Posted: 5/14/20 at 7:00am. Written by Scott Anderson.
Will students be interested in meeting online? What if our students become disengaged? What will this do to our ministry?
These are some of the questions that raced through my mind as we began to realize that college ministry would no longer be an in-person activity for the foreseeable future. Our 50 newly minted student leaders had not signed up for digital Bible studies.
We can’t even get our podcast to work on our website, much less produce a digital worship service. About 200 students are under our care; how will we care for them when we can’t see them? Questions and uncertainties abounded as we began to realize the realities of COVID-19.
Amidst these concerns, we got back to basics: we prayed for God’s guidance and started calling people. We touched base to hear about ruined plans, fears, loneliness, and frustration. We listened, counseled, and offered our friendship. We quickly realized that though we could not gather, our roles as ministers had not changed in the sense that we needed to be spiritual guides in what feels a lot like exile to many of these college students. We needed to help foster community. So, with many questions on our minds, we stepped into the world of digital worship services and Bible studies.
I won’t bore you with the details of setting up for a digital worship service, but suffice it to say that it takes a village (a very small village, with less than 10 people, of course). We moved our stage backdrop to about 10 feet in front of our sound booth, and some alumni helped set up lights, sound, and a camera. Instead of using YouTube or Facebook Live, we decided to host our service over Zoom to allow for interaction amongst the students and for breakout room options. We planned a simple service of musical worship, a short teaching, and breakout questions for students to answer in smaller groups, and we prayed for minimal technical difficulties.
It’s eerie showing up for a worship service where only six people are present. There is no buzz in the air, no atmosphere, just some laughter and a little nervousness that this will all work out. We set up our computers and waited. As the time grew near, students began to log in, and chatter filled the virtual room. Our hearts were warmed to see over 90 students excitedly connecting over Zoom, filling the otherwise darkened building with the sound of excited voices. There was something wildly purposeful about these faces on a screen; spirits were being uplifted, burdens were being borne, and we were being reminded of the power and transcendence of the gospel that is untouched and unaffected by COVID-19. It was a light in what felt like ever-increasing darkness.
We also took up this format for our Bible studies. Before COVID-19 reared its head, 44 student leaders had agreed to lead small groups; now they would be doing so over Zoom. Much to our joy, our students were up for the challenge, and we worked together to consider what it might look like to create biblical community over the internet. As it turns out, students are creative: they host joint online games, watch movies together online, do show-and-tell over Zoom, and much more. To our surprise, we have had at least 100 students participate in Bible study for each of these past six weeks. We are amazed at what the Lord has done!
We also had to be creative in some of our other outlets of ministry. We were primed to host “Engaged Couples Weekend” this April. This weekend, aimed at premarital counseling, typically involves a warm, friendly gathering at Darrell Cook’s house with food, fellowship, coffee, and teaching sessions for marital preparation. Instead, led by Darrell, we recorded the teaching sessions beforehand and hosted a follow-up discussion over the course of a Friday night and Saturday morning for the nine couples involved.
Now this is not to say that everything has gone perfectly. We have had times when technical difficulties didn’t resolve until moments before the service. We have had tons of audio problems and more awkward moments than I care to remember. One week during our worship service, a group of people joined in unexpectedly with the intent of being disruptive. We very quickly had to create a new meeting and distribute the link in a secure format–talk about scrambling! But all in all, we are making the most of a bad situation, and the Lord is showing once again that he is the Redeemer who makes beauty out of ashes.
No one thinks any of this is ideal; we would, of course, much rather be hugging one another, shaking the hands of newcomers, and watching Bible study groups eat brownies and play train wreck. But for now, this is what it looks like for us to be adaptive–not because we wanted to prop up our programs–but because these students, like everyone else, need one another in order to be stirred up to love and good works. (Heb. 11:25) In the process of getting back to the basics, we’ve realized that it is easy to lose sight of the heart of ministry. At the end of the day, if we’ve offered space to connect with one another and the Lord, guided by God’s word and God’s Spirit, we have lived out our calling. May we all seek to be creative and in step with the Spirit during these hard times.
Scott Anderson is Associate Baptist Collegiate Minister at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA.