Creative Methods for Virtual Online Discipleship | Nate Williams

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Today I’m really excited for you to hear about the creativity that Nate and his team brought in how to do ministry during COVID.

Podcast Transcription


Jason Hamrock: Well, in today’s podcast, I’m talking with Nate Williams, Nate is the Community Life Pastor for Grace Community Church. It’s a church outside of San Antonio, and I’m really excited for you to hear about the creativity that Nate and his team brought in how to do ministry during COVID. Check it out.

Jason Hamrock: Well, hey, Nate, glad to have you on the podcast. Thanks for joining us, man. How are you doing?

Nate Williams: Jason, I appreciate the, I appreciate the invitation. Good to connect with you, brother.

Jason Hamrock: Likewise. So you’re the Community Life Pastor, explain what that means for you in your day to day.

Nate Williams: How many hats do I get to get to put on telling this story? No, so I oversee all of our, all of our small group ministries, we call them impact groups. And then I also oversee our men’s events, men’s ministry, women’s events, women’s ministry. As well as the first impressions team, so all the ushers and greeters on a Sunday morning. And then when I’m not doing any of that, I manage and oversee our website and keep it from, keep it from getting hacked as best as possible, and try and make it a good user experience for folks that are checking us out.

Jason Hamrock: So your bored?

Nate Williams: Right? My family’s bored, they’re like, where are you, and how come you have come home yet? No, it’s a good, it’s a good work life balance. But we stay busy, and it keeps me entertained, getting to do a bunch of different things.

Jason Hamrock: So tell me a little bit about Grace Community, where are you guys located, how big are you, that kind of thing.

Nate Williams: Absolutely. We are in Universal City, Texas, which is right outside San Antonio, the northeast side of San Antonio. And we’ve been in existence for a little bit over 20 years. It’d say that there’s probably about twelve hundred people that claim us. And then Pre-COVID, there was about four hundred twenty five or so who would show up across three services on a Sunday morning. And so that’s our, that’s pretty much who we are.

Jason Hamrock: Gotcha. So I heard that you guys have, you created like a virtual men’s and women’s retreats this year, kind of during this COVID thing, because of COVID. So talk to us about what that looks like, and how did that go?

Nate Williams: Sure, yeah. So we had, I’m going to glance over here at a wall calendar so that I can make sure I get the, get my dates squared away correctly. But we had a, scheduled for the year, we had a men’s retreat, a traditional men’s retreat. We were going to go somewhere, and do what we typically do, scheduled up in May. And obviously, that was kind of the height of the, the height of the lockdown. So we didn’t want to, we didn’t want to just ignore the fact that something needed to happen, but we also wanted to respect where we were in the world at the time. So we came up with this idea, our executive pastor and I were chatting about it, and we just sort of started bouncing ideas off of each other, and we came up with the idea of a virtual retreat. And it was, it was awesome, and what guys love doing more than anything is competing, so we framed the whole thing around a competition.

Nate Williams: And so every day, so it was over a two week span, and we started off on a Saturday and we met out at somebody’s property so we could have a little bit of social distancing. But we explained everything, and get all of the guys broken down into into their teams. And we had about forty five guys that signed up to participate, which is pretty good, a pretty good number. And so amongst the teams there was assignments that every man had to do every single day, and so there was a Bible study that we all went through. It was, the study we did was The Seven Challenges Men Encounter by Vince Miller. And so every day they had to do that, and we use Right Now Media Platform, so they can log in and just watch the videos and have the workbook all printed out for them. Along with the spiritual development, we wanted to do physical development as well, because everybody picked up the COVID fifteen. And so we’ve all packed on some pounds that we didn’t have at the beginning of the year, so there was a daily exercise regimen that guys had to pick. And we had an old man track, and we had a young man track, and just keep it challenging for everybody. And so they had the daily exercise, the daily Bible study, and then there was also something that was more for them to receive, that they were assigned to do every day. And so I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the One Minute Pause app that John Eldridge and the Wildheart Ministry has put together. But that app, we had all the guys downloaded it, and it prompts you like at eleven thirty in the morning, and about three thirty in the afternoon, to stop whatever you’re doing. And there’s a little devotional you listen to, and it just recenters and reorients your heart toward God with whatever is going on. And so with their daily activity, there was, on part of our website, we had our event page. But each guy was to log in to the page, and then and then fill out a form and let us know what they had done every single day. And so then points were tallied, and then we kept the log and kept score of everything, and had a winner at the end of it, and it was it was fantastic.

Jason Hamrock: So, wow, I love the creativity there. You know, you’re thinking outside the box, and keeping guys engaged. Right? That’s the goal, is keep them engaged, and keep them moving, and keep discipling men. What was the response from the guys that went through this?

Nate Williams: Sure. So we had, halfway through the event, we had a scheduled like large group session. So it was a Zoom, and we brought a speaker in, and had him give a message to us, which was great. And then we gathered together again at the end of it, physically we gathered together as best we could, and had some guy’s Facetiming their other teammates if they weren’t able to make it. But the response was, it was shocking how successful it was. Because in some ways, you know, you throw spaghetti against the wall and hopefully something sticks. And this was, I mean, like all of it stuck. And so we did, as a pastoral team, as as a leadership team, I mean, we knew that we were doing, back then, we were doing everything we could to do daily devotionals online, and do videos, and live stream all this stuff, just to keep people reconnected. But what we found with the men, especially, was that when we’re out of our regular routine of going to work, and getting the kids off to school, and everything was just was just thrown out the window. A lot of guys are kind of spinning their wheels on how do I continue to lead properly? What am I supposed to lead? How do I keep my mind focused on what God has called me to do, but then also be engaged with a church family that he’s placed us in. So we had some guys that this was the first time they had ever even done a men’s retreat. and they were deeply impacted.

Nate Williams: But yeah, the study was great, the physical activity was fun, every guy wants to go fight and win something. But I think the biggest surprise for us, was how effective the app was. We’re not a sponsor for the app for any means, but I highly recommend it. But that was the, that was the biggest surprise, and guys called it a game changer across the board. A lot of guys said this, using this app in my daily routine, in my life, has been a game changer. And I get those, and still have those conversations with the guys, even months later.

Jason Hamrock: Wow. So are you guys going to do this again, or what’s the plans for keeping the momentum going?

Nate Williams: Yeah, we are. So we’re actually, we’re right now in the middle of mapping out what 2021 hopefully will look like, we’ll see how it plays out. But what our plan moving forward is going to be, is that we’ll have a virtual men’s retreat the month before we have an in-person physical men’s retreat. And use it as a way to get guys excited about things, connect guys that may be a little bit more on the fringe. And just start working them through the steps to be more integrated into, really into, the discipleship process that we hope everybody that comes to church here would step into.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, I love that. I love that you guys are doing that. And your women’s ministry is doing the same thing.

Nate Williams: We are. Yeah, so they saw how much fun we have, and then a handful of them said, how come the boys get to have all the fun, why can’t we do anything fun for the girls? I said, well why don’t we just do the same thing. So we had, so the men’s theme was Heart of Warrior, and then so our women’s retreat was Heart of a Princess Warrior. And then they had, they did a study on the Armor of God, and their identity in Christ. And that was using the same exact same format, exact same teams, same competition. And it was, I got to sit in the back of the room during the closing ceremony when they all came back together. And they were in the auditorium, and just sharing one person after the other, just how they didn’t, so many of them shared, how they didn’t realize how disconnected she had become, until she started reconnecting again. You know, you don’t know how thirsty you are until, you might you might know how thirsty you are, but you don’t know how good water is for you until you start drinking it again. And it was incredible, I mean, I was really grateful to have the chance to pull those two things together. But they were, I don’t know how it could have gone any better, not because of our creativity or genius or anything, but God really just led us to to have these events for the ladies. So it really, it just met a need that none of us fully understood was there until we stepped into this?

Jason Hamrock: Well, a couple of points to that, I think that are really relevant. Number one, you guys are embracing what this new reality is. And you’re not just going, oh, man, we can’t do ministry. Instead, you’re saying, how can we do ministry better? How can we do it different? And relate it to what guys are dealing with, or what women are dealing with, and actually creating something that’s unique and fun. So well done on that one. Second thing is, I think I see a future men versus women competition with this, I’m thinking that could be something pretty cool too.

Nate Williams: Well, if we do that, so this is the other surprising thing. The ladies that participated in this retreat we’re, off the chart, way more competitive than the guys actually were. I mean, so, yeah, some of them were just like…I mean, because they’re logging their scores, and their daily activity. And we’re sitting here looking at these reports that are getting emailed in like, oh my gosh, this woman is logging miles, and miles, and miles, and miles, and miles, and you know, and running and just doing all of these things. And so that’s a great idea, but I don’t want to lose.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. But I also think it’s a cool outreach, like, you could, next time around, hey, why not bring a… It’s such an easy entry point to church, right, to hey, come in and be a part of this cool competition we have going on? Like, it’s an easy way to bring a friend in, right?

Nate Williams: Absolutely. Yeah, that’s actually, I appreciate that reminder. We are thinking through how to do this church wide, and not just the men’s and women’s thing, but a church wide type of an event in January for a, you know, get the year kicked off correctly. And make it so that if there’s a single individual, or a married couple without kids, or a family that has 18 kids bouncing all over the place, everybody can participate in it.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah.

Nate Williams: From a biblical study, Bible study standpoint. But also what an incredible outreach for the neighborhood, the block that you live on. Yeah, that’s a good word, and I like that.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. And you think about just the you know, statistically, millennials are walking away, well they aren’t even coming to church, walking away from church, and younger people. But like lots of even middle aged or elderly, there just not coming back to church, they’re not engaging anymore. And this is just a cool way to, I just think churches need to continue to be creative, and you guys are being creative in this space, and figuring out…Just like you said, throwing it up against the wall, some stuff’s going to stick and some isn’t. You kind of hit on something that actually is working, and keep developing that. So, I love that part.

Jason Hamrock: Okay, so I also heard that you guys are getting some more new attendance, like you’re open, right?

Nate Williams: We are.

Jason Hamrock: So you’ve got the benefit of being open, and other churches in other parts of the country can’t because of COVID, and we understand those reasons. But tell us about some of the wins you’ve had recently with in-person attendance.

Nate Williams: Yeah, absolutely. So we’re running at about 50 percent capacity in the auditorium. But we’re seeing consistently seeing guests every single week that are checking us out for the very first time physically, you know, in person. But the common conversation that we’re having with them is, you know, I’ve been going to another church and my church is closed, and I want to worship in person again. It’s one thing to, you know, it’s one thing to log on and participate in an online streaming service. But even though the Internet didn’t exist when Jesus walked the Earth, that’s not what the intention was for the church, we need to be with each other physically in the same space. And we’re getting a lot of, we’re having a lot of those conversations with new folks there, people want to be get reconnected. They want to get reconnected in general across the board in life, period, but were finding that a lot of people want to come back to church.

Jason Hamrock: And you guys are, I think you’re experiencing that people are checking you, they’re checking you out online.

Nate Williams: Yeah.

Jason Hamrock: And then going, huh, I like what I see.

Nate Williams: Yeah, yeah. So, yeah, the other immediate conversation with with guests who aren’t coming from another church, is that they have, you know, they’ve been watching. You know, back in March, every church in America almost probably started learning how to stream live online. And it was, I remember those first couple of weeks, I think all the streaming service servers were just struggling to keep up. But we’re finding so many more people are virtually stalking us, and checking us out, and doing a deep dive into who we are, what is a service like? Whether they’re watching a live stream of a service, and engaging there, or they’re they’re logging in and checking out kind of the archive of services over the last years. And and so they’re, and so they’ve seen several, and participated in several, of our services before they even step foot into the building, which is very different. Obviously, COVID is has thrown, has kind of forced that evaluation process on a lot of people. But I would say that’s a conversation we’ve been having with folks over the last two years, is that primarily it’s, I checked you out online, and I know who you are before I even meet you. And so then they’re coming in, and sometimes even calling us by name, those folks that they recognize. It’s like alright, I don’t know you.

Jason Hamrock: Oh, hi.

Nate Williams: Right. But it’s awesome, it is the landscape of, the landscape of how a church communicates with the community that it’s in is evolving from more…In addition to outreach projects, in addition to the sign on the street, in addition to the regular just driving/foot traffic that is historical. So much of that is shifting to folks making a decision based on their experience on our website, and what’s offered there.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, it’s so important to focus on your Web presence, and your entire online presence, more than just your website. Right. Because they’re, we teach us a lot of churches that people check you out before they even get to your website. They’re checking you out on your Google My Business, they’re checking you out on Facebook, and they’re checking out on Yelp. And you’ve got to pay attention to that stuff, and actually work it. You know, you can let it organically go, that’s fine, but you really should spend the time to optimize and work on that. Because you’re right, I mean, we do that in everything we do. If we go visiting a restaurant, what do we do? Photos and reviews, like that’s going to indicate if I’m going to come to your restaurant or not.

Nate Williams: Right. Is the bathroom clean? Do people like the meal that they were served? And there’s nothing that sets a church apart from that same evaluation process at all.

Jason Hamrock: Exactly. And people that are unchurched, they don’t know any different. And I think in the years past, churches, we just had this kind of, I kind of call it humble arrogance posture. We’re very humble, but we’re kind of arrogant to think that, well, if we build a church, they’ll just come. Some people will, but the more [inaudible] is they won’t.

Nate Williams: That’s right. Yeah. We had a Calvinist marketing approach. You know, God has preordained, predestined, everybody that will walk through our doors, so we’re not going to put any effort into it.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. It’s like you can’t think that way, that’s not where things are going, And COVID just made that like, it just kind of shot up that idea of if you just have a building, they’ll come.

Nate Williams: It’s a bright spotlight COVID put on that for sure.

Jason Hamrock: Yep. So talk to me a little bit about where Grace is going in the future, and what’s that look like? I mean, when you think of 2021, which you probably can’t get there quick enough, but, you know, what are you hoping for? What are you planning on?

Nate Williams: Well we are, we’re planning on, for Christmas, we’re going to…Our Christmas themed services are going to be, Come Home for Christmas. And trying to, we want people, we want people to be responsible for sure, but we want people to come back to the building. The online streaming experience is fantastic, but if folks are going to really engage in the church community, they need to be here in person. And so from an evaluation standpoint, from a seeker standpoint, online is king. But from, you know, from folks we haven’t seen, you know, we see them online and they’re engaging with us, and we love them, and we’re reaching out to them. But we want to, as carefully and responsibly as we can, we want to get everybody back into the building. So that we can, you know, so that we can experience what community is like, actual community. It’s like because it’s different in person than it is digitally, so that’s one thing.

Nate Williams: Obviously, we’re going to integrate these virtual retreats because they were such a win this year. We will be, we’re going to be, we have some projects lined up for next year just to optimize our website as a whole, so that all of the traffic that’s coming in, we’re able to capitalize on it. And, you know, we’re not seeing so much traffic just just hit and then bounce off. We’re going to be able to capture more of it, and answer the questions that folks are asking, from the questions that had led them to even land on our site. So that’s a thing, but, I mean, we just want to get back to the way things were in 2019. That’s a you know, that’s baby step, I think that’s the biggest step one.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, I think it’s been interesting looking at churches analytics, and it seems like the COVID effect, the March, April kind of thing is COVID. Then it seems like it dropped off a little bit in the summertime, it’s starting to come back. And I kind of relate that to I think that, you know, the church, and your church is no exception, did such a great job of pivoting when it needed to. And then you got better at creating an online experience, so much so that you created such a great experience that I feel like, well, gosh, why would I want to go back in person? Because I’ve got this awesome online experience, I can stay at home. And we gave, we were forced to, but we gave people permission, watch from home.

Nate Williams: Exactly.

Jason Hamrock: We had to. Well, now I think we, you know, because people have just become accustomed to it, you know, call it laziness, whatever you want to call it. Maybe people are just trying to be safe, and that is totally understandable.

Nate Williams: That’s part of it.

Jason Hamrock: They’ve got to be safe. But for those other people that can come back, I think we have to be intentional about giving them a reason to come back. So I love your idea on, and I think every church should try to use Christmas as an opportunity to, if you, to come under one roof safely, and worship corporately. And start to get that mindset to the people, t[ the families in the new year, make that more of your habit. I agree with you going back to 2019, yes, but I think we want to look at more engagement from the church. Because probably your church is no exception, but we see across the country, like 1.5 to one 1.7 times per month, a family will go to church. Right? So I think if we could use digital tools to increase more engagement during the week, plus either they’re watching online or they’re in-person, brings a much better picture, I think, from a discipleship standpoint and a building up the family standpoint.

Nate Williams: Yeah. One of, something we’ve noticed…I mean we’ve, you know, my family and I have experienced it just in the street we live on. You know, when you’re, during the lockdown, you engage with your neighbors a lot more than you typically would. Because people are out, and they’re wandering around, and trying to put a semblance of what life is supposed to look like. But there’s been, you know, in our neighborhood, there’s been a closer knit effect just because of the shared experience that we’ve all gone through. And so how, you know, how do we best equip the church to take missions, the paradigm of missions, take it from the ends of the Earth to the end of your block. And connect with the people that are right in front of you, and right next to you, and right around you. And even though these are odd, strange times, that I think is the biggest ministry growth opportunity that’s facing us for next year. Is reframe, because nobody’s going out of the country next year, I mean, unless they really, really, really have to. I think, you know, international travel will still be pretty tamped down. But reframing what missions is going to look like, and how we engage and capitalize on this relationship capital that we have with our neighbors, that have been built up throughout 2020. So as a look forward thing, that’s some low hanging fruit that I’m hopeful we can pluck.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. I totally agree. So you guys use Missional Marketing. How’s that been, and what’s been a result of that?

Nate Williams: Yeah. Missional Marketing is fantastic. We love the dashboard with all of the data, and all the stats, and all of the just getting the granular, into the weeds, of where our traffic is from, and what brought it to us. That has really, I think, one of the things that’s done from a paradigm shift internally, is it’s taken our view of our website from a communication platform to internally to the congregation. To a communication platform to everybody that’s viewing and checking us out and coming to our page every month. We have thousands and thousands of people who are coming to our website for the very first time every single month. And just working with you guys has helped us have some brutally honest, critical thought conversations with ourselves, on how do we, you know, there’s tons of people that are showing up. How do we channel that traffic in such a way as to capture it, and answer the questions that they’re asking, and then hopefully be able to keep the conversation going so that one day we may actually see them walk in the door.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, I love it, I love it. What you just said there is kind of like the heartbeat of us, but it’s the heartbeat of you. And together, we’re equally yoked in this because we care deeply about people that are far from God, that are seeking, maybe they’re not even seeking God, but they’re looking for help with something. Right? They have a felt need. And you, we, have answers. We know who that answer is, and they are still looking. And I think people, I think there’s a, hopefully, there’s going to be a shift here in the next season of life where people are going to be looking for help and they find God. That’s of course all of our, that’s our prayer. Right? But it’s been fun to watch churches get, like you guys, get really serious about how to reach and engage people online. So thank you for letting us partner with you.

Nate Williams: Oh, well, we love it. I mean the tagline, it’s not even an official tagline for our church, but on our website, the tagline is, bringing sanity to the chaos of life. That statement alone is transferable to anything, you know, in the religious world or the secular world. But the message is too, and that was from a direct conversation with with some of the folks on your staff. But just creating that type of a statement that, yes, you have you have needs, the church, we believe, the church has the answers to all of your questions. Jesus is the answer to everything, and then whatever you’re going through, we want to walk with you through it. And this year has been, prophetically, that statement was, it was a little too close to home, but it’s working. And the consulting services you guys have, have been immeasurably beneficial to us for sure.

Jason Hamrock: Cool. Well, Nate, thank you for, well first of all, thank you for your heart, and serving your local church, serving God in that space, and using your God given abilities, wearing so many hats that you wear. That’s not, you know, that’s not like new news to anybody who works in a church, we all had to wear multiple hats. And that’s okay, it’s ministry. But I appreciate your heart, and your posture for serving, and thanks for sharing some ideas here that our listeners can kind of tune into. Maybe you guys could take that church to your leadership to talk about how you could do a virtual men’s or women’s ministry event. Listen to Nate and Grace community and what they’re doing, and you rip it off, go check them out. Call Nate directly.

Nate Williams: Please do. Yeah, we’re is our website, and you can, it’s not too hard to find my contact information on there. But yeah, anybody that would like to talk through how to do these…I think it’s an easy thing, these virtual events are easy to pull off, incredibly effective, and they really meet a need for a lot of us. But Jason, I appreciate the conversation, Man. The chance to connect with you here for a few minutes, and I really appreciate all the work that Missional Marketing is doing.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, my pleasure. All right, we’ll talk to you soon, bud.

Nate Williams: All right, buddy, take care.

Jason Hamrock: Bye.

Jason Hamrock: Well, Nate, thank you for that input, man, that’s good stuff. I am so glad that you guys didn’t decide just to kind of hold your head low and go, well, I guess we can’t do anything because of COVID. No, you did something different, you got creative. And you thought, what if we could do this? And then you went and did it, and you stuck it up against the wall and stuck, and it worked. Way to go! Church, we can learn from this, if you’re not sure what to do, call Nate, ask him, they’ve got some really good ideas at that church. And doing a men’s ministry event, or a women’s ministry event, that’s very low key, just easy to do, but yet it still connects people. What a great opportunity to not only engage your people at your church, but make it an outreach. Right? We were talking about that offline, Nate and I were. And we were saying, you know, you could actually advertise this in like Google Display Network, or Facebook, or YouTube, or Instagram. And you could actually run a campaign, invite guys around your community to come participate. Right? They land on your website, they can learn all about this competition, how cool is that? Easy, easy stuff to do. and so I’d just encourage you to go that route, right, learn, and adapt, and change.

Jason Hamrock: So if you want to talk to us about that, we’d love to talk with you about that, and how you can actually reach more people outside your church during the season. Until next time, God bless. We’ll talk to you soon.

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