., right, so it seemed very disconnected between a Wednesday ad telling you to watch us and then Sunday you remembering to make coffee and sit down on your couch. So I started to look at it in the reverse order and said, well, what if we didn’t really push it until after it was over? And then so literally Sunday afternoon, the advertising wheel spins up, and we start pushing it the rest of the week. And that was a huge shift for us, and really has gained some massive amount of traction because now everything is perfectly set the way you want it. Right? All of your your copy perfectly fits the message because you know what he said, and you can begin to then target segments based on what he talked about.

Jim Edwards: Right now, we’re going through a series called Taste and See, and it’s looking at different foods throughout the Bible. And so this week was on fishing and fish, so all of our ads targeted people who like fishing or who talk about fish, right, so we can kind of segment that. The week before was wine, well, that one got a huge response. You know, it’s a huge market there, so we could kind of segment that and kind of personalize it into areas people were already talking about.

Jason Hamrock: That’s really smart. So you basically, yeah, you don’t lead up to, you promo after the fact.

Jim Edwards: Yeah. You know, and then your call to action at that point is click the button, just just click the button and you can watch it.

Jason Hamrock:  Watch right now.

Jim Edwards: Yeah, yeah.

Jason Hamrock: That’s really smart. So you made that, wow, when did you make that shift.

Jim Edwards: Oh we, we made it badly in mid-April. Which I don’t think we were doing a very good job, right, and then we’ve kind of perfected it as we’ve gone along. And you know, in the case of Facebook ads, we really started to look at the areas each week. We just did these huge swathes, you know, we said one that just targeted Europe, another one that just targeted the East Coast, another just targeted the West Coast. And then we would start to kind of break it down and be like, oh, well, these are hot spots, these work really well, and so start to kind of focus in on those.

Jim Edwards: And about that same time, we started to do the same thing with our Spanish services. So we have a pretty large congregate of  members that are, their Spanish speakers, so we had a video of that service every single week, so we started pushing that toward Central America, Mexico and then areas of the United States that have heavier Spanish speakers. And that one has,  that’s taken off, I mean, it just had a huge reaction. Now, some of that is our previously pastor was was pretty well known in that area. But the guy who teaches that class is not as much known, but it’s taken off really, really well.

Jason Hamrock: It’s a matter of time before he gets known well.

Jim Edwards: Yeah, exactly.

Jason Hamrock: So that’s pretty, that’s really smart how you did that with your weekend services. Have you made any shifts to how you’re doing ministry online these days, you know, instead of meeting at the church for Financial Peace University, or some other type of maybe an addiction celebrate recovery kind of thing? Are you shifting now to to include online in that discussion?

Jim Edwards: Yeah, yeah. So one of the first things we did is, so I also, I didn’t mention this, but also act as the Director of IT, which is how I really started in the church. Yeah, I’ll just add that in, that is fine.  So one of the first things we looked at was how can we set up our small groups, which is really how all of our ministries operate. Right. So if it’s not a main service, it is a small group. So then how do we tool them up for this? So, one of the first things we did is, because we use Google’s email system, so the name just escaped me. But we had the ability to integrate meet into that,so we set up accounts for all of our small group leaders, so then they could instantly do that. We do use a little bit of Zoom for some of the other groups, young adults, that kind of thing, high school, and kind of tool them all up to be able to do that. And that’s gone really well, I actually have a small group of just dads in our area, and we get together every Monday night and just hang out for a while. And it’s proven to be this spot where you can kind of…A lot of us are isolated, right, so I work from home. I’m here with my wife and kids all day, and just to get that hour, hour and a half of time has been hugely beneficial. So that’s one of the first things we did.

Jim Edwards: We then looked at social media, and started asking all of our pastors to send us daily devotionals or weekly things so we could kind of start to punch those out, just to keep that connection going and that interaction. And about, it was probably the beginning of April…We, about two times a year, we’ll do the twenty-one days of prayer. We decided to do one early in April because we needed it, so it’s a good time to do that. So we kind of set some daily devotionals to go out, and gave people an opportunity to pray. And so it’s just kind of tooling up all that stuff. I still think, if I’m honest, I still think we have a long way to go with that. I don’t think we’ve figured it all out by any means, but, you know, this is, it’s such a cultural shift that there’s a lot of opportunity here.

Jason Hamrock: You’re right. Yeah. I mean, not only is it a cultural shift just for the church to figure out how to do this, but for people to respond and to really create a two way communication instead of just pushing, pushing, pushing. So, yeah. So do you guys have plans, here we are we’re like mid-August, do you have plans to get back in person?

Jim Edwards: We have just set up three dates that we’re going to do an outdoor service. So September 13th will be our first one, then we’ll do another one pretty much every month. But as far as regular Sunday services, nothing planned at this time.

Jason Hamrock: Oh, okay, okay. So has your leadership really talked about, you know, when you do get back in person, who knows, who knows when that’s going to be. What will happen with your, with what you’ve created with this online sermon ministry? What’s going to happen then?

Jim Edwards: We started day one, everytime we talked about bringing something on is, is can you continue to do this when we reopen. And if the answer is no, then it was like well then I don’t know if we’re interested, you know, it’s everything we’re doing now, we want to continue doing. Even the format of our services, right, so we dropped down to one song before the message because that’s what people really were after. That’s what you advertised towards, so we shrunk that time, we wanted to get it as close to ten minutes in from the start to when when the sermon starts. So we’ve had discussions about making sure that we can keep doing that. The last two series we’ve done on location shots. So, you know, if the topic is wine, we did that one at a winery. So how can we continue to do that even if we’re in a live environment? Right. We’re maybe one segment of that is done remotely prerecorded in a specific location, because it added a lot of value and a lot of interest in that in the wine episode of Taste And See. We actually interviewed the people that work in the winery, and they talked about how wine is made. Which then let us lead right in with the whole idea of the wine press, and it’s the difficulties in life that press you down that actually leads to God making something more beautiful out of your life. Right. So being able to keep that stuff in there, even when we go back live, is going to be crucial.

Jason Hamrock: That’s still being creative.

Jim Edwards: Absolutely, yeah.

Jason Hamrock: So have you, have you experienced any fatigue with your internal, with your congregation? I love the way you’re outreaching to get people to watch right now, kind of on demand, but have you seen any kind of fatigue with your congregation because you haven’t been able to be in person?

Jim Edwards: Yeah, definitely. And I think we’ve made the conscious decision that it’s just not the right time, and it’s not safe yet for our congregation. You know, we’re a multicultural, multigenerational church, that it just isn’t going to go well. And our building was never set up for social distancing, right, as most aren’t. So to try to navigate that seemed like we had to make a decision on well, I’m sorry if you have kids, you can’t come. Or I’m sorry if you’re, you know, if you’re elderly, you can’t come. And that’s just not who we want to be, and so, you know, as we’ve stuck with that decision, a lot of churches in our area have reopened. So there’s that tension there, and I can’t make it to a pool party and not be asked about 50 times about when we’re going to open. And I get it, I get it. But, yeah, it’s definitely there. And I think some of these outside services that will start once a month, I think are a bit of an answer to that, you know. And you know, and to be honest, I’ve seen some of our people have posted online that they went to a different church this weekend. And we’re good with that, if that’s what you need right now, I get it. And everybody’s in a different situation, everybody has different needs. I don’t know if you get into Enneagram, I’m a Enneagram 5, so this is the best time in the world for me. I’m isolated, I’m left alone, I can just work, and no one asks me how I feel. It’s so wonderful.

Jason Hamrock: Right. Right.

Jim Edwards: Yeah. This is it for me. But I get it, not everybody is like that. And for some people this is a really difficult time, and they need that social interaction. So, yeah, just kind of feel out what you need, you know.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. Well so in that spirit, what are you guys, are there some big initiatives…That sounds like a big initiative was that switch that you did in terms of outreach, love that. Are there some kind of big initiatives you have planned throughout the year, or what does that look like in terms of what leadership’s wanting to do?

Jim Edwards: Yeah, you know, one of the things we launched into right away was we set up a Unite in Crisis. Which was our church partnering with a few other churches, and a few other organizations, on supplying groceries for families that were in need during this. So we received donations of groceries from different different grocery stores and businesses, and then every Sunday afternoon, people would come by and pick up free groceries, and that’s gone really, really well. You know, we’re right now in the midst of a twenty-one days of prayer, which we’ve kind of amped up to a little bit more of a design to be online. Right. So we shot daily devotionals with all of our pastors, and then set up a website at https://21days.visitgraceway.org that lets you watch those devotionals. We have a prayer wall built into it, so you can post prayer requests. Spotify playlist to listen to music while you’re praying. And so just trying to keep a lot of those normal rhythms and habits that we always have, and finding ways to integrate those online.

Jason Hamrock: Well, I love the outreach component. I mean, it’s you know, if any time in the last several decades the church needs to step up, it’s now. With so much going on, obviously the pandemic, and all the racial issues. I really think there’s obviously a big shift in, you know, people walking away or not attending church. And typically that’s a younger generation, not always, but typically. Are there things that you guys are doing to try and grow younger?

Jim Edwards: Yeah, you know, I think we definitely have gone through that slump for a while. And so we, this is what’s great, is in the midst of this pandemic are our giving has remained solid, which I’m incredibly thankful for. And it’s allowed us to hire young adult pastor about a month ago, and we hired a new high school student pastor actually this week, so it’s a great time to be able to bring somebody on in the midst of this. But, you know, so I think we’re at the very beginning stages of that. But it’s trying to tool that up, and I think it’s, these guys are great. Know our new student pastor came out of Florida, his name is Brandon Smith, and he is he’s already shot some crazy videos that I think that our students are really going to enjoy, and it’s just trying to build that relationship at this point.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, I think that’s the…You just said it, the key, I think, what younger…I mean, they’re looking for community, they’re looking for a relationship. And if a church is going to go there, they’ve got to have, they’ve got to have platforms, they’ve got to have ministries built around that. And of course then I believe there’s content, online content to help reach people that are looking for that. It seems like you guys are…

Jim Edwards: Yeah, that’s the thing. You know, and I’ve thought about this for a while. It’s like, look, my kids are eleven, nine and six, and they live on YouTube. I mean, they will spend hours watching other people play video games. Right. Which I don’t get, but that’s OK. You know, there’s huge potential there. You know, and most of these shows that that I see on there, even the ones are geared for a little bit older, like even Mr. Bass is a great example of a channel that just does some crazy stuff, but could be perfectly suited for a student ministry to take on. And it’s I mean, the guy literally just gathers people up, and does a weird contest where they have to fit all this furniture in a taped out square. And if they get it all in there, and it doesn’t touch, they get to take it home. You know, I mean, this is a great opportunity for a church to do something like that, just help a family that’s in need and turn it into a fun game. Look, nobody loses these games, right? It’s not about that. But let’s make it fun, let’s make it interactive, and let’s have fun doing it. I think it’s a huge opportunity for student ministries.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. Yeah. I agree. I agree. So when you zoom out and look at the big C church. Right. And you’re kind of in your opinion as a communication director, I.T. director, wearing multiple hats. How do you, what do you think are some of the big issues that the church is going to face over the next several years?

Jim Edwards: Yeah, I think there’s a piece of me that feels obviously God will use a large situation like this for a multitude of ways at the same time, and think He is. And I think some of this, I feel like is a wake up call to the church of, okay, you’ve you’ve relied on your Sunday services for too long, and you’ve forgotten that this is about community, this is about connection, this is about relationship. And I think he’s forcing our hand a little bit to to address that, and change how the church operates. And I think I would have said even two years ago that, well, that doesn’t happen online, that’s really going to happen in person. Right. But what if you can’t, what if that’s not an option? Right. How do we adjust without changing the message? But how do we adjust to help people into healthy relationships that build them up? And I really think that’s what God is trying to do. And I think the church is going to have to, we’re going to have to embrace technology on levels we’ve never have before. We’re going to have to learn how to turn on a dime a lot quicker. We got to give up the idea that, well, this is the way we always did it. Because, well, the way we always did, it can’t be done right now, so we’ve got to alter the way we’re working, the way that we’re thinking about things, they way we’re interacting with people. And I shoulder this too, it’s like I would rather just build a website, build a video, get it done. But it’s intentionally saying, I got to stop and make some phone calls, I’ve got to talk to some people because our people need to hear from us. And I don’t think we do an exceptional job with that right now, but I think that’s something we’ve got to work on. We’ve got to build the personal relationship while embracing technology to help other people connect.

Jim Edwards: We took our our growth track, which is our kind of assimilation system, and built the entire thing online. And one of the things that came out of it that’s been really interesting is, yeah, we have people going through it, but we had a gentleman in Germany go through it. He was born and raised in Kansas City, was serving with the Marines in Germany, started watching our services and attended all of growth track online in Germany, and then got shipped back to the United States and is now getting involved.  And there’s huge opportunities here, you know, for us to just use technology in a way we never thought of before, didn’t consider, or thought it didn’t help our overall end goal. Right. Before this, we would have said that growth track, well, we need you there. We need you to, we need to see you, and talk to you, and build a relationship. And, well, yeah, ideally, that’s fantastic, but we’ve got to embrace some new ways to do it.

Jason Hamrock: Well said. Yeah. I mean, I spent a decade as a communication director. You’ve been almost 20 years now, you’re just awesome, but you and I would both agree that it seems like it takes the church forever to catch up to where technology is already gone.

Jim Edwards: Yes. Yes.

Jason Hamrock: And for the church to continue to thrive, it’s got to be quick, it’s got to turn on a dime. And, you know, when COVID did break that happened. It was forced, mind you, you were forced into that. I do think that’s the silver lining, I think maybe God had something to do with that.

Jim Edwards: I do too.

Jason Hamrock: He caused His church just to think differently, we can’t forget that, in my opinion. And we have got to learn how to quickly adapt to the way you reach people, connect with people, the way they want to be connected with. Right?

Jim Edwards: Right.

Jason Hamrock: And go there, and not just have this assumption that, well, if we build a building, they’ll come. Yeah, maybe a little, definitely, that was the way it was done in the past. But these days, a little bit, but you still have to…You have to go out and bridge that gap of of non-communication. Right. That’s critical to the church.

Jim Edwards: Absolutely critical. And, you know, even what we’ve seen is as we advertise our services, I mean, we’re hitting people who had no intention of going to a service. Right. And we’re smacking them with an opportunity to watch a service. And yes, I get some crazy, insane comments on on our social media posts. And that’s okay, I welcome that, that’s a good sign. You know, so I didn’t hit you, but I might hit five people who really needed to hear it. And it’s all good, you know.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. You guys are doing some cool things in Kansas City. Well, it’s been it’s been fun because our our team is has been able to work with you guys, and I know we’re helping with some Local SEO, and with the Google Grants management. What’s that been like?

Jim Edwards: That has been fantastic. You know, I think Local SEO’s in a weird spot right now. Right. So no one’s searching for us, but that’s okay. But the Google Grant, we went from using, you know, maybe twenty percent of it every month, to more like eighty-five, ninety percent of it every month, which is hugely beneficial. And between the work that Missional Marketing has done for us and then, you know, us revamping how we advertise services, I mean, our traffic on our website is just skyrocketing. It’s out of control, which is fantastic. And I really enjoy those those monthly conference calls, because inevitably, every single time I walk out of that and Bart has given me three or four ideas that I had never considered. And it’s like, well, wait a minute, we could we could do that, you know? And I think one of the first things he had suggested was the idea of getting a transcript of our services, and then putting that in the page, which obviously is going to help with search engine optimization. Right. And we had already done everything to do that, we had just never considered that last step. Right. We take all of our messages, we run them through Web.com to get a Spanish translation, so we can have the closed captions on there. But I have the English one, I just haven’t done anything with it. And so now we embed that in the page, and it’s helped tremendously. Tremendously.

Jason Hamrock: Hmm, good. Yeah, I love doing those calls as well.

Jim Edwards: Yeah, they’re fun.

Jason Hamrock: Bart does, and I do the same thing. And you know what’s fun is we’re just learning what other churches, we know, obviously we know a lot about SEO. That’s where we’ve decided to go deep and learn that, so that we could educate, and equip, and say, hey, Jim, take the transcript, add that to there. You’re going to boost your quality score, and all that kind of stuff. Stuff you’d be like, oh, okay, yeah, that makes sense. But I love also learning about other churches are doing, and then sharing that.

Jim Edwards: Absolutely.

Jason Hamrock: When we have those those monthly or bi-monthly calls with churches, we’re just talking and sharing and that is so much… We’re in this together, in my opinion, we’re the church and we have one mission. Right. We’re not all individually going after, we have to be collectively going after that family unit, right?

Jim Edwards: Absolutely.

Jason Hamrock: That single person that’s far from God, and they think there’s no hope and there’s no answers. And we want to say, no, there is a lot of hope, a lot of answers. And you guys are doing it right.

Jim Edwards: I appreciate it. You know what, it is trial and error. And I think that’s what’s fun about this is, you know, we do this every week. So you screwed up this week, ok, well, let’s learn from this and try again, you know, and see what we can do.  And it made me think of, the other thing that Bart gave us advice on early on, which was hugely helpful. Was as COVID-19 hit, he said, hey, we’re seeing a lot of people are searching for End Times. You know, is this the End Times? What’s going on? And so we actually paused after after my meeting with him, and I went back to our lead pastor. And I was like, I think we need to take a one week break, and let’s just talk about this. You know, because people are asking. Right. So we paused and did a one week message on, you know, is this the End Times? And that thing took off like a rocket, because it gave us the opportunity to have the conversation of what are people dealing with, and then being able to hit that directly. And we’ve had discussions about could we do that once a quarter, or once a month, and just stop and go, what’s the issue? Let’s talk about it, you know, and just getting it out there.

Jason Hamrock: Now, that is using data to help drive decisions, right there.

Jim Edwards:  Absolutely, absolutely. That’s cool.

Jason Hamrock: Well, Jim, thanks so much for joining us today, and you’ve given us some things to chew on for sure. And love what you guys are doing, and keep at it.

Jim Edwards: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having us on. I really appreciate it.

Jason Hamrock: Take care.

Jim Edwards: All right, buddy.

Jason Hamrock: Well, thanks again, Jim, that was really insightful and encouraging. I really like how they have switched to promote the message that already happened. Allowing people, after the fact, to watch on demand and not have to remember to come and join them on Sunday morning at nine o’clock. That’s really, really good stuff.

Jason Hamrock: That reminds me of a couple of things that you really want to take advantage of. One of them, you probably are, it’s Facebook advertising. And of course, you know everything about Facebook advertising. It’s fairly easy to do, our team does a lot of Facebook campaigns for churches, and we’d be more than happy to to help you out. But there’s another product that comes to mind, that I think is actually maybe better suited for this, and that’s Google Display Network. So you can use Google to display advertising on different websites, different apps, different games, still geo targeted around your area. But the cool thing that we’ve learned about Google Display Network is, it almost always reaches a younger audience, and it’s very much split between male and female. Where Facebook tends to reach an older audience, and it’s more dominated with female. Display Network, younger audience, and a more equal split. And so not everybody is on Facebook, right? We know this, but everybody is online. And so take advantage of the Google Display Network to promote not only your sermons that are coming up on Sunday, or maybe after the fact, like what Jim’s doing. But also use it to promote different things, Felt Need things, that you might want to talk about. How to overcome addiction, like addiction support ministries you might have, or marriage support ministries, certainly finances. But people that are struggling with grief, anxiety, and fear, you can use Display Network ads to let people know what you have to offer them and drive them to your website. And so if you want any help with that, we’re here to serve you. Just reach out, and we’d love to talk with you about that and explain how you can use those two tools to really grow your online ministry. Thanks for tuning in. Until next time, God bless.

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