How a 150-Year Old Church is Adapting to COVID-19 – Interview With Eric Morse

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The Moody Church in Chicago is an historic American church that has been forced to embrace new technology and church online during COVID-19

Podcast Transcription

SHOW TRANSCRIPT

Jason Hamrock: Today, I talked with Eric Morse from the Moody Church in Chicago. This is one of the oldest megachurches in the country. They have a rich history and have impacted thousands of people for more than one hundred and fifty-five years. However, they see themselves as a young church with a very bright future. They just hired a new lead pastor, and the future is looking really, really bright at Moody. Now, Eric serves as the communication director, and he gives us some really good insight into how they hired their new senior pastor, and the challenges that he faces every day being in a major city. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

Jason Hamrock: Well, Eric, thanks so much for joining us today. I’m glad that you can carve out some time to talk with me.

Eric Morse: Thanks, Jason. It’s great to be here.

Jason Hamrock: So you guys, you’re one of the oldest megachurches the in the country, you’ve been around one hundred and forty or 150 years, something like that?

Eric Morse: One hundred and fifty-five years, 1864.

Jason Hamrock: Wow. But yet it still probably feels like a brand new church because of your lead pastor, huh?

Eric Morse: Yeah, we just hired a new Senior Pastor via Zoom, so we might be one of the first churches I’ve ever done that. It’s a really exciting time for our church, and just being able to use that technology was something certainly new for us. I know it’s really new, and still being used for a lot of other churches kind of across the country to connect congregants, and small groups, and prayer meetings, so we’re using it for that here at our church.  But the vote was was really historic, we ended up having over 700, almost 800 people connected via Zoom, they were asking questions live during a large congregational meeting. Then we had to send out a Survey Monkey to kind of collect their votes in real-time. We had a backup with a phone bank that was staffed by many of our staff members, and we pulled it off by God’s grace. It was a really, I’m going to say a somewhat stressful time. But, you know, it was also a really blessed time with seeing how the Lord kind of used this for his glory. He provided a really powerful way, really significant way, and we’re just really, really, really excited for the new era that our church is entering into this summer.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. And so as the Director of Communications, that’s got to be kind of exciting because you guys have a huge footprint. And you’re the heartbeat of Chicago, right? Right in the downtown area, you reach a lot of people. Brand new lead pastor. You know, it’s got to be kind of an exciting time for you. Even though we’re in the midst of all the chaos with COVDID and everything. I’m sure you’re excited about what you get to do moving into the future, and how you’re going to communicate and connect to more people.

Eric Morse: Yeah, it’s a really exciting time. I mean, all of our ministry has moved online, so that’s kind of a totally new shift for us. We’re a really large congregation. Our sanctuary has like thirty-seven hundred something odd seats, we even have little wire racks underneath each seat so that people use, when they used to wear hats, we used to all have those. So we have a large sanctuary, a large building, but it’s not being used right now. And so everything that we’re doing is now moved online, from our services, to our small groups, to our prayer meetings, Sunday school classes. So we’ve really had to kind of shift how we’re approaching ministry, and I think for us that’s kind of upcycled a lot of the new technology upgrades that we’ve had to kind of implement over the last couple months. We made some changes to our online streaming. So we’re now instead, we were using another platform before that didn’t have live chat capabilities, we’ve now transitioned to a platform called Church Online Platform. Where we’re able to engage with people in real-time, we also stream to YouTube, so we’re pulling in audience members from that huge social media network. And we’ve seen just kind of an incredible growth in the number of people who are connecting with us on Sundays and throughout the week. It’s really been surprising, we’ve probably quadrupled our online audience since March, which was a huge jump for us, just seems to be growing and growing and growing. I think the longer-term trajectory of that, though, is what do we do once we start meeting again? Are people going to start coming back to church?  Are they still going to engage with us in the same way? Are they going to show up physically? Are they still going to be kind of inculcated in wearing pajamas to church, and just doing church at home? We don’t know what that’s going to look like, so those are kind of some big issues we’re gonna have to sort through as a church and as a leadership. But for now, the Lord’s really blessed, I think, church ministry online. It’s exciting to see the things that he’s doing with that.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, I would think that as you can go back to in-person now, as you said that’s going to be a new normal, and who knows what that looks like? Some churches that we work with are currently. Here we are, we’re in the middle like almost the latter part of June, and there are churches that are doing in-person. While others are waiting, you know, for a few months or even maybe even the next year, they don’t really know. But that will be interesting to see what you guys because you’re in a unique area. Right? So how you do in-person church, and keep the online church growing. I’m imagining you want to continue to grow your online church platform?

Eric Morse: I think absolutely. At our church, our philosophy is to really prioritize in-person attendance. So as we go forward with reopening the church, we have a phased reopening plan kind of in place. As we go forward with that, we really want to be encouraging people, if you’re watching online, come check us out in person because that’s really where we feel that the core elements of the church come together as the Good Book kind of commanded. We really prioritize in-person gatherings. So that’s not to say that there’s not a great fit for some people to watch online if you can’t make it one Sunday, and you can catch the sermon online later. We do believe that online audience is a great kind of first step, or a front door to the church. So connecting with people online like that is is a great kind of entree to who we are and our ministries, and we want to be able to effectively engage people in that medium. But we also want to make sure that we’re actively calling them to action to come back to the church. Come check us out in person, get to know people, because we really think that that’s where a church it blossoms and where people have the most biblical experiences.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, you know, I like your thinking on that, where it’s almost like sort of a funnel. You know, you can get people online to engage, watch, kind of even from a distance, but you’re not satisfied with that. So you really want to drive them to in-person church, where that’s a little unique. I mean you have so many people around you, it’s not as if you’re trying to reach the entire state of Illinois, although, why not? But you’ve got millions of people right around you because of your location. So that’s a pretty smart thing to do is to drive traffic online, and then get them in person.

Eric Morse: Yeah, websites are really important with that. So, you know, years ago we redid our website kind of with that in mind. The website and online streaming, as many of your audience members know, that’s the front door of the church. So we really want to kind of encourage people to have great experiences when they first come to your webpage, great experiences with your online streaming. But then how do we kind of capture them on the back end?

Eric Morse: It’s kind of funny, with COVID happening, we’ve had plans in place, we had a new hospitality ministry that was starting up in March. We renovated part of our church actually with what’s called the connection center, to create a space where people who were going to come in for the first time are going to be able to connect with a real live person, get their questions answered, kind of follow up with what’s the next step to take at Moody church. And lo and behold, two weeks later, there are stay at home orders. So we haven’t really been able to kind of unfurl that or use it yet, but it’s in place, and we think it’s going to be a really key part of our ministry going forward.

Jason Hamrock: Oh, yeah. I would think so, you put a lot of effort into that so…You know, well, it’s all God’s timing, but as soon as you guys get back in person, that’s going to be a great tool for you to engage people.

Eric Morse: It’ll be used eventually.

Jason Hamrock: So what are some of the hurdles that you think are going to happen for you? Because thirty-seven hundred seats, I mean, it’s a big worship center, and you’ve got a big church. And, you know, have you guys thought about your plans on how you go back to getting in person? I mean, what do you guys thinking there?

Eric Morse: Yeah, Chicago’s a bit of an unusual, I don’t know if it’s an unusual city, but we’re a little more restricted than maybe some other cities where people are spaced a little further apart. So current guidelines in the city of Chicago are for no meetings larger than 50. So at a church where we have twenty-two hundred members, and we might have roughly fifteen hundred or two thousand people that would show up on a normal Sunday, we can’t really do that for really an extended period of time, at least safely. Nor can we have enough services kind of back to back in a multiservice setting where it’s going to be able to, I think, serve all those people in a meaningful way. If you have to wear masks, if you’re too spread out, you know, is the church experience really the same? Are you still kind of worshipping how you want to worship? And I know that there’s a lot of feelings, emotions, ideas, kind of on either side. But our church is really trying to follow the city of Chicago guidelines in terms of what’s best practices for health and bringing people back to church safely. So I think at our church we’ve kind of set a limit on we’re gonna start encouraging full attendance in our services once we can start meeting, at least at 500 people, and we will probably phase it out to where we’ll do multiple services at that point.

Eric Morse: But in the meantime, we’re going to really be encouraging small groups, and what we call our community groups or adult Sunday school classes to be meeting either in person at people’s homes around the city, or we’re gonna be planning a way for them to meet physically at the church building. We have a lot of different rooms, and we can space people out safely. We’re still working on those plans, but I think that’s our long term trajectory over the summer and into the fall. And once we can meet safely at a high enough level, we’ll do that. And people, I think, will want to come back to it. But we’re not quite sure if that’s going to be by August or September, October, it’s kind of all really up in the air. One of the steps we’re taking is to try to survey our congregation to get a sense of where are they at? What do they feel safe with? When do they feel ready to come back to church?

Eric Morse: Just the way that our building is set up, we’ve had to kind of reorient where our cameras are now for online streaming. Like many of the other more modern churches across the country that might have been built for streaming, or a live online audience just to start. Our church is, it’s historic. so putting cameras in different unique locations is not as easy, we can’t shift as quickly. So we have cameras now in the front of the sanctuary blocking this amazing middle section where a lot of people would normally sit and kind of watch the service from the front row. So we come back to an in-person experience, that’s really going to shift. I think, how we do online experiences too.

Eric Morse: So we don’t have a great plan for that yet, we’re thinking about it as leadership. But I imagine that other churches, maybe like ours, are having to deal with that too. How do you transition from one hundred percent online experience, to a hybrid model? It’s probably the next step, and then maybe back to normal in-person attendance. It’s not going to be smooth, we won’t get it right at all steps of the process, but we are thinking about it and planning ahead.

Jason Hamrock: So you guys are…So, you know, historically, you’re an old church, but you’re like a brand new church with a new lead pastor. What’s going to be the direction in terms of how you reach younger families or continue to grow younger as a church?

Eric Morse: Great question. Maybe one of the more important questions for the older churches like ours? We’ve really doubled down and invested in our children’s ministries, so we feel like that is a key component of attracting and families. You know, families, if they’re going to come to church and meet other people, they want to make sure that they have similar peers that they can connect with, other families they can connect with. So the whole second floor of our church is geared primarily towards kid’s ministry, the second and third floor also has some spaces. We’ve also invested in staffing, so we have a new pastor of young adults who has come in within the past year or so. And we’re starting to see a lot more young adults from our neighborhood come in as a result of that, both in the college ministry as well as a little bit older demographic young professionals like twenty-five to thirty-five. So I think when churches, when they staff appropriately for that, not just, you know, a lot of churches have college ministries, but do you have like a young adults ministry, of young professionals ministry too? Because that can often be a really key demographic for your church to grow into. In Chicago, around our neighborhood, we’re in downtown Chicago, kind of in the Lincoln Park old town area. And so it’s a really unique demographic, where we get a lot of young people, singles, those who are either really newly married, or they’re either really young or they’re really old. There’s not a lot of young families right around where we’re at, most families tend to move a little bit farther. And so in terms of downtown urban ministry, you really have to get creative in terms of how do you staff? What kind of programs you have? How can people get connected? And that’s kind of what we’re thinking about going forward, at least, in terms of investing in the younger people around us.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, That’s probably some pretty big hurdles, even for you and what your job is to communicate, market, and advertise, and, promote different things. It’s got to be a unique situation for you because of the fact you do have different audiences that are not the typical norm of what most churches are focused on.

Eric Morse: Yes, it’s an interesting process to try to put yourself into the shoes of those that you’re trying to communicate to, young and old. And we don’t always do it perfectly, but we are really trying to think about how we’re communicating to different audiences. One of the big shifts we’ve made is from, kind of investing in advertising that was traditional print advertising, newspapers, local publications, things like that. We’re now doing almost exclusively all online advertising because that’s where we feel like people that really, you get a better return on investment, you get a lot more engagement that way, and it’s a lot easier to track. So in terms of reaching new audiences in our neighborhood, we’re using things like Facebook, Instagram, Google ads. We’ve worked with Missional Marketing, and your team has just done a great job for our special events. So that’s a big shift that we’re noticing in terms of how we get our message out to younger audiences, but also older audiences. I mean, audiences in all demographics are really connecting with online and digital marketing, I think a lot more than they used to. That’ll be probably an enduring effect of COVID, it’s everybody’s doing online marketing, everybody shopping online. A return to print or a return to a more traditional form probably isn’t going to happen, at least quickly. I don’t think that’s to say that church signage isn’t important, and we’ve certainly done some stuff around our church building for people who are driving by and walking. You know, we want to make sure that people know that you’re a church, that you’re either open, or kind of what’s your unique brand. But digital is really the way that we’re going in the future.

Jason Hamrock: So, I’m really curious as to now that you got a…I mean, five years to get a new lead pastor. Wow. But now that you have your leader coming in here in July, have you thought about how you’re gonna promote that? I did see the press release.

Eric Morse: Great question. The press release was kind of step one, so we created a list to communicate that news out as broadly as we could. Our next step over the next couple weeks, though, is just like I said, we’re gonna be doing a lot of digital marketing. We connect organically with people well through our website and Google search. YouTube’s a great driver, I think, of traffic to our live stream in the morning. But we want the local population to know that we’re open for business, we’ve got a new senior pastor who is gonna be preaching on content that’s really relevant to you at this time. So we think that just by using those tools, that’ll really increase our online viewership over the next couple of weeks.

Eric Morse: I think what’s probably more unusual about this time is, you might get a lot of great online viewers over the next few weeks, but how do we keep them engaged? I think that’s a longer-term strategic question of how do you track engagement, or how do you connect with people in an online environment that we could normally do if we’re in person? You know, you can always have those handshakes, you can connect with people after the service. So we’re trying to think of creative ways where people can continue the community experience that they’ve had in a live service, after the service. And so we’ve got something we’re doing now, it’s called a live Q&A. We’ve got the preachers being interviewed, to kind of take another step deeper into the message after the service. People can just kind of keep watching right after our service is over, they can ask questions live, and interact a little bit more with him and with each other.

Eric Morse: We also do a lot of online communities or adult Sunday schools after class, so we’re pushing that option a lot more in our end of service announcements. Really calling people to kind of take another step into their worship experience for that morning, take another step to get to know some other people. You know that can be challenging with Zoom, or with other online options. I know I have zoom fatigue, you know, we all do kind of, but it’s kind of where we’re at. And I think people recognize that. But I think offering those opportunities for people to connect one on one, or in smaller groups with church is so important right now. You know, church at its best, I think, happens when people are in community, when they’re actively engaged. I think long term, we have to fight against, kind of, the consumer mentality of church. Where it’s you get great preaching, you get great music, really anywhere, kind of on-demand. But you’re going to be missing out with getting to know the body of Christ, serving the body of Christ in person, if you’re not connected and if you’re not engaging. So that’s a really important, I think, philosophy for us.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. I’d say, you know, for churches that are watching this. Those that have hired a new leader, you know, you want them to get into that. I often say that to churches, it’s like you’ve got this opportunity. He’s you know, Pastor Phillips is stepping in. Right? And so you’ve just got a kind of a small window to let everybody know we’ve got a brand new leader, and so people are going to want to test-drive him. You know, they’re going to kind of listen to him, and check him out. And determine if they want to start to follow, and even show up to Moody, and that be their home church.

Eric Morse: Absolutely.

Jason Hamrock: That’s a short window, it seems like, these days. But it sounds like you’re gonna go all-in on making sure…

Eric Morse: Well, we’re doing our best. He’s got a summer series coming up, so we’re going to hit that hard with marketing and try to get some people to kind of buy into this new era for who we are and the new leader that we have. We’ll also do another big campaign in the fall. I think the summer’s going to be an important few months, but I think fall also. You know, back to church, back to school. Who knows if we’ll be back to school or not at that point, at least in Chicago, we’re still working through that as a city, but I think that’s another key time. So between now and Christmas time, we’re going to do a ton of promotions for our ministries, whether we’re back meeting in person, or we’re still meeting online. It’s a really key time, I think, for people, and it’s really key marketing time for our church.

Jason Hamrock: Absolutely. Well, so what are some of the hurdles that you, in your position, in your spot, a megachurch in downtown Chicago. Not your typical family unit that you’re trying to connect with, that most churches, maybe, in the suburbs, that’s what they do. What are some of the big hurdles for you as a leader in your position?

Eric Morse: The hurdle, I think, is understanding and identifying your target audience, that’s a huge challenge. You know, you can look at demographic data, you can look at a whole bunch of organizations that are doing market research and data research, sometimes it’s hard to know how to translate that into a church language, or language that’s going to be read by a non-church member. So that’s a real key, that’s there is really two distinct audiences. You’re talking the people in your own church, and you’ve got language, you’ve got culture, you’ve got history, you’ve got lingo, that connects well with your target audience in your church. And then you’ve got to think about how you’re connecting with the target audience outside your church, that doesn’t know who you are, you’ve got to communicate branding, you’ve got to communicate things that meet their felt needs. What are they struggling with? What do they need to know? And how can your church kind of help fill that gap? Those are the really big challenges. Chicago is a huge city, it’s multi-ethnic, multigenerational, so communication doesn’t always hit everybody perfectly. And I think one of the big hurdles is sometimes you’re trying to craft a perfect communication for everyone, and you don’t get it, you can’t do it perfectly. So I think for us, we’re working on targeting our communication with specific audiences. So, we’ll send Facebook ads out, for example, to younger demographics and older demographics. We’ll do two different kinds of ads for both of those, and we’ll see different clickthrough rates for both of those too. The messaging probably isn’t drastically different, but it might be depending on what we’re trying to promote, or what we’re trying to do. Christmas marketing, Easter marketing, you know,  those are going to have different demographic approaches. You know, young people are going to be looking at Christmas a little bit differently than maybe some older demographics that are looking for maybe more traditional, or Hallmark card-style advertising. Whereas the younger people are going to be looking for something else, what’s your church doing to reach out to others during Christmas time? How are you serving? Is there a missional aspect of Christmas for your church? So those are the kind of things that we’re thinking through and trying to adjust to the different audiences that we have around us, and the different audiences we’re trying to connect with.

Jason Hamrock: Wow. You have your hands full.

Eric Morse: It’s a blessing to be a part of it.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. I mean, it’s never a dull moment, is it?

Eric Morse: Never a dull moment, it’s always something.

Jason Hamrock: Well, awesome. Well, thank you so much for sharing, you know, a little bit about Moody Church and what you guys have going on. You know, it’s exciting to hear that one of the oldest, oldest, megachurches kind of has a new fresh start, almost in a sense, right? And so, a lot of energy and growth and excitement around there, and we’ll be watching, and we’re excited to see how you guys are going to continue to reach more people.

Eric Morse: Thanks, Jason, we’re thrilled. And thanks to your team too, for all the great work you’ve done for us over the years. It’s been a real blessing for us too.

Jason Hamrock: Oh, it’s our pleasure. Yeah. It makes it fun to work with churches that get it, and they’re after people that are far from God, that are just dealing with struggles and issues and felt needs kinds of things so that we can help connect them to a local church that’s going to share the gospel and lead them to Jesus. So, love working with you guys, so thank you.

Eric Morse: Thanks, Jason, right on.

Jason Hamrock: Alright, take care, I’ll talk to you soon.

Eric Morse: Alrighty.

Jason Hamrock: Well, thanks again, Eric. We learned a lot about what they are doing to grow their church. And man, Moody is making a huge impact in the city of Chicago. You know, what stood out to me is the focus on content. Having content on your website is critically important. Now, here at Missional Marketing, we have many, many landing pages ready to deploy at your church. We talk about all kinds of topics on these felt need landing pages, we want to answer the question when somebody is searching. And no doubt like Moody Church, just like your church, there are tons of people, thousands, if not maybe even millions if you’re in a large city like Chicago, of people that are searching for help with a felt need all the time in Google. I encourage you to see these pages that can be branded to your church, and if you would like to look deeper, hit us up on our website and we can talk and review those felt need landing pages with you. And I hope you enjoy it. So until next time, we’ll talk to you soon.

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