We’re getting close to the end of the H2O Network Summer Intensive. And I’m happy to say that I’ve learned a lot this summer. Of course, we designed the program to be educational. We created space to listen and respond to God’s voice in my life (the general theme for the Summer Intensive). We confronted the evils of Racism (through a book discussion coordinated with those of us from Kent who went through the program together).
But I’ve also learned much from the processes and particularities by which this initiative was brought to life.
The Summer Intensive was an improvised solution to the pandemic. We lost Spring Break missions trips. Local church ministry opportunities in the Spring Semester evaporated. We lost our summer Leadership Training projects. So this Summer Intensive helped to redeem and reclaim some strategic ministry opportunities. In spite of — and even through — the dynamics forced upon us by COVID-19. We decided to use broadcasting platforms and video conference platforms to connect students from our churches across the region. They were all home for the summer — yet still available (and even eager) for virtual gatherings. And this created the perfect conditions for learning about ministry in the electronic environment.
As we’ve approached the end of the Summer Intensive, I’ve been thinking more deeply about questions like:
- What elements of electronic interaction work well?
- What elements are more challenging?
- How do students and staff operate in these environments?
- How can we maximize ministry effectiveness under these conditions?
There’s still no end to the pandemic in sight. Consequently, I want us to observe and apply lessons from an experimental analysis of the summer. To help provide some context for our summer “laboratory,” the H2O Network Summer Intensive included three primary components:
- Thursday Night Main Sessions, with music and teaching provided by one of the churches from the H2O Network. Some churches recorded their session ahead of time. Others produced their content live. Either way, the network posted a synchronized broadcast over YouTube at the appointed time each week. Sessions started with 45-60 minutes of one-way broadcast. Then individual churches hosted interactive video conferences to process some discussion questions. H2O Kent held its discussion groups on Zoom. We started with some brief banter at the whole-group level (about 25 participants). And then we split into randomly-generated discussion groups of 5-8 people.
- Sunday Night Workshops, with instruction provided by various staff from across the H2O Network. These sessions were hosted on Zoom. Each facilitator received the log-in credentials for an account with one of the oldest and largest churches in our network. Facilitators were instructed to prepare 45-60 minutes of content plus 30-45 minutes of interaction. (Though I will say there was quite a bit of variance in the way that different staffers approached their workshops). Participants could choose from five or six different workshops every week. And topics ranged from Prayer, to Listening Skills, to Racial Justice, to Dating. Groups size included some sessions with three or four participants and some with 20 or 30 participants.
- Tuesday Night Life Groups with H2O Kent People. We centered our discussion around a group reading plan. Each week we worked through one or two chapters from The Color of Compromise, by Jemar Tisby. These sessions were hosted on the H2O Kent Zoom account. We started with whole-group interaction (about 25 participants). And then we split into small groups for discussion, led by student-leaders, with the same three to five group members each week.
I’ve been talking with our staff and students from the Summer Intensive. From these conversations, I can say that almost everyone would list interaction as the most important element of online ministry. More than content. Or aesthetics. Or even video quality or audio quality. The overwhelming consensus is that people come into our online spaces for community.
Thursday Night Main Sessions were the most poorly-attended portions of the Summer Intensive. We usually had about 60% to 75% of the group from H2O Kent on any given Thursday. And there’s some reason to believe that attendance would have been even lower if we didn’t have Discussion Groups immediately following the sessions. Musical worship online felt uncomfortable. Teachers aimed to shorten their messages to 25 minutes or less, and even then they felt long. It’s just a lot to expect, with students isolated — each in their own bedrooms, listening on headphones plugged into laptops — staying in a passive posture for long stretches of time.
Conversely, Tuesday Night Life Groups were the most well-attended portions of the Summer Intensive. We usually had 80% to 90% of the group from H2O Kent on any given Tuesday. People also seemed to talk about our Tuesday night conversations the most: in group text conversations, on their social media, in conversation with others. They liked connecting with the other people from their group, even if they didn’t know each other very well at the beginning of the summer. We talked about some pretty spicy stuff: “The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.” We came into the conversation with some pretty widely-divergent views and experiences. Still, we became closer friends as the summer continued.
On a more technical level, we learned that some sort of Technical Director is a really valuable leadership role in our online group interactions. For most of the summer, a student-leader named Emily took it upon herself to host the Zoom meetings, slot people into Breakout Rooms, and help troubleshoot any issues experienced by any of the participants. She did this while other leaders did the work of building community and framing our discussions. She was pretty competent from the very beginning, but she got better as the summer continued — and the rest of us got better at keeping the group engaged while Emily’s behind-the-scenes action took place.
We also learned that it was helpful to copy the link for our regular Zoom interactions into recurring events on our electronic calendars and directly into our group text interactions, right before the appointed times. In general, we just needed to Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. Communication has been a cornerstone of collegiate ministry for years, but it’s even more important in electronic environments. People want to learn. They want to be connected. But they need help to find those spaces for learning and connection.
These are a few of the ways we’ve been learning from our summer experiences. It’s still not ideal, but it’s surprisingly workable. It gives me hope for the coming months. And the coming generations.