From No Livestream to 100% Livestream – Interview with Martin Sawyers

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How does a church with thousands of weekend attendees pivot from no livestream to 100% church online? Martin Sawyers, Exec. Pastor at Cornerstone shares the highlights of their COVID-19 adventure.

Podcast Transcription


Jason Hamrock: Today, I connect with Marty Sawyers. Marty is the executive pastor of Cornerstone Church in the Phoenix area. This is a multi-campus church, that has thousands of people attend every weekend. They’re doing some amazing stuff in ministry in the area, and have long been an influential church. Well, Marty was kind enough to share some insights into how they pivoted to church at home, and how he rallied and challenged his staff to think different. I hope you enjoy and learn from Marty.

Jason Hamrock: Hey, Marty, thanks for joining us today. Glad to have you here.

Marty Sawyers: You bet, Jason.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, so talk to us a little bit about when COVID hit, how was that for you guys? So you’re a big church, multi-campus church, how was that for you guys to switch to doing church online?

Marty Sawyers: Well, it was, it was a lot of running downhill really fast. We, even though we are a big church, and we do a lot of stuff, we were not we were not streaming our services online on the weekend. So we put everything up on the Website after, but we weren’t a live streaming service. So we went from not being a streaming service, to being a completely online church in about three days. So everything, not just our weekend service, but also we do, I would say we run more of what we would say, a complex ministry model. So we’re kind of on the other side of the spectrum from, say, a simple church. We do lots of things, men’s, women’s, small groups, medium sized groups, things like that. So we took a lot of that, and tried to see what would work online. So we created seven day a week content, and ministry, for our people.

Jason Hamrock: So that’s what you’ve been, you’ve kind of got all your ministry, all your pastors, and staff, aiming that way now?

Marty Sawyers: Yes and no. I mean, some of the stuff works online, some of it doesn’t. So what we’ve tried to do is, hey, what do we do during the week, and is there anything about that that would engage people online?  Does some of it work online, does some of it not? And so we’ve tried some things. What we’re trying to get our ministries to think about right now, is once this is done, you know, whenever that is. Once we go back to a semi-normal state, what will last, you know? So what are what are you doing right now, or what are we creating for online today, that will actually look and live online and still be good online content in six months or a year?

Jason Hamrock: Do you have some ideas or solutions, what that looks like? Or are you still just formulating it?

Marty Sawyers: Well, I think some of the things that we’re doing will stay on line. Our women’s ministry, their groups exploded. So they went from about 350 in groups, to over 800 in one week, in private Facebook groups. So it wasn’t just like, hey, anybody can go, so they actually had to take an extra step. So that, you know, you’re familiar with what we do on Tuesday night called The Mine. It’s like a verse by verse expository Bible study. So it’s a college level, you know, Bible study class. We typically have you know, I don’t know, three to four hundred people show up in person every Tuesday night. Well, now, you know, we’ve got about twenty five hundred people engaging in that. So, I think that we might be able to use some of those things, and continue to do some of those things going on.

Marty Sawyers: We created just fun things. I mean, our students created daily content for students. I mean, some of the things are just fun. It’s not, you know, not spiritually deep. It’s, you know, ghost pepper chili, you know, challenge type things, things like that. You know, things that their students could engage in, we create, and that’s everyday content. Adult content, just, you know, a five minute devotional chat about, you know, maybe parenting, or, you know, some anxiety, or something else. So we’ve created ways for people to engage and connect, you know, not just on the weekend, but just to help out throughout the week and just throughout their everyday life.

Jason Hamrock: It’ll be interesting to see how you guys, kind of like you said, reenter the in-person phase, whenever that’s going to happen, and do both of these at the same time, in-person and online. How do you think that’s going to actually pull on your staff? Because, you know, it’s almost like not quite double the content, but sure is going to be…

Marty Sawyers: You know, we’ve changed, obviously, you know, every church has changed right now. You know, some of our programming is not happening right now. So those people aren’t doing, you know, their normal, what they were doing, you know, two months ago. So we’re trying to look at how do we still create content? How do we curate content? How do we, when this is done, how do we go back to our midweek, weekend, programming but still provide, you know, online content, or different things for people to engage in? So I think we’re still working through that, some people’s jobs are going to change. Maybe potentially, we’re actually going to hire some new people, just to continue on with some of the things that are actually really working well.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, because you guys have such a huge reach, way beyond the Phoenix area, that’s where you’re located. I mean, even Arizona as a whole, you’re reaching people all over the country. And it seems like, why would you not, why would you stop doing that? Just because we’re now in person?

Marty Sawyers: Yeah, and I think it’s gonna be a both, and. You know, it’s gonna be, hey, we you have every church has kind of that sphere of influence wherever they are locally. But with with digital now, now you can expand that influence. So, you know,  Pastor Linn and I were just, we were chatting this morning. And it was, we’re talking through just what a spiritual formation will look like, and a discipleship pathway will look like, in this time right now. And, you know, we might be talking with a guy up in Alaska, and we’re helping him in his discipleship just based on giving him some simple daily devotions. We don’t want that to go away, just because we can’t see him in person. We still want to be able to help people, you know, continue in their discipleship, and their spiritual formation, and their walk with Jesus. Just based on, hey, if we’re able to do something online and help someone wherever they are, why would we stop that? So we don’t wanna just create content, just to create content. We want it to actually benefit, you know, benefit whoever is going to use it, watch it, and you know, share it, and you know, all those things.

Jason Hamrock: As an executive pastor, kind of leading the staff, and making all these changes. Has it been a struggle in the last couple months? Or have you found, you talking to people differently on new ways to do ministry?

Marty Sawyers: You know, the challenge, and this has been the challenge. It’s not been a struggle, it’s just been weird? It’s been weird not to meet together as a staff. I mean, our staff meetings that we’re having on Livestream, when I’m talking to an empty room. So we get all our staff on, you know, online, and we do all that. But it’s just, I think the biggest struggle right now, and everyone’s dealing with this wherever they are. It’s Groundhog’s Day. You get up and you go, what day is it today, type of thing, because life is different right now. So that’s been the biggest struggle. The challenge that, you know, I’ve kind of given to staff, and I mentioned a little earlier, is if your ministry looks the same when we’re done with this as it did going in, you wasted a huge opportunity. So this is the time, you’ve got the time, how can you evaluate everything that you’re currently doing and and change it, make it better, get rid of something? Use this time really, really well to evaluate, adjust, add, take away, so that when you come out of this…And then also consider, hey, when we talk about online. Is there something that we’re currently doing, or not doing, that should be, you know, online? That we can continue on? So that’s kind of what I’m kind of challenging the staff with right now.

Jason Hamrock: You said something earlier, that you guys are do something really cool, you’re calling everybody.

Marty Sawyers: Yeah. So, I mean, right now our our biggest thing is, hey, what? And I found this out also by talking with several other churches in the area, was there’s a bunch of people that wanted to help, but there wasn’t enough people actually needed services or help or things like that. So, and the main thing was, how is everybody doing? So what we started is, we started first off by calling all of the people within our church that were over 60. Because everyone said, okay, they’re the ones that are at risk. So we called every single person in the church over 60. And then we started with all, then we started calling all single parents. And then Pastor Linn actually brought another challenge to us a couple weeks ago. He said, what if we talked to every single person in the church? So every part of our staff now is part of, you know, care. Now we are we are calling. I’ve got a list of people that I’m calling. He’s got a list of people that he’s calling. So we’re calling every single person in the church, every single household just to check in. How are you doing? Is there anything we can pray for you about? What’s going on? Just some encouragement, some resources if they if they need some things. So it’s we have time, and so a lot of churches do that. We’re, you know, everyone trying to reach out, connect, you know, touch base with people. Just make sure everyone’s doing okay during, kind of, a historic time.

Jason Hamrock: You know, speaking online content. You guys do a great job of, daily, putting out fresh content. And how are you, how are you constantly growing your online traffic? Because it really is just the front door of the church right now.

Marty Sawyers: Well, a lot of the things that you’ve taught us, you know, several years ago. But a lot of it’s just some basic things that you wouldn’t think about, and kind of what we’ve, learned some of this from students. You know, people who live in Instagram, and Snapchat, and things like that. People want to be involved and be a part of an organization, or follow somebody, who has a lot of followers. So that’s why, you know, a lot of videos will say, hey, subscribe, share, like, all of that. That actually helps grow your online presence. So we’ve asked everyone, hey, if you all like it, share it. That gives us a bigger footprint. You know, it also helps with the algorithms, with, you know, when YouTube sees, hey, everybody’s commenting on this, this must be something important. So then they put it out in a bunch of people’s feeds. So a lot of just that basic, like, share, comment, actually, it works, and that’s really important. So that’s been a big portion of it.

Marty Sawyers: And then also just producing, you know, giving things for people that, you know, not necessarily…Like I said,that not necessarily are deep, we’re both doing deep and wide right now. So it’s a lot of stuff for everyone in the family, and some it’s just fun, and so it’s just to bring a smile on your face. And, you know, hopefully, like you said, it’s a front door. That they’ll go, hey, that was kind of fun. I wonder what else they’re doing? And they’ll come back and check us out again later.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. I love how you guys are being creative in using this time that you have. I mean, it’s in a sense, it’s a gift from God to go think differently.

Marty Sawyers: It really is, it really is. I mean, I feel like God is allowing the church, big “C” Church, all over the world right now to get better, to improve, to try different things, to expand the kingdom, to expand their influence. And I think it’s every church’s responsibility to do whatever they can to figure out what that is for them. So when we come out of this, you know. In culture, you know, people up and down the street look at the church as someone that will provide value to them in their family. I mean, we know what the answer is. We know, you know, that if you’re a devoted follower of Christ, you know you know what the answer is. But where we need to help them look at the church, look at a relationship with Jesus as as valuable. And so we’re we’re building credibility, we’re building trust, and every church is doing is trying to do those things.

Jason Hamrock: So as the executive pastor, and you’ve been in this spot for a long time, what’s some of your biggest hurdles or some of the struggles you deal with that you’re like, ugh?

Marty Sawyers: Just in relation to the last two months?

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, or since you’ve been in this role, I mean, you’ve been in it for a long time.

Marty Sawyers: Yeah, nine years. It was just nine years, on April 1st, it was nine years. So, you know what’s interesting is our culture, our staff culture, and you been around us a little bit. You know, we’re okay with trying things. We’ll experiment, we’ll try things. What’s been interesting is that the people who are willing to try something, even if they don’t understand it, that once they see a little bit of success, it’s you know, all of a sudden it’s like the light bulb goes on and they start running, you know, they start running with it. The people who are more hesitant, and they want to do things the way they’ve always done them in the past, those are the people who are struggling with it. And they want to know exactly what true online engagement looks like. And I’m saying it’s okay if somebody watches a video for 30 seconds. That’s okay. That’s online engagement right now, because that was 30 seconds that they didn’t watch you before. I mean, online engagement is different from in person engagement. It just is. But that is what, I mean when you’re sitting there either on Instagram and you’re scrolling through stories. If you stop and watch a video for 15, 30 seconds, that was good. So Facebook’s the same, you’re in your timeline, you’re scrolling you’re scrolling, and you’re scrolling, and you stop and watch a cooking video or a funny video or something. That’s online engagement. So it’s meeting them where they are. They live on Instagram, they live on Facebook, they live on YouTube, so then let’s meet them there. That’s where they’re spending their time already, so let’s meet them there, and not force them to go someplace else where they’re currently not living online. So in the people who are embracing that, that’s where we’re seeing the big increase in online engagement, and increased use. Things like that.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. Your numbers have exploded. And I love the heartbeat of Cornerstone, because you guys, like you said, you guys aren’t afraid to try things and fail. And because you’re gonna do that, that’s natural, but that’s what you have to do in order to get better.

Marty Sawyers: So, yeah, that’s been the fun thing. Is to see…I mean, you know, I challenged, you know, Mike, our executive pastor over creative arts, he’s in a lot of our online content. I said, hey, let’s just do something fun. Let’s just, let’s try something. Well, they they had a dance off challenge with Pastor Linn. It got ten thousand views, on a simple, silly, hey,you know. It’s like I mean, you know, it didn’t go viral, but it brought smiles to people’s faces. And it was something different. Hey, could it have crashed and burned? Yeah. I mean, some people watched the video and went, oh, that was a crash and burn. But people engaged, you know, people like me. They’re not you know, you know, they can laugh at themselves, and the senior pastor can laugh at himself. And look what he did, he did. You know, he… So we’re trying things like that because like I said, it’s Groundhog Day every day right now. I had to remind myself that it was Wednesday today. It is Wednesday, right? And so we’re trying to just make everyone’s life a little less, you know, whatever they’re going through right now. And so let’s try something fun, and it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. We’ll go on to try something else.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, that’s cool. So what’s in store for Cornerstone in the future? I mean, you obviously get past that COVID a little bit. And you guys are always doing great things, so anything on the horizon?

Marty Sawyers: Well, there’s always things. I mean, you know, I think the mega-church or large churches,or large organizations, you know, they’re criticized for, hey, how big is big enough? Or, you know, why is all about the numbers? It’s like, no. And I want to say, you know, the crowd followed Jesus. I mean, he attracted crowds. And we’re not doing this to attract crowds, we’re doing this to expand the kingdom. Our job is never done. You know, it’s bring people to Jesus, and grow them up. So whether that is an extra five hundred people in an auditorium, or that’s an extra two people in a small group, or that’s an extra thousand people online watching a blog. That’s our responsibility. Our responsibility is not to keep the kingdom of God as small as it can be, our responsibility is to grow that as big as we can in the time that we’ve been given in this position. So we’re going to try to continue to do that, and we’re going to do it now in different ways. We’re going to continue doing online, and reach as far and wide as we can with the platform that we’re given. Locally, we’re going to expand our campuses, our Chandler campus, where our original campus was. We are in the middle of trying to build that out, to be able to attract, and minister, and help more families and things like that. So we’re building that out. We’ll always be looking at trying to expand other campuses into different locations throughout the Phoenix metro area. And I mean, we’re no different from other large, you know, mega site churches. That’s the goal, is to grow the kingdom, and to make Jesus more famous than he already is. So that’s what we’re trying to do.

Jason Hamrock: Love it, love it. Well, cool. Well, thanks, I appreciate your insight, and appreciate you very much.

Marty Sawyers: All right. Well, you’re welcome. Thanks for having me on.

Jason Hamrock: All right, take care.

Jason Hamrock: Well, thank you very much, Marty, for your time and your insight. We all learned a thing or two. You know, one of the things that stood out to me, is how they are creating content every day. And as a partner of Cornerstone, we’re actually using that daily content, and getting it connected with people all over. We’re using the Google ad grant as the main method to reach people that are desperately searching. These days, in COVID-19, you know people are searching for a lot of help with fear, or grief, or anxiety, depression, maybe help from addictions. People are looking for faith, and they’re looking for who Jesus is. They’re looking for forgiveness. You know, Cornerstone is having our team push this content, and we spend a lot of grant money every month. It’s always north of $25,000  every month, that’s a lot of traffic to their Website.

Jason Hamrock: If you want to learn more about this program, and how to reach thousands of people, just ask. We can show you the path. Until next time.

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