Leveraging Technology to Get the Most Out of Your Ministry – Interview with Tim Lemons

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Tim Lemons of Highlands Fellowship shares his church experience to leverage various forms of technology for more effective ministry and church growth

Podcast Transcription


Jason Hamrock: Today, I talked with Tim Lemons from Highland Fellowship Church in the Virginia area. This is a five campus church with an online campus that absolutely is not afraid to try new things. I love these guys because they’re extremely creative and they’re all about reaching more people. Well, Tim serves as the system’s pastor, overseeing many areas, including the Website and their church management system called Rock. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

Jason Hamrock: Hey, Tim, thanks so much for joining us today. Glad to have you, man.

Tim Lemons: Thanks for inviting me. Glad to be here.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. So the you guys are doing some really cool things. You’re already in person.

Tim Lemons: We are, we started I believe it is May 31st, so at the time of this recording it’s been about three weeks.

Jason Hamrock: What have you learned?

Tim Lemons: Well, people don’t want to come back. So oK, so funny story.  My grandfather, this isn’t a funny story this part of it, my grandfather passed away a month ago. And I was over my grandmother’s house, you know, just hanging out with family and someone calls from the church and it’s this an older lady. I mean, she’s like probably one of the oldest ladies in our church. Right? And she calls my grandma and she says, hey, how are you doing? So they talk just a minute about that. And then the very next thing out of this woman’s mouth is, hey, did you hear we get to come back to church this weekend?

Tim Lemons: And I’m thinking, wow, so here’s an older lady, right, who is high risk. And first, you know, second thing out of her mouth on a conversation with my grandma is, hey, we get to come back to church this weekend. And I’m thinking, man, maybe we’ll be the exception and people will actually flock back to church. Because from the churches I’ve talked to, it’s definitely been a lower attendance. So I’m thinking, well okay, maybe we’ll be a little different because we’re in the south, you know, Virginia-Tennessee border, churches everywhere. Everybody is talking about church and how important it is, and people got mad at us for canceling church, you know, all this crazy stuff. So I thought, all right, well, maybe all these people will come and we’ll actually have whole, we’ll meet our max capacity.

Tim Lemons: So our largest campus in Abington, Virginia, we set the max capacity at two hundred and twenty, I think is what we set for one venue. We have two venues at that location. And sure enough by Saturday night it was at max registration’s, 220 people said they were coming. But then that Sunday morning, we only had about 80 percent of those people show up. So we weren’t at max capacity at any of our campuses, that was our highest capacity. And then the next week, we had not quite that many people register, and even less people attending. And then the next week, a little less people attend.

Tim Lemons: So I spent a long time in Rock creating this awesome reserve your seat ticket Website thing, and we’re using like a wallet pass, so it’s really cool. When you walk into the building, it pops up and says, hey there Tim, welcome home. And you can scan your little pass and, you know, we created this awesome experience. And we’re probably go to can it when we start July, because nobody’s registering, and we’re not being at max capacity by any means.

Jason Hamrock: So do you think, would you recommend that churches not do an RSVP?

Tim Lemons: Yep. Based on what I’ve experienced in our church, and then again, I’m part of the Rock community, Rock RMS. If you guys don’t know about that, check it out, but it’s a big community using software. And most of the churches that I’ve seen in there, small and extremely large like Life Church, started out doing reserve your seats, and they two or three weeks in canned it. So I think I would recommend not doing the reserve seat you seat. And maybe just have a plan of, you know, tracking how many people come into the building, once you hit that max capacity, politely say, I’m sorry but you can’t come in and do the restrictions. But I’ll be honest, I’ll be surprised if you reach the max capacity. Unless you have to set it really, really low compared to your regular attendance.

Jason Hamrock: What I imagine after a few weeks you get an idea, right, of the people that come back versus staying at home.

Tim Lemons: Yes. Yes. Yeah. Our attendance online has definitely skyrocketed during this time. We’ve been doing on online campus, I think, for almost 10 years, probably like eight or nine years. So we’ve always done church online for quite a long time, so it wasn’t anything new for us. And our people were used to if they’re traveling or whatever, they would still, they would check us out online. So our online campus definitely grew as far as views and attendance online. But, yeah, I think most people are just fearful, you know, honestly, to to come back. Even though, I mean, we’ve tried to communicate what precautions we’re taking. You know, so many people in the building, and we’re saving seats to where there’s space between every family, and we’re cleaning like crazy. But, you know, people are fearful.

Tim Lemons: And then I heard, you know, [inaudible] talking at the Thrive conference, was this week. And he was talking about why would a family get up in the morning if they got kids, they’ve got to get all their kids together, they come to church, and then maybe they serve a service and they attend the services as kind of a typical thing. So by the time Sunday is over, you know, four or five hours in, they’ve got a big investment versus wake up, sit in your pajamas, watch church and you’re forty five minutes to an hour and you’re done. So I think it’s, sadly, I think it’s going to be awhile before we get back to a normal thing. In fact, I don’t know that normal will ever be the old normal.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, I kind of hear the same thing, right, talking to a lot of churches. There’s this sense of, you know, this disease in about two weeks caused every church to pivot 180. Churches have done, I think they’ve done a decent job of reacting to that. Some, like you guys, are way further down the path than others when it comes to online. But what’s going to be interesting is coming out of this, whenever that is, and like you said, this new normal. What’s that going to do for online church versus in-person church? And what kind of resources will get applied to online church? Because right now, the way you well, the way you were doing church is you’d actually put together…You produce the show, so to speak. With online church is that going to be, is that can be different? Have you guys thought through about what does this look like as we as we get deeper into in-person and managing both?

Tim Lemons: I was literally just two hours ago talking to my supervisor about this. And we were talking, you know, tech wise our tech staff and worship staff, they have been able to pivot and spend, you know, these past few months really upping the quality of production on the online campus. Right? So we were able to pre-record, and spend time in studio like tweaking and making it sound better. And instead of doing like a full blown band and huge lights and the show, we kind of did a little more acoustic feel. So we’ve done all these things, but now we’re coming back to meeting in person, and we’re like,okay, we can’t keep up doing what we were doing at that quality and we can come back and meet in person. And we actually just hired somebody full time, and they’re a full time Sunday morning person. And I was talking to my supervisor and I was like, man, we really need to hire someone that has nothing to do with Sunday morning. Because that’s going to be less of a priority, I think, moving forward for most churches.

Tim Lemons: And then she was telling me they were talking and the lead team about how, you know, you have coronavirus happen and you have fear and everybody staying indoors and secluded in isolation. And then you have the riots going on, and it’s like the complete opposite, and they come out in droves because they’re passionate about it. Right? So the question presented was, well, if they’re not coming back to church, is it because they’re not passionate about church? Or better yet, are we giving them something to be passionate about? So she and I were just talking, just the two of us saying, you know, we’ve kind of got to figure out first off, you know, are we passionate as leaders? Right? Or have we been stuck in a rut or maybe on autopilot, I get on autopilot a lot, of just keep doing what you’re doing, right, and maintaining it.

Tim Lemons: So we were talking about like, what do people want? People want to be loved, they want to be in community, they want to be needed. Right? And for me, for her, for anybody around these offices, I can tell you their story. And probably for you, everyone’s story is they got involved and they were needed, and serving is what usually makes people stick around. So I think what we’re going to try to pivot towards is more, definitely more intense community somehow. We don’t know the answers, you know, we’re just kind of talking. But we’ve got to get better at community on Sunday morning if we’re gonna keep doing Sunday morning, right? Like we’ve got to get better at community during the week is really the bigger thing. Right? But since we’ve already came back to doing Sunday morning, we got to makes Sunday morning different somehow. And for us, I think we’re saying the difference is we’ve got to do a better impact, or a better job, on getting our people serving. And a better job of actually building community vs. coming in, grabbing your coffee, your doughnuts, sitting in and watching a service, and getting up and leaving. Because why on earth would anybody do that if they can do that in their pajamas with their own coffee and their own food? And, you know, it’s so much easier.

Jason Hamrock: You’re right. And even after there is a vaccination, and there’s a cure to this thing, and COVID-19 is sort of behind us, in a sense. It’s still going to, people are going to be used to doing this online. And it’s going to be a little. I think it’s going to be a little bit of a struggle for churches. Like you said, to have that craving. What is that craving, what is it that they need? That’s going to just cause them to desire to come and be a part of it. You’re going to have your base, but you think about unchurched people, that’s a whole nother world.

Tim Lemons: Yes it is.

Jason Hamrock: I do think that COVID has created a opportunity for like, you know, to just to reach anybody and everybody. Way further than your own campus could reach people, you know, because now you can reach anybody online. But that engagement part that, that sense of belonging to community, that sense of I feel like I’m accomplishing something, I want to be a part of a movement. That’s dead on it. How do you do that with an online community and an in-person community, its new challenges, huh?

Tim Lemons: It is for sure. And we were able, like our local FOX affiliate hit us up and said, hey, would you guys, we have a slot at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning, do you guys want to be on that? So we’re like, well, yeah, why not? So that’s a whole other audience, and measuring engagement on TV is, it’s impossible to do it. You know, we’re asking people to text Jesus to a number, and we’re getting some of those, but we don’t know how many people are watching this. But we do hear, like our senior pastor was out in a town that’s like 40 minutes away the other day. And people were stopping him and saying, hey, I saw you on Fox, and you’re you’re the pastor of that church, and so people are watching this, we are reaching new people, which is really awesome. But at the same time, there’s no community in that. Like there’s, you know, unless they connect with us, or they text Jesus to us, we have no idea who they are. So it’s a whole other set of problems and questions I guess.

Jason Hamrock: It is. And I think the church, you know, we’ve got a lot of smart people leading the church right there. There’s a lot of smart people. So, you know, God’s got this. He’ll lead us down a path, the right path, you know, it’s just a matter of listening to him and what he wants us to do. So specifically with what you do, which you get to oversee, you know, Rock inside of your church. And as you said earlier, for those who don’t know, Rock RMS is a great church management platform. A phenomenal platform. And you guys are really diving deep into Rock. What are some things that you’re doing inside of Rock that cause that connection to occur? You know, because this is kind of Rock, how do you reach unchurched people and all that kind of stuff is what we do. But how do you use Rock to bridge that gap, and disciple people, and move them forward?

Tim Lemons: Well, so Rock is just like, I almost cringe at saying it, because it’s not just like, but it is in a sense just like any other relationship management system. That’s what RMS stands for, or customer relationship. And if you don’t work it, then it doesn’t work. So the one we came from before, which I won’t say, but it was horrible. I mean, like, horrible. And so nobody wanted to use it, right? Nobody did use it. We were paying, and really, it was just like a Rolodex, and our giving was about the only thing in there, and checking in kids. And so when we switched we had to fight that, you know, this is just another software that no one’s gonna use. But the cool thing about Rock, is it’s an open source thing, it’s completely ministry minded. They’re run by ministry people. It’s donation based, I mean, if that doesn’t speak to you.

Jason Hamrock: Oh, yeah.

Tim Lemons: That’s something completely different. So to be kingdom minded, it’s like if you don’t wanna pay me anything, okay. I mean, that’s kingdom minded generosity at its best. But with Rock it’s open source, there’s a huge community of churches. Like I mean I’m looking at my secondary screen right here, I’ve got Rocket chat open with the whole community. I can ask questions in here, and get answers faster than I do with any paid customer service I’ve ever had in my life. So it’s a great community, and so I think the best thing about Rock is the community. Like, I get to see what other churches are doing, I get to share what I do, and it’s so adaptable. So if I come up with some idea, then they can take it. Like this whole ticketing thing, we needed to check people in, and other churches weren’t. So I kind of did a different thing than anybody else, and then I was able to share that with other people, and it’s just it’s an awesome thing.

Tim Lemons: But as far as engagement goes, it really, it has a connection. They call it a connection. And so, I mean, you can text things in if you want to do that, you can email in, you can go to the website. You can you know, there’s so many different options. And there’s just accountability built in with the connection part, where you can see how many open connections there are, and how many days it’s been since you’ve worked your connections. And so what we try and we don’t do well, I mean, it’s a tough thing, especially coming from a system that before that people didn’t want to use. So we’re still struggling through holding people accountable, because it’s tough in church life. Right? But we, you know, we try, we strive.

Tim Lemons: So again, with Rock though, it’s open source, there’s so many plug ins, like the sky’s the limit. Like with our previous thing, we used to say, like, if someone was like, hey, can you do this with that? No, but with Rock it’s like, yeah, I can do that. How much time do you got, and how much money do you have, you know. Because we can do it, Rock will do anything almost. So just for example, when we first started on Rock, it was like, you know, there’s no good way to take attendance for adults, for big churches. People walk in the building, everybody don’t fill out cards, you can’t count everybody. You can do a headcount, but you have no idea who they are. So there’s a company that created a plug in, and now when someone comes in and connects to our Wi-Fi, we ask for their first name and their email address. And so now we know when they walk into the building, that they were in the building, and Rock helps us do that. I mean, that’s like next level stuff that, you know, big brands have. And finally, it’s in the church’s hands, and we’re using it for good instead of evil.

Jason Hamrock: Right. Right, right.

Tim Lemons: Does that answer the question?

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. You guys, it seems like you guys are, you know, Rock is such a powerful platform. And it’s got huge potential not just to keep track of donations, and check kids in, and all that kind of stuff. I get really excited about the discipleshipness of it. I get excited about when when people walk in and they they sort of self identify, and they raise their hand for the first time. You can watch their progress as they join a small group, as they start to serve, or they give, or they become baptized. You know, they give their life to Christ and come baptized. I mean, all these metrics, what a fascinating thing. And really have a path, right, a funnel. Funnels are a weird, usually funnels are around…

Tim Lemons: Marketing.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, marketing and big boxes trying to get your money. When what we are trying to do is.

Tim Lemons: We just want your soul.

Jason Hamrock: So it’s a different kind of funnel, but yet, churches still have to realize that’s what it takes. And so as you generate more Website traffic, getting those people that go to your Website to actually attend or take that next step, Rock can play a big part in that.

Tim Lemons: Yeah, it’s incredible. I mean, if you don’t know, go to RockRMS.com and just there’s a demo site that you can get to from there and play in it. Just I mean, if you go to a person’s profile page, so every person in your database has their own, like, profile page. Right? And you can see so much at just a glance, like you can see their average attendance for the last twelve months, actually, twenty four months. And that’s based on like checking in kids, or if you’re doing the Wi-Fi thing, you can do some things to tweak that and get that to work. But again, there’s so many options, you can see when they were baptized, when they accepted Christ. We ask people when they fill out cards, their T-shirt size, so we know their T-shirt size for a lot of people. And that helps us when we order shirts, and we’re give a shirt to a volunteer, we already know their size. I mean, anything you want to measure, you can measure.

Tim Lemons: And then recently, another great thing about Rock, is they are constantly evolving in like cutting edge innovation. And so they’re always updating, in the most recent update we have now things called steps. And so it really makes it so, you can do it before, but it’s so much easier now. Just to say, okay, Tim accepted Christ on this day, so his next step is to be baptized. And then after he does that, then maybe it’s join a small group, or start giving, or start serving. And you can lay out all these steps in a clear, systematic way and really measure that engagement. And then you can you can create data views and reports. And you can be like, well, you know, 20 percent of our church gives, and 50 percent of our church actually serve and are, you know, volunteering, and attendance is this of your people. You know, it’s awesome. Really.

Jason Hamrock: It is, and really, from the standpoint of church growth, or reaching younger people. Because one of my questions is, what are you guys doing to go after younger, you know, growing younger. You can use this data to really tell your leadership, either, A, we are, or B, we’re not. And here’s the things that we need to be doing to focus on reaching younger families. Are you finding some success in that when it comes to using Rock?

Tim Lemons: Oh, man, you know, we were always tweaking and doing new things. And of course, we want to grow young. One of our campuses, like the original campus, is growing older and not growing younger quite as much. But that reflects the community we’re in, we’re like one of the top retirement towns in the country or something crazy. So it kind of makes sense that we are a little bit older, but some of our other campuses, one of our campuses, we have a campus in Bluefield, Virginia, and it’s really young. And the leader there is young, you know, he’s 20 something. So, yeah, I mean, definitely we look at our demographics, and we we measure those things. And of course, we want to reach the next generation. And it’s always, I love A.D. Stanley said, you can either fight it, or you can support or fund it. Right. As an older person, you can either fight what the younger generation is doing, or you can choose to fund it and get out of the way and let them do what they want to do to reach their people. Right?

Tim Lemons: So, I mean it’s always, it’s a struggle to reach younger people. But I mean, you know, I have always been like, I’m a beta user of everything. Right? Like when Evernote first came out, I was one of the first Evernote users to sign up. I was one of the first people on Twitter, like I think I was still, I don’t know what it was, but I was up there in numbers. Right? So I’m always like trying new things. But I think the younger people, you know, they love technology, they love new things. And when we did the Mine Pass, it’s a plug in called the Mine Pass. But again, it’s just essentially your thing on your wallet. I mean, that’s that’s awesome, right, if I go to the Web site and I register to say I’m going to plan a visit to your church. And we can send them this and say, hey, this is going to make check in easier for you. And I don’t know, it’s just does, it does help. You know?

Jason Hamrock: I think you’re tailoring to a younger family, because that’s what they’re used to experiencing, right? And just even millennials that don’t have kids, they’re just used to that technology.  And so you guys, I mean, that’s a huge step forward that you may not realize, that your churches decided to go there so that it’s comfortable for people that are unchurched, that are younger. Whereas other churches aren’t doing that, and so it’s almost like there isn’t a fit. Right? But because you’ve done that from a technology standpoint, people are, they’re okay with it. They’ll self-identify, they’ll raise their hand digitally speaking, and they’re okay with that. Right? And so you’re seeing some success with that, which is really great.

Tim Lemons: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Jason Hamrock: That’s to me, that’s how you’re using technology to advance your church, and grow your church younger.

Tim Lemons: Yeah that, and hiring this company called Missional Marketing that do some good work.

Jason Hamrock: We try. And we love working with you guys, I mean, that’s our heart and passion is always, as you know, it’s just we want to go after people that are far from God that are either looking for a church, or they’re looking for help with a felt need. And getting more Website traffic, getting them to your site so they can learn about you and engage, and start that process. And that could take one week or could take a year, we don’t know, but that’s up to God. We’ve planted the seeds, and he’s moving them. But it’s fun to work with…You guys are just progressive and forward thinking in that space.

Tim Lemons: Yeah. I mean, we started twenty five years ago, this Easter would have been 25 years. And we were, and again southwest Virginia. Right? Little small churches, pews, one [inaudible]. I mean, you know, not with anything’s wrong with that. I’m not trashing that, that’s why I grew up, that’s what changed my life. But we’ve always been a catalyst in our area, I guess, of change. And so, thankfully, we don’t have to fight changing too much. I mean, of course, we have our blind spots right now, and we’ve been stuck in a few ways for a few years in certain things. But we’re not afraid to change.

Tim Lemons: I mean, just to give an example, we had a campus in Johnson City. And Johnson City is like a much younger crowd, different feel than where we’re at, but it’s only forty five minutes away. And that campus just wasn’t growing like it should, it has the most potential as far as growth and population. And so we changed the name of the campus to New Collective Church, and so it’s really it’s own church. It’s still under our umbrella, you know, but they’re doing their own thing. And that was a risk to take a campus and try something like that, but I’m thankful we did. And it’s a younger congregation, and the guy there is really a passionate speaker, and attracting new people. And we’ve seen, I think that march would have been a year since we did that, I can’t give you the exact number, but it is well above 50 salvations, I want to say close to one hundred. So, yeah, so we’re not afraid to try different things and change, which is good.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. Yeah. Well okay, so kind of winding this down. When you look at the future, and looking at church growth, and looking at actually probably speaking into Rock in this. What do you think’s gonna be one of the biggest challenges for you guys over the next decade?

Tim Lemons: Next decade. I don’t know. I think I’ve gone back and forth on different answers to that, I think in the past few years. But I’m thinking of a TED talk that I heard Rick Warren do. And he talked about, he said…I actually just quoted it to my supervisor a while ago, but it said something like, don’t try to be, like, “in”. As far as like, “in style”, because if you do, eventually you’ll be out of style. And he said instead, focus on what needs to change, but just as much as you focus on what needs to change, focus on what doesn’t need to change. And so I think over the next 10 years, again, if you go back to what do people need? They need to belong, they need to feel loved,they need to feel like they have a meaning. So I think one thing I can say won’t change in the next 10 years, is we’re still going to passionately go after people to tell them that there’s a God that loves them, and try to get them involved in changing their world, and giving them a purpose to live. Like Jesus didn’t come to die, and come and die, just so we can go to Heaven, but to give us an abundant life. People are missing out on that, so those are the things that I know won’t change.

Tim Lemons: But to predict the next 10 years, I don’t know. I mean, I definitely see technology more and more being involved.  Churches who are like afraid of technology, need to really just get over that and embrace it because it’s not going away. And, you know, unless we have like some apocalyptic shut down on electricity. Right? It’s just going to keep going from here, I think. And you know like, Rock, I mean not to keep plugging Rock, but, man, I mean Rock is truly amazing. It’s one of the best decisions we have made as a church in a couple of years, probably, because it’s had that much of an impact in our church.

Tim Lemons: But one of the Rock conferences, there’s a guy talking and he shares the story of Target, right, like Target knew that this daughter was pregnant. And so they send a mailing to the house and the dad gets it, and it’s like for baby formula or something. Right? And he’s like, baby formula, why are we getting ads for baby formula. So the dad did know that his daughter was pregnant, but Target did, because of shopping experience. And like knowing that that household was looking at baby stuff, or looking at certain sites, and all these kind of things. Those are the things that like big businesses are doing, and they’re using it to make money. Right?

Tim Lemons: But like some of the stuff the Gloo, that’s a company in partnering with Rock, is using those things instead to predict, you know, if a household is doing this and this and this and this, then probably in the next three months, they’re going to end in divorce. So what if you got ahead of that and was able to stop that, and you could reach them maybe with marketing of ads for saving your marriage. Or the same thing through that, you could predict that they’re going to go bankrupt. Well, what if you caught that six months ahead of time, and provided financial counselling. So don’t be afraid of that stuff, I guess, is what I would say to church leadership. Because it’s there, it’s being used, so let’s redeem it. All right, Jesus is a redeemer, so let’s redeem that technology for His good.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. And what I always tell churches is, half the battle is content, the church already has that. We preach about it, we’ve built ministry around it, we have a Bible that has answers. Content isn’t the problem, it’s structuring it properly so that when Google crawls it, Google sees it, finds it, and allows users to see it as well. Either through an ad grant program, or just organically. Right? And the church that understands that is going to be the one that continues to grow and advance. The one that doesn’t, it’s just a matter of time.

Tim Lemons: Yeah, yep, it’s true.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, cool. Well, man, I appreciate you. I love your heart for ministry, and your giftedness for understanding technology, and especially Rock. But, you know, just using your talents and gifts that God gave you to advance His kingdom and grow His church. So thank you, man.

Tim Lemons: My pleasure. Absolutely.

All right, good to talk with you.

Tim Lemons: You too.

Jason Hamrock: All right, bye bye.

Jason Hamrock: Well, thanks again, Tim. We learned a few things about reentry into in-person church, and that using technology to help grow your church is a must. Tim talked about Website content, and making sure the Website can be found in Google. Well, we offer this content to churches, we have already built great landing page content that focuses on what people are searching for online. If you want to learn more about this, just ask, we’d be happy to explain this in more detail. Until next time.

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