Connection & Engagement Lessons from a Fast Growing Church During the Pandemic with Julie Hawkins

Today we’re chatting with Julie Hawkins, the Next Steps Pastor at Chapel Hill Church in Washington state.

So many churches had to quickly develop an online presence at the beginning of 2020 and it made the area of helping people take their next steps more challenging. Listen in as Julie shares how Chapel Hill Church took advantage of opportunities to pioneer new methods of building deeper relationships and increasing connection and engagement, and how they are using what they’ve learned moving forward.

  • Try new things. // It can be hard for larger churches to make sudden changes. However, the early days of COVID gave Chapel Hill Church the opportunity to try new things quickly and see what worked or what needed to be changed. With these pioneering efforts came more exploration of what could be done online and this actually led to deepening of relationships and increased engagement.
  • Virtual mission trips. // One of the things the church did was organize some virtual Go teams with their global outreach partners across the world. What they discovered was doing an online mission trip allowed the church to engage a segment of their congregation that would never be able to actually visit countries like Cambodia or Thailand. Similarly, the church was able to engage with their ministry partners in a deeper way by listening to their needs over Zoom and praying for them. Chapel Hill also included cultural aspects to the online experiences, such as sharing a recipe or music from the country, or providing fair trade gift boxes.
  • Build local outreach relationships. // Similarly, with local outreach partners people at the church learned that while showing up to serve is a great opportunity to build relationship, you can continue to build that relationship outside of the actual experience. Take time to pray for various ministry partners and connect with them online.
  • Online evangelism. // Chapel Hill was surprised by how well groups like Alpha did when moved online during the pandemic. People were still willing to dig into the deep questions of life. In fact, they saw more people come to faith through their online Alpha groups via Zoom than they’d seen in person.
  • Online life groups. // During the initial phase of the pandemic, life groups were also moved online to Zoom, and more people joined those groups than ever before. Having the meetings on Zoom moving forward allows people to stay connected even when they’re out of town or unable to get together. People love these little communities that have been developed.
  • Training online. // Chapel Hill adapted much of their training to be online too, and hope to continue with this method moving forward. Online training allows people to watch the videos at their own speed when it fits into their schedule, and then build a relationship in person.
  • Connecting via text. // When it comes to connecting with people and reengaging new people, or those who haven’t returned to in-person services yet, Julie uses the tool Focus Growth. Focus Growth helps with first-time guest follow-up by reminding the staff to begin a conversation with guests via text message. Text messages are a primary way we communicate and so it allows the church staff to reach out without overwhelming new people or being too pushy. The response from guests has been overwhelmingly positive.
  • Future relationship-building projects. // Using technology to help us better care for people has many applications. Just a few that Julie has on her radar are creating a structured framework for engaging volunteers at the church, creating a system of congregational care within the large church so that people feel well cared for, and working with the leadership to make sure they are caring well for themselves and the staff.

You can learn more about Chapel Hill Church at www.chapelhillpc.org.

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Episode Transcript

Rich — Hey, friends welcome to the unSeminary podcast. So glad that you have decided to tune in today – every week we try to bring you a leader who will both inspire and equip you and I’m super excited to have Next Steps Pastor at Chapel Hill Church, Julie Hawkins, with us. This is a fantastic church you should be tracking with and I’m excited to talk to Julie and to learn from her. She’s on the people side of what we do really helping people journey through Alpha, getting them connected through life groups, serving both locally and globally – Julie, welcome to the show. So glad that you’re here today.

Julie — Yeah, thanks for having me.

Rich — Why don’t we start with you telling us about Chapel Hill – kind of fill out the picture for us, tell us a bit of the story. It’s one of the fastest growing churches in the country – tell us, you know, give us a kind of a flavor of the church and then your role.

Julie — Yeah, Chapel Hill it is not in North Carolina – people get confused about that – but it’s in Gig Harbor, Washington and it started as a chapel on a hill (clever name) and we have grown over the years. I’ve been at Chapel Hill, ah, personally for about 30 years. I grew up there so it is such a blessing to serve at the church that I grew up at.

Rich — Oh nice.

Julie — And we are a church that is really committed to being for our city and our community and also being for our our world. So that’s one of the things that I love about Chapel Hill – my role as the next steps pastor is I am there to help people take whatever their next step is in the discipleship pathway or process and so I help people connect to community through our life groups and through celebrate recovery. I help people connect to service through local and global outreach or serving at the Church. Um, and then I also help people connect to reaching others with the gospel through Alpha. Obviously I don’t do all of that on my own; I have a fantastic team that helps me with that. Ah, but I get to be kind of the point that people come to to help connect them into their next step and help connect them to the church.

Rich — Love it. Well I am really looking forward to learning from from you and from the church. I think one of the things, for longtime listeners of the show, you know I love particularly talking to church leaders who are leading in context where you would say, like, “That’s not a place that churches should grow,” and Washington is one of those places.

Julie – Yeah.

Rich — This is a tough community to reach and Chapel Hill has been one of those churches that’s just made a huge impact on its community. So I’m really got my notepad out I’m really looking forward to learning today. Particularly you know when I think about these last (we were joking about this earlier) these last eighteen months or so during Covid and on the people side – the kind of connection side. Wow, it’s been a tough season for that. Let’s talk about – remind us back to March 2020. What were some of the early impacts of Covid on Chapel Hill? What did it look like in those early days? Let’s start there.

Julie — Oh man that seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?

Rich — Doesn’t it? It’s amazing right? It’s crazy.

Julie — Ah, yeah, yeah, but it’s pretty incredible to think back ah to 2020 March 2020 We felt like we were on the cusp of a lot of things like we had seen as a season of significant growth. Our Alpha was really growing and we were seeing more people from outside of the church come to Alpha which is a really key transition when you’re running a course like that.

Rich — Love it. Yeah, totally.

Julie — And we we felt like we were just about ready to step into all of these really incredible things and then all of a sudden the world literally shut down and we had to. That word that everybody used so often in 2020, we had to pivot and then pivot and then pivot, and so it was really a strange time because there was almost a … as we looked back, it was like, “Wow, God was doing so much and then we had to pump the brakes. What in the world is going on? Why did that happen?”

Rich — Yeah, amazing. You know one of the things that I think we all experienced during that was this sense of, it was like this disorienting like, “Okay now what are we going to do?” When you look back to these last eighteen months, what were some of those things that you were able to, you know, try new to, you know, to kind of experiment with. What were some of those things that, you know, you found yourself doing things as a church that you just normally wouldn’t have done?

Julie — Yeah, so for us we didn’t have a livestream of our services before Covid…

Rich — Okay, okay, oh gosh. Oh my goodness. Yes, yes.

Julie — …and so all of a sudden it was like, hey we gotta do this, so we very quickly developed an online presence. And because we developed that online presence we started playing with, what does that look like to do it more? And I think that one of the things that I really appreciated about Chapel Hill and our leadership team and the way we approach this season is we just had the willingness to try things. At large churches it can be hard to change quickly and I think that the early days of Covid gave us the opportunity to try things quickly and say: did this work? Do we want to change it? Do we want to can it and go a completely different direction?

Rich — Mmm-hmm.

Julie — It kind of let us, you know, pioneer a little bit in ways that large, established churches don’t have the opportunity to do. And so a couple of those things, just thinking back on ah things that we did, is we did ah some virtual Go teams with our global outreach partners and what we found with that was it allowed us to engage a population of our congregation that would never be able to go to Cambodia or Thailand and they were able to engage with our global outreach partner in a way they weren’t able to before. And we did it once and then we thought well what if we did it more and had like a recipe that you cook from the country or some music that you listened to from the country so we even grew that.

Rich — Mmm-hmm.

Julie — Um we had conversations with our local outreach partners that helped people know how to pray for them and really engage intentionally with our local outreach partners, recognizing that um, showing up to serve is a great opportunity to build relationship, but you can continue to build that relationship outside of either the team that goes and visits or the team that goes to serve, so I liked that a lot.

Julie — we did a thing where we um launched a mental health Monday with our care ministries…

Rich — Oh love it.

Julie — …And our director of care would talk through things that people were dealing with especially when we were in lockdown on quarantine. What’s happening with your mental health? She even did one where she interviewed all of the kids in next steps – all of our staff’s children – and talked about what they were dealing with.

Rich — Oh wow, that’s cool. Yeah.

Julie — So we did mental health Mondays and we did A-Way-to-Serve Wednesday, engaging people in service and and they were just very like low quality, quick videos that we did. And we even give the freedom to say, “Man if you want to talk for five minutes about this, or if you want to talk about for fifty minutes about this, this is the time to try it.”

Rich — Yeah, give it a whirl.

Julie — So those are a couple things. Exactly, like, why not? I have one more thing.

Rich — I’d love to hear about– okay, go one more thing.

Julie — The other thing that we did that I was super excited about was ah we tried online Alpha and that was, again, one of those things that it was like, how in the world can you dig into life’s big questions online? And it was funny because I had gone to a call about online Alpha the week, like 2 weeks before covid, and then all of a sudden it’s like everything’s online. And I’ve been… it was… I’m excited that we’re through that season now and we’re not doing online health anymore, but we saw more people come to faith through Zoom than we did with our in-person Alphas so it was just incredible to see the fruit from that.

Rich — Yeah, I know I um, so it was the June of that year I was involved in an online conference and Nicky Gumble was – from Alpha – was a part of that and, yeah, one of the things he was talking about was he apparently was was resistant to online Alpha. For years he said, you cannot do this online. You have to have the meal. We got to do the Weekend. You cannot do this and, and so then he tells the exact same story of like, “Well then I’m an Alpha leader and so we were leading online Alpha and saw the exact same thing – saw all these people come to know the Lord and just saw really cool outcomes from that.” That’s that’s really amazing! I love you just rolled…

Julie — Yeah, I mean the Holy Spirit can work, the Holy Spirit can work through Zoom. Who knew? Who knew?

Rich — Absolutely! Absolutely! Who knew? Exactly – it’s amazing…Which I just loved that as a leader for him. You know, he’s got a few laps on the track, you know, to be saying, “Hey I’m still learning and growing and trying new things,” which I thought was great. So I love that you just kind of rolled over the virtual Go teams. I want to hear more about that. So you did these international service opportunities – pick that apart a little bit – help us understand what was it? What did you do? What kind of impact? Yeah, talk me through that.

Julie — Yeah, so our strategy with our global outreach focus in general is to build relationships with our global outreach partners. And so because of that we have fewer partners than some other large churches might…

Rich — Yep.

Julie — …Because we intentionally want to go deep in relationship with them. And we also want to emphasize that our it’s a relationship and it’s not based on transaction. And so because of that, it actually really lent itself to this virtual Go team model that we were having conversations with our global outreach partners over Zoom.

Rich — Mmm-hmm.

Julie — And people were able to ask them questions about what life is like in their context, they were able to ask them questions about the ministry that they were involved in. We were really ah, able to ah, lean into intentional prayer ah, praying for the partner over Zoom. And and then we added a couple other things like um, we did fair trade gift boxes, if we were able to, from the country where they they would get like a maybe like a little ornament. Maybe a fair trade trade group from Haiti, or something like that. So just like, you know, when you go on a Go team, you come back with something tangible that you…

Rich — Yes…

Julie — …Like that you show everybody, and so we had that same component to it, and recipes and music and things like that. And then really the service thing, especially during Covid um, a lot of our partners, they weren’t receiving teams, but they were still, they were having to pivot and do ministry as well.

Rich — Mmm-hmm.

Julie — And so being able to tell the story of their ah, changes in ministry was really important, but then also helping them fund some of that was a huge part of it. So I feel like the serving piece of it became a: we’re going to help support you as you’re shifting from being a seminary in Mexico to being a food bank for your local community.

Rich — Right. Absolutely. I love, I love that. And I know so many of our international partners (um, and I wonder if you’re experiencing this as well) I know in a lot of churches, we’re unable to go still. Like it’s, and, and they, you know the horizon on that is measured in years. Like it may not be, you know, may not be next year even. It might be into 2023 before we’re able to to do that again. And so, and I think a lot of us are still trying to figure out ways: How do we keep building those relationships? How do we keep connected with these people? So I love that – what a cool – I love that kind of virtual Go team thing.

Rich — Now, when you think back to this season, you’ve tried a lot of things, is there anything that you’ve done that you think will impact the church as you look to the future? You’re like, oh here’s some things that we’ll continue to do, ah down the road for, you know, you know, because of this season when you think about it.

Julie — Yeah I’m sure there’s many. The one that comes to mind initially is that we moved a lot of our life groups on to Zoom…

Rich — Mmm-hmm.

Julie — …And initially moved all of our life groups onto Zoom, and we saw more people join life groups in that initial season than we ever had before, because, I think it’s people that were involved in our community but maybe hadn’t joined a group, and all of a sudden your life group was where you were doing life in these, like, tiny little communities.

Rich — Yes, yes.

Julie — So we saw these people join and a lot of life groups move to Zoom and what people realized is you can still stay connected to your community Even when you are out of town or, especially for our men’s life groups, Ah they would instead of meeting at a coffee shop at 5 o’clock in the morning, they’re able to meet on Zoom and build those intentional relationships. Or if everybody on the group is traveling you can meet on Zoom, so it allows people to stay connected. So that’s one that I think of initially.

Rich — Right.

Julie — And we also adapted a lot of our training that we, we had been doing in person.

Rich — Oh yeah, cool.

Julie — We adapted a lot of our training to be online and I think that’s something we’ll continue. I think that we’ve realized that flipping the classroom and having the teaching component be a computer and then having the relationship in person is, um, is a good model, and that people are able to watch, um, whatever the training piece is at their own speed and then they’re able to come and build a relationship in person. So that’s something I think we’ll, we’ll hopefully continue to do and maybe do more and even better.

Rich — Yeah, love it. That’s so good. It’s, for sure. Yeah on that training piece, that’s definitely – you can see that where you know it’s like we’re all used to – not just Zoom – but we’re used to kind of online stuff more now than we were two years ago. That’s, that’s fantastic. Well I’d, I’d love to take advantage of the fact that you are, you live and breathe getting people connected and I think all of our churches are facing this, in this, again, post-covid, intra-covid, whatever this season we’re in. We’re all asking the question, how – now people have been impacted, we’ve seen that. There there maybe is some hesitancy for people to reengage, hesitancy to join teams, hesitancy to jump into a small group or Alpha um, what are you seeing that’s helping on that front in this season? How are you, you know, helping people at Chapel Hill take those steps, or, you know, is there, is there anything that you’ve seen that is, has been, kind of, helping people in this, kind of, as we’re exiting covid or whatever it is again? (I’m not sure what we’re in!) …You know as we’re in this current season to, kind of, get plugged into community.

Julie — Yeah, yeah, it feels like perpetual Covid. I don’t know if we’ll ever be out of it.

Rich — Yes, yes, exactly.

Julie — But ah, we’ll just continue adopting as we go. Ah so, ways that we’ve connected people—it is a constant thing that we’re wrestling with, certainly, and ah reengaging people that haven’t come back to in-person worship yet, and also reengaging new people—a couple of tools that I have found to be useful is, ah we’ve been utilizing a tool called Focus Growth which is a first-time guest follow-up, ah platform.

Rich — Okay.

Julie — Well actually it’s, it’s way more than first-time guest but we’re using it for our first-time guest follow-up and it’s a way to um, help people indicate that they’re new and then begin a conversation with them via text message. And um, and then also what it does for me that’s very helpful is it sets them in, it puts them into a process queue so it reminds me to go back and follow up with them and say, like you know, this person…

Rich — Yes.

Julie — …They’ve been here for two weeks and, um, it would be a great time to invite them to Chapel Hill 101, our initial class to get to know the church.

Rich — Mmm-hmm.

Julie — So it kind of is, I found that the best way to connect people is to have an intentional leader who is connecting with them and so Focus Growth has helped, like it’s helped nudge me when I need to connect with all of the people that are coming in.

Rich — Love it.

Julie — And it’s been great, like um, we’ve gotten so far, we’ve had a 100 percent return rate from people.

Rich — Wow!

Julie — Yeah like incredible! So they get, when they receive that text message from me asking how they connected to Chapel Hill, we’ve had 100 percent of a return rate answering the question of how they ended up at the church. So I feel like I, more than standing at our – we have ah, ah we call it the wood wall – it’s where people come to connect after the service…

Rich — Mmm-hmm.

Julie — …More than that I see building relationship through these text messages and then being able to get to know them a little bit better and say, hey maybe this is your next step.

Rich — Love it.

Julie — So that’s been really helpful.

Rich — Yeah I love that and there’s something about the… obviously everyone’s on their phone, and there’s… you can see that where there’s like ah, there’s a the, the trick has always been, at least I have found from my seat on getting people connected, it’s like you you want to give people enough anonymity that they don’t feel like we’re jumping down their throat. Like you want to give them some space but you don’t want to give them too much anonymity because then they’ll never connect, right?

Julie – Yeah.

Rich — It’s like we know that human relationships happen when people get to know each other and so, you know, I can see where a kind of texting solution would be an interesting middle ground there.

Julie — Yeah, exactly.

Rich — Yeah, that’s cool.

Julie — And it’s so easy in a large church to slip through the cracks, do people…

Rich — Yes.

Julie — …For people just to kind of anonymously come in and never be noticed or never engage, and obviously we don’t want that because we believe we grow in our relationship with Jesus when we grow a relationship with one another so we want to connect with people, but we also don’t want to overwhelm people. You know we don’t want people, we don’t want to, ah we don’t want to come on too strong, and a text message, that is how we communicate so we found that more than an email or more than a phone call, a text. And it’s a dedicated text line that I have that I… several times a week I spend time just responding to people and connecting with them over, over text message.

Rich — Hmm, very cool. I Love that – that’s, that’s fantastic. What a helpful conversation this has been; I’ve, I’ve really enjoyed it. Thank you so much for taking time. When you think about kind of up over the horizon, you think okay like we’re you know, 2 years from now we’re so we’re on the eighth wave or the twelfth wave or whatever…

Julie — Yeah.

Rich — …and we’re you know, continuing to process through, ah Covid, what do you think, you know, where is, where does your mind go on kind of future things at Chapel Hill when you think about where are there things down the road you’re thinking about testing or working on to help people get connected in groups, or to get plugged into more service opportunities. Are there, you know, questions you’re even asking ah, you know in the future? Where’s your, where’s your mind going when you think about that kind of thing?

Julie — Yeah, the two big things that I am thinking about in the new year – my kind of New Year’s resolution projects are…

Rich – Yep.

Julie — …the first is that I am, I’ve been really thinking about volunteer engagement before Covid and then we’ve seen it progress even more during Covid. We had a deficit of volunteers and I know that we are not the only church that’s experienced that…

Rich — Okay. Yep.

Julie — …I know that there are quite a few, or that that’s the norm now is that people aren’t jumping to serve. And so I’ve really been thinking through. How do we engage volunteers? How do we shepherd them well? How do we retain them? How do we, how do we begin even in that recruit, ah stage? So that’s something that I’m thinking about and ah, really working hard to build a structure and framework that is um, that’s good for volunteer engagement.

Rich — Mmm-hmm.

Julie — And and then the second thing that I’m thinking about – which I feel like all of these things kind of walk hand-in-hand – is congregational care.

Rich — Hmm.

Julie — It has been a long hard season for a lot of people and people feel disconnected, people feel weary, and I recognize that um, in large churches it can be hard to know where to come to receive that care that they need. So ah, that’s one of my projects that I’ll be working on in this new year is thinking of what does a system of congregational care look like in a large church so that people feel well cared for.

Rich — Yeah, that’s great and, and there’s the question like I’ve found in that – and I’d love to get your thoughts on this – there’s the, the people who kind of follow the system that get in a group, that get plugged in, that like have a natural kind of um – whether they’re more outgoing or they’re just, they’re, they just are, they’re joiners; they love to plug into stuff – ah, however, then then there’s the folks that are fall outside of that that just for whatever reason aren’t in a group but they still have issues that we want to care for. They’re still the kind of person we want to, you know, find, you know, to care for them. So any thoughts on how we, we kind of, early thinking on how you think you might help get those people connected and plugged in and care for them, because that’s always an interesting group.

Julie — Yeah, yeah, well obviously ah, our ultimate goal is to engage people in our discipleship process. At the same time we recognize that not everybody fits into that box. And we also recognize that, I don’t think that discipleship is formulaic necessarily…

Rich — Right.

Julie — …so there are people that are growing in other arenas. We were just talking about, ah in our leadership team, a group that they’re already doing all of our discipleship process. They’re just not doing it at our church, outside of worshiping at our church. And so how do we engage them in worshiping, serving, connecting, and reaching others with the gospel when they’re already doing it so well.

Rich — Mmm-hmm.

Julie — …So yeah that it is a big question to wrestle through. And I think that um, it’s really finding out that one touch point and how to engage them in that that one touch point. And so if they’re here in one of those four environments engaging them there and then inviting them into further relationship.

Rich — Love it.

Julie — So that’s that’s kind of what I’m thinking through, but I do think that it is that constant the person who is a ambivalent attender. Maybe not even a regular attender, and then all of a sudden they’re, they’re desperate for care and it’s like, we don’t really know you and so how do we… but I want, we want to care for you.

Rich — Yes.

Julie — So learning how to to do that and is something that will be a big hurdle and I’m excited to tackle it but I don’t quite know the answer yet.

Rich — Yeah, that’s cool. Well this has been fantastic. What a great conversation. Is there anything else you want to share just as we wrap up today’s episode?

Julie — Um, yeah I always have more that I could say – I love to talk.

Rich — Yeah, that’s great. That’s why we have you on!

So I think that one of the things, as I’ve been thinking through this congregational care piece, is I’ve also been thinking through, ah, caring for church leadership as well.

Rich — Hmmm.

Julie — And I am just convinced that healthy churches are led by healthy leaders…

Rich — So true.

Julie — …and that the greatest thing that we can do as church leaders, to lead healthy churches, is is be just as concerned about our own health. We need to be paying attention to our spiritual health, our mental health, our physical health, and… and so I think that even within this thinking through congregational care, I’m thinking: how do I care, how do how do we care for our team? How do we care for our pastors? How do we care for our staff?

Rich — Mmm-hmm.

Julie — So um I just, I think that for all of the ministry leaders out there that are thinking, how do I uphold and shepherd this flock that the Lord has entrusted into my care? So much of of that is actually caring for us as shepherds as well. I’m thinking, how am I caring for myself too?

Rich — So true. So true. Pastor Julie, I really appreciate you being here today. Super helpful. Where do we want to send people online if they want to track with you or with the church? Where do we want to send them so they can kind of follow the Chapel Hill story a little bit?

Julie — Yeah, yeah, chapelhillpc.org is our website. You can check us out there and also if you look up Chapel Hill Church on Youtube you can find us there.

Rich — Great. Good. Thank you so much – appreciate you being here today.

Julie — Thank you.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.