Website, social media, streaming worship, newsletters. Instead of sending all your ministry content out (and not knowing who it’s reaching), a new platform lets you gather people into your own online community space.
One of the fun things about being a Free Range Priest is that I get to try out new technology!
Lots of what I look at – and sign up for – is based in the secular world, but sometimes I find things that seem uniquely set up for congregations and other religious organizations, even if that’s not their goal.
I recently discovered Circle.so, a new kind of community platform, and I was immediately hooked – I signed up for my own space right away – Bring Church to People, a community for Creative Ministers (come join us!).
I’m amazed at how Circle turns digital ministry ‘inside out’. Instead of starting with ‘the congregation’, then taking parts of it (worship, newsletter, announcements, social events, etc.) and putting them ‘out there’ in the digital space, Circle lets you start with a digital space and build your congregation right there. You can create spaces to gather, share, pray and worship together, send messages and information – all in one community space that you own. You can bring church to people – and bring it right to your own multifunctional digital gathering space.
Full disclosure: I’m a Circle affiliate, so I’m being compensated for this post. Even fuller disclosure: I wouldn’t represent them if I didn’t think the platform was revolutionary for digital ministry. It’s affordable, easy to use, easily integrated into the full life of the church. It makes it easy to reimagine your ministry online without having to know a lot of tech or start from scratch.
Here’s a few of the best features of Circle that translate to better – easier, more effective, more affordable and frankly more fun – digital ministry for faith communities:
1. Private social media with a public welcome
We all know that social media has become necessary for faith communities – but that doesn’t mean we have to like it!
Lots of church folks balk at having to get on Facebook – never mind Tiktok or Twitter! – and many congregations think of it more of a chore than a joy.
Plus, how do we know who we’re reaching, beyond members we already know?
And how do we do without live streaming worship, now that it’s become part of our regular church life?
Circle functions something like a social media – you create posts that can include video or photo, you can share right from Youtube, and you can livestream directly into your spaces (at the professional level). You can ‘like’ and comment on posts.
But this is a social media that you control! Anyone can come to your space (if you want them to), but to enter they give you their email address – and they’re invited to create a profile. That way you know who they are and where they’re coming from. They only have to sign up once, on one platform, to access everything they’re allowed to see (more on this below). No more switching back and forth from website to social media to email.
You can message members directly, send announcements, and help people sign up with one click. It seems tailor-made to lower the overwhelming feelings of having to keep up with all the different platforms churches use today, and it is gratifyingly easy to know who you’re reaching – and bring even more Good News to them!
2. Customize privacy and access for every post and space
Faith communities face the conundrum of worrying about safety and privacy, while at the same time wanting to reach broadly into the community and welcome the stranger. Online community makes this a particularly difficult spot to be in.
Circle provides an elegant solution: ‘space groups’ – broad categories, like those for staff, children’s ministry, or worship – and ‘spaces’ – ongoing places for conversation and sharing within the broad categories – where you can customize access on the macro and micro level.
Space groups and spaces are ‘public’ (members can see and access everything), ‘private’ (they see some things they can’t access), and ‘secret’ (spaces non-members can neither see nor access). Within the spaces, you can get even more granular and give permission for members to post (or not) and comment and like (or not). You can set the permissions for categories of people (‘staff’, ‘clergy’, etc.) or allow individual members to have extremely specific access.
This allows for very private spaces for things like pastoral care conversations and counseling, and completely open spaces like worship and general community information.
3. Reimagine membership with spaces and subscriptions
Space access set up also allows congregations and other faith communities to reimagine membership and subscriptions to church content or events.
Members can be fully online, fully in-person, or a combination of both. You can set pay gates on some spaces (like online Bible study or other classes or programs) so some members don’t have to pay, or different members pay at different rates. You can also offer choices like ‘pay what you like’ or discounts to certain members.
These options make it easy for even the smallest congregation to have a large online membership without compromising the intimacy of their in-person community. It also allows for more creativity for financial sustainability for faith communities of all sizes.
4. It sends your newsletter for you!
This may be the best reason to sign up for Circle…
Personally, I dread the newsletter – coming up with ideas, putting it together, getting it out on a regular basis. And it’s hard to tell if anyone is reading it! Yet I know it’s important to stay in touch with members and make sure they get all the information about ministry and events.
Circle offers a weekly digest: when activated, it sends a Thursday morning email (just one!) to all members, with the most popular posts and events of the week automatically attached. Members can click on those posts and be taken directly to them, where they can ‘like’, comment, or respond with their own posts. Privacy settings ensure that only public posts get included. You can even further edit so only the posts you want included go out with the digest. You can add an opening paragraph with a spiritual message, as well – but you won’t have to come up with newsletter ideas every month – they’ll flow naturally (and automatically) from what you post in your community.
As far as I’m concerned, this feature alone justifies the cost of Circle, and will save most congregations money and time when they give up the energy and resources it takes to send a newsletter out.
5. Website alternative that brings people through your digital church doorway
Speaking of saving money and time, another feature of Circle is that it is fully branded as your own community. Which means you can add your own domain name and have people find your community directly instead of stopping at a website that may be outdated and unattractive to find a link to get there. (Google ‘bringchurchtopeople.org’ to see what I mean).
You can even do away with your website altogether!
It can be a struggle to keep a clean website look and still get everything they want to say on one static site. Much less remembering (and remembering how!) to regularly updated the content on your website.
This is another way to turn digital ministry ‘inside out’. Sending visitors directly to your online community lets you set a static ‘home’ page where people get the very basics: your name, location, and contact information. Then they see a newsfeed below, where they can access the latest posts and information (if they’re able according to privacy settings). They can also see space groups and spaces along the side (as permissions allow). You can make a ‘start here’ space, guiding visitors toward what they need to know about your community.
The best part: it’s easy to update, the most recent info stays first, and there’s only one place to keep up with.
Circle community platform is made with the secular world in mind, but honestly, no one does real-life community better than congregations. Merging the two together is amazing digital ministry good news!