Interview with Austin Ridge Bible Church Communications Director Michael Summers

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Jason Hamrock talks with Austin Ridge Bible Church Communications Director Michael Summers about how they’ve transitioned to a full-service church online experience and other topics.

Podcast Transcription


Jason Hamrock: Well, hey, everybody, I am here with Michael Summers. Michael is the Communication Director for an awesome church in Austin, called Austin Ridge, in Texas. And this is a great church, a multi-campus church, they’ve got all kinds of cool things going on. And so I asked them to join us today, just to kind of talk about what they’re doing, so we can learn from them and share. You know, as we always say, we’re all in this together. We’re one church, serving one God, and we will all come up with cool ideas. And so we want to just have a platform to share those ideas. So, hey, Michael, thanks for joining us.

Michael Summers: Hey, thanks for having me.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. So tell me…So this thing’s happened with COVID-19, we’re in the middle of that, and how have you guys really transitioned to doing church online? What does that look like? Is there anything unique that you’re doing, that other churches may not be doing?

Michael Summers: Yeah. So the way that we’ve transitioned a church online has been kind of two fold. So, we’ve created a completely different experience for what we call worship at home. So we we have been creating the full service experience, if you will for people, and calling it worship at home. And so church online for us in the past has just been kind of a live stream of wherever our pastor is teaching from on Facebook and our website. And so it was an opportunity for people, mostly people who were just kind of want to, you know, look at what our church is like before they ever set foot on a campus, as well as our people who are maybe out of town for work or they’re on vacation, they can still engage with the worship service. But there wasn’t a separate experience being created, it was just a feed of the cameras that were in venue, that we would throw on [inaudible], that we would be put as a livestream.

Michael Summers: And so with this transition during COVID, we have obviously changed up a lot of things. So we don’t do our services in venue. We actually took one of our venues, and we pulled all the chairs out of the room, and we put up a black curtain around the area that we were going to be filming and just kind of like create a black space that falls away. And then we do a multi camera shoot of our worship experience. We’ve got a band in the room, that we’ve been shooting over the past few weeks, that’s kind of a stripped down band. Less people one, and then also giving, you know, allowing them…It’s a large space, so they’re able to sit, you know, socially distanced, while leading worship. And so we have four or five camera angles that we shoot, almost treat it like a live shoot. But then we can edit it, obviously, after the fact.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah.

Michael Summers: And so we shoot those, we kind of do those in bunches. And then each week what we do is, our worship pastor chooses what songs he wants to use that week from the ones that we’ve recorded. And then our lead pastor comes in on Fridays and teaches his sermon, just kind of to a static single camera, looking at the camera, teaching our people. So we’re not…I’ve seen some churches that have essentially still shot their live experience, on the stage, in their venue. And we just didn’t go that way, we felt like it didn’t feel like us, it was gonna be weird for our lead pastor teach to an empty room, but act like he’s teaching to a room on the stage.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah.

Michael Summers: So, we just decided for the sake of kind of what works for us, and what feels like us, to go more of kind of creating a studio that we shoot in. And making it look really cool, but also keeping it simplistic enough to where the experience…We didn’t want the online experience to feel like a lesser than experience of the in venue experience, so we just made it completely different. We did apples to oranges mentality, so that people aren’t going, oh, this kind of feels like Sunday morning when we’re at church, but it feels like not as well done, or it feels kind of awkward. It’s like let’s just do something completely different for this season, so that people aren’t making that comparison, and I think that our team has done a fantastic job of doing that.

Jason Hamrock: So, do you think whenever we get back to the new normal, whatever that’s going to be, and people are able to come back into the into the building, into the worship center. Then how does that affect this online culture that you’re creating? Are you are you going to have two different venues, or go back to one?

Michael Summers: Yeah, I think there’s still some TBD’s out there, with kind of what pieces we want to keep from this season moving forward, and which ones will want to just let live in this season and go away when we’re back to the, quote, new norm?

Jason Hamrock: Yeah.

Michael Summers: But I think the plan right now is really to go back to the experience that we were creating before COVID came around. Maybe pulling pieces from this like, what did we like as far as, you know, some of the cinematic nature of the worship experience that we’ve created for this worship at home to keep people engaged at home? Maybe that’s something that can translate into a venue, that the shots that we’re creating for…We’re working on a new worship center right now for one of our campuses, it’s a twenty-five hundred seat room. And so, we do have some opportunity for people to engage in a way in that venue that they wouldn’t have been able to in the venues that we have currently. And so, yeah, just kind of trying to look at it.

Michael Summers: I think we’ll get to a place where we kind of evaluate, hey, what pieces do we want to keep, and what pieces do we want to let fall away after this season is wrapped up? But we haven’t really determined any of that yet. We’re really, what we’ve been focusing on is, what’s the best experience that we can create for people while they’re worshipping at home, that’s engaging, that feels like us. Our church has always been about, from a Sunday experience standpoint, we want people to…And from a church-wide standpoint, but specifically, our Sunday experience has always been really simple. We want to worship together, and we want to have clear teaching of God’s word. And so we don’t have a lot of other stuff, we tell stories occasionally. We have obviously other elements like communion, and pieces like that that we do on an occasional basis, baptisms. That’s another thing, it’s like we’re in this thing for a while, what does it look like for us to, you know, do baptisms during online church world?

Michael Summers: There are still questions to be answered, but for right now, what we’ve been focusing on is those two main things of worshipping together and teaching God’s word. And so how do we do that in an engaging way that connects to people when they’re sitting in their living rooms, in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily connect with, just recreating the Sunday experience and putting it on their TV. And so, yeah, I hope that answers your question.


Jason Hamrock: Yeah, it does. Yeah. So, you know, in this kind of new era, and even before this, and certainly after this COVID thing. You know, you talk about obviously one of the main front doors, it’s the only front door now is your online experience. So, gaining online traffic is incredibly, it’s always been super important, so it’s even more important. But when you think about where you go from here, do you have any kind of a strategy for how you want to continue to increase your online traffic and continue to deepen that engagement with people that don’t go to your church?

Michael Summers: Yes. So, I think a lot of what we’ve already been doing, of just kind of having these strategic engagement points for people to find us online, that’s a big one. I think people are going to be searching for churches online that wouldn’t necessarily be there, so just that foundation of honestly what we’ve been doing with you guys of just our searchability, and increasing that, and improving that. I think people are going to be searching in a way that they may not have if life were normal, and they were busy by the things of life that they don’t have right now, so maybe on a Sunday morning, they Googled churches near me, and things like that. So I think continuing to do that, and then also from a user standpoint, I think the biggest one for us is we want…Because it is that front door experience, it may not have always been the front door experience from a Web standpoint for us. So we’ve also made it to where on Sundays, when you come to our website, the first thing you’re going to see is the online worship experience. Whereas before, it wasn’t necessarily the front door, because our website was really designed for people connecting. Yes, to a Sunday morning, to come on Sunday mornings, but also for discipleship, for growth, for small groups, students and kids ministry, things like that. And we still want those pieces happening. But because our front door experience has really come into focus on this online worship experience, that’s what we want people to immediately be able to access really easily.

Jason Hamrock: Yes. So adjusting your homepage page to be all about your online experience in this season is pretty important?

Michael Summers: Yeah. So we’ll just, we’ll utilize things like social media to really push that. We have kind of a general flow of social media, and what it looks like throughout the week. We’ve adjusted that a little bit, to just remind people. The way that we’re doing, we’re not doing a true livestream, so we pre-record, and then we post a video on Sunday. We tell people it’s going to be posted by 8:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings, and so they can watch at any point. We’ve just hosted on Vimeo, we embed it into our site. And so, what’s been really cool to see is, like when people are watching, there’s some people that’ll get there right at 8:00. And we also send an email to our entire list serve on Sunday morning saying, hey, worship at home is live, check it out today.

Michael Summers: We have kids and students resources on our worship at home page, that parents can have worship experiences for their kids as well. So, we’ve got preschool, elementary, pre-teen, and student resources that they can engage with. So it’s not just this church service that we’re creating, and it’s like figure out what to do with your kids. There’s actually, in the same way that we created kids worship experiences at our campuses, we’re doing that online as well. So there’s video content, parent guides, different activities and worship songs that they can engage with. So our kids ministry has done a fantastic job creating those resources as well.

Michael Summers: But we tried to, kind of knowing that this is not a true livestream, but it’s a resource that people can engage with both all day on Sunday, but also throughout the week until we post the next one next week. Is utilize social media to keep our people engaged, if they weren’t able to do it on Sunday, reminding them on Monday that it’s still there, and they can still check it out and things like that.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. So, when I look at the, in most cases, most families, you know, the stat is that I think, most families come to church like 1.5 times a month. Right? They show up, not every week. Some do, but there’s a lot that don’t. And when you think about that, when they do show up, you get them for about an hour, hour and a half. And then you may not see them for a couple weeks. Well, it seems like online traffic is just up and to the right. And so it’s very likely because of this COVID thing, that you’re getting in front of people more often. You’re maybe even getting in front of them every Sunday, and perhaps during the week. So it almost presents us opportunity to increase the engagement of your people, then if things are back to normal.

Michael Summers: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, we’ve definitely seen an increase in numbers from our general Sunday attendance at our three campuses was probably somewhere around three thousand to thirty-five hundred adults on a given Sunday over, we have a nine o’clock and eleven o’clock services on three campuses. So over the course of those six services, there’s about three thousand adults. And we’ve been seeing numbers upwards of six thousand, seven thousand, views of our online worship experience. And so, yeah, just encouraged by that opportunity to engage with people who we would never engage with. Now, that could also be like what you’re talking about. Well, the numbers we kind of operate with, just kind of being strategic with communication is once a month, we just assume we got people once a month for an hour. And so how do we engage with them, or how much should we talk about stuff, kind of assuming that is our rhythm for our people. So even just that doubling number could be two weeks worth of people who showed up one once a month, or it could be completely new people. Because we utilize Vimeo, we don’t have all the analytics of, you know, people who are in our database and who are not.

Michael Summers: But we’re just kind of assuming there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people that we’re engaging with on Sundays that we wouldn’t typically have. And so how are we trying to, one, engage them with that Sunday experience, but also give them points to chat with a pastor. To, you know, fill out an online connect card. Because there are still ways to connect to our ministries, even in this season, and that’s what all of our pastors have been working on. They’re going, okay, all my events have been canceled, all of my Bible studies have been canceled, but how do we recreate things online? How are we utilizing Zoom? How are we utilizing online resources for people to make sure that our people are continuing to be disciples, continuing to grow in their faith, continuing to serve even? We’ve got a COVID response page that people can go to if they need assistance if they’ve lost the job and they need money, or help, or groceries. But then also a place for people who are looking for ways to serve during this, knowing that some of those tangible service opportunities that we have with our ministry partners that are throughout our city, they are also recreating experiences or opportunities for people to serve with them. And so we just want to keep that in front of our people.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, sounds like that’s, I mean, you guys have reacted well, and kind of scratched everything that you’re going to do. Now, you have a new opportunity, it seems like that’s probably a strength of you guys because you guys are super creative, you’re smart, you go after it, and you figure things out. Is that kind of the strength of what you guys are doing now, is just being able to react and make adjustments and changes.

Michael Summers: Yeah, so I think that is definitely a strength of ours, we’ve got a team of people who are just innovative thinkers. And so at no point have I felt anyone on our team going, oh, I can’t do what I was used to doing. And it’s been like, okay, here’s our reality, what do we need to do to keep our people engaged, and what do we need to do to try to reach out to them? We do annual phone calls to every person in our database, we split that up across our pastoral staff, and that just happened to follow during this season. Like, we didn’t plan to do it during COVID, but it’s been pretty amazing to see as we’re calling these thousands of people that are our partners at Austin Ridge, that just hearing from them, but then all them also hearing from us. And hearing us ask, hey, how can we be praying for you? What do you need from us? How are you growing? How are you serving? Or how are you doing in your time in the word? In prayer? It kind of means something a little bit different, and a little bit more, during this season, even though we didn’t plan for these calls to be happening.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. Wow. So what’s one area that you feel you guys need to work on? Maybe, I don’t know if I’d call it a weakness, but something that you go, yeah, we need to shore up on that. Is there thing that comes to mind?

Michael Summers: I do think, I think one of the areas that we’ve recognized that we could grow in, is the personal connection point. I do think that we naturally default towards like, let’s create resources for people to use. But how do we not only utilize those resources but, for instance, like if we’re doing a men’s Bible study in person at our campuses, you’re not only providing that resource with the Bible study. But you’re providing the resource of the table leaders, and you’re providing the resource of our men’s pastor who’s leading that study? And so what are those interpersonal leadership pieces look like on an online experience for people, or a digital experience? And so I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a weakness, but it’s something that we’re finding out as we go that we need to grow and to figure out. Like, figure out ways that people can continue to have interpersonal interaction with pastoral staff, and leadership, and our lay leaders, and everything like that. Man, our team has done a great job of figuring out that that’s a need, and adjusting and continuing.

Michael Summers: One of the most common things that we’re hearing right now is, resources for families, for life at home. Yeah. What does it look like for me to do X, Y and Z, when I’m literally at my house 24/7 with my three kids and my husband’s working there, too. And so we’re creating a life at home resource for our people. And so that’s what I think, to answer your question, I think that making sure that our resources aren’t impersonal is an area that we’re continuing to grow in.

Michael Summers: And also, I think another area is for us as a church, and as a Bible church specifically, we’ve always been stronger…Our mission statement is broken down into, we want to be a place that pursues people so that they can come to know Jesus, grow in their faith, and serve. And so, we’ve always been really strong at the grow. Bible churches typically navigate towards grow of like knowledge, and growing in their faith. And then the serve aspect, our team has done a really good job of creating local and global service opportunities for our people. The know, has always been one that’s kind of like we’re here, we obviously want people to know the Lord. But we aren’t necessarily a super heavy like, seeker church, if you will. And so our staff team is constantly reminded by our leadership of like, don’t forget about people who are disengaged with the church during this time. Like, how are we trying to reach people, not just the people who are already within our fold, but people who are maybe asking questions about faith, and about God, that they never would have asked before, but they’re asking you right now. How are we engaging with them? And how are we equipping our people to engage with them, their family members, friends, neighbors that they’re talking to in their driveways at night? How are we equipping our people to have conversations about the cross, and about the gospel, that would have never had an opportunity to be talked about in, quote, normal circumstances?

Right. Right. And we happen to be doing this podcast during Easter week. I think you said this a little bit earlier, some. churches that get big like you guys, can tend to lean more on, we want to provide resources. But we know that it’s relationship that carries people, that people need, that’s what God created us to be in relationship. In the absence of relationship, you can have substance, but it’s not going to go from here to here. And I think as your church in particular, making those phone calls, and having those connections, literally talking to people is critically important. So, yeah, I totally understand what you’re saying. And what’s really, we said this earlier, is really interesting is in this time where we have to keep social distance, we can’t be around people. People are going, I miss my friends. Like, they they crave that, even though they don’t really realize that’s what they do, you know. And so I think technology can take is only so far, but you want to be with people. And so I think the church, like you guys have a huge opportunity to kind of pour into that.

Michael Summers: Yeah.

Jason Hamrock: So last question. What do you think is going to be one of the biggest challenges for the church, or maybe even your church, like in the next several years or just this next stretch?  Does anything come to mind, like what’s going to be something of a hurdle or a challenge?

Michael Summers: Yeah, I do. I definitely think that the church as a whole is going to have to navigate people who don’t necessarily hate church online, or don’t necessarily long to go back to church, to really stress the importance of community in person as the church, and to serve in person, to grow in person. And so I think that’ll be a challenge to be able to, not convince, but shepherd them to understand that God’s calling for the church can be done in a digital, you know, obviously, like the church can grow and evolve as time goes on, and there are aspects of the church even now that never existed 100 years ago, because they didn’t have the technology that we have. But helping people to understand, like the biblical call of that balance, of what can and can’t be accomplished for a growing disciple of Jesus digitally and in person.

Michael Summers: So I do think that that will be a challenge, because I think some people could get pretty comfortable in the rhythms that they’re establishing right now when it comes to church. There’s something really nice about being able to like how we’re setting it up, like, my wife and I get to kind of let our day determine when we do church, because it’s accessible after eight a.m. So if we want to watch at nine a.m. when have a cup of coffee and our son is playing or, we want to wait until he goes down for a nap to watch it in peace. You know, there’s opportunity for us to kind of make that call, that you don’t have when you have service times. You’ve got to get up, get your kids ready, and go. And so there is a flexibility that people have right now with the digital online experience. And I don’t want to make it seem like digital church as a whole is is a bad thing, it’s just not us. And so specifically for our church, when we move back to having church at our campuses, I know that our leadership’s desire is going to be to shepherd people to come back together in person. Though, how we do that could be, I could see us running into to some friction from people were like, you know, I’ve kind of loved what we’ve had over the past…Obviously, it’s a really bad situation that caused it, but I’m kind of loving what church has become for my family on Sundays. And so shepherding them through that, I think, could be a challenge in the in the months and years to come.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, I think you’re on to something there. And it’s going to be interesting how that funnel, I guess you can call it a funnel, from an online experience to an in-person experience. How does that evolve, and how do you actually move people to that spot? Not necessarily saying, we only watch you in person, because there is kind of a balance between the two, you know?

Michael Summers: Yeah,

Jason Hamrock: But what’s cool about it is, if they only came once, they only engaged once a month. What do they engage once or twice a month in person, and the other two times online? So there’s lots of different ways to look at it. But it is going to be interesting to see how that all plays out for you guys, and for other guys.

Michael Summers: Yeah. And I think it all comes down fundamentally to like a consumer mindset, right, so I think we faced a similar struggle when podcasts became a thing. You started seeing, that, I think, was a birth of a lot of these. And I don’t mean this in detrimental sense to them, but in my generation at least, that was kind of the real thrust of celebrity pastors. And like I remember when I was in college, I was involved in a local church, but I also listened to Matt Chandler’s podcast from The Village. And so, I remember I was listening to a podcast of his sermon one week, and he had a point that was like, hey, I love that you’ve chosen to use this resource, I don’t want you to let this podcast be your church, because you’re not living the biblical church by listening to a podcast.

Michael Summers: And I think in a similar sense, people could make church digital replace the in-person church experience. And not because digital is bad, but because there are some, you know, requirements, if you will, from the Lord as far as what the church is supposed to be. So if I’m watching the church online every week, and I’m not a community, I’m not growing. I might be growing, but I’m not living in accountability and community. I’m probably not giving, maybe I am. I’m probably not serving anywhere. So there’s these aspects of like a discipling disciple that aren’t really lived out in the digital experience, at least in our context. I know that some churches really focus on like, okay, how do how do we recreate those experiences for you right now? How are we pushing people who are doing online church to give, to serve, to find community and accountability, those kinds of things. But for our context specifically, we don’t have those aspects in the digital experience. And so I do think a lot of it comes back around to, how do we fight against this mentality of like church is for me, versus I am a part of the church for the world, for the sake of the gospel.

Jason Hamrock: Right. Yep, well said, well said. Well, hey, thank you so much for joining us, Michael. I appreciate your time, and your insight and thoughts on how we can get better as a church. I appreciate it. Thanks, bud.

Michael Summers: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you.

Jason Hamrock: I’ll talk to you soon.

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