A Christmas Disrupted Conversation with Elizabeth Lincoln
How does your church’s mission shape your Christmas experience? In this Christmas Disrupted Conversation, Elizabeth Lincoln, Service Programming Director for North Point Ministries, shares how North Point’s mission to be a church that unchurched people want to attend shaped their thinking and planning for Christmas.
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Tim Nations: I'm joined by Elizabeth Lincoln from North Point Ministries. Elizabeth, tell us a little bit about your role there with North Point. And then also for those that maybe aren't familiar with North Point, Andy Stanley, give us a little bit of context about pre-COVID. Who is North Point? What was North Point?
Elizabeth Lincoln: Sure. I really am enjoying our conversation. I'm glad to talk about these things. A couple of things. I'll start actually with North Point, a little bit of context about that, before I go into my role inside of that. North Point started as a single-location church in Alpharetta, Georgia 25 years ago. The really guiding principle was they wanted to create a church that unchurched people might attend. So it wasn't a church for unchurched people. It was a church for church people, but that they could invite their friends to that were far from God, either who had bad experiences with church in the past or who had never had any experience in the past and where they could come and feel comfortable and love coming. So that turned into two campuses and then three campuses. We're at seven campuses now, technically eight. One is a little bit of a sister campus. So those are all of the Atlanta metro area. They're all in the 15-20 mile range from each other for the most part, with a couple of exceptions. And pre-COVID one of the things that's interesting about our organization, it's a matrix organization. So there's a central component. So we have some staff that are only central, but each one of our campuses really has a lot of autonomy. So it's not North Point Ministries at a particular location. Every church has its own names associated with that area of town. And each audience is a little bit unique, and so every lead pastor is charged with how do their staff reach their local community in as local an iteration of what we do as possible. Which is a lot of fun and obviously really complex as well. My job, I am the Service and Programming Director. That's my title. I do that for North Point Community Church, which is our main and our largest campus. It's the one that's most central to the others. And then I also have a central component. So all of the Service and Programming Directors at the other campuses report to me as well, dotted line, inside of our organization. What Service and Programming Director means is basically I'm responsible for everything that happens in an adult service on the weekends. So that's music, lighting, audio, video, stage, and programming the service.
Tim Nations: So for those of you watching, she alluded to the fact that we've been talking for like 45 minutes already, so there's a lot of stuff we've talked about that you guys don't get to listen to. One piece that I really wanted to capture was this conversation about Christmas. So give us a quick summary of what past Christmases looked like at North Point.
Elizabeth Lincoln: Sure. Well they are a lot of services, a lot of service times happening. Typically Saturday and Sunday. From a family ministry perspective, we only have kid min at the Christmas services and not even in all of them. So typically let's say we did six Christmas services, there might be two or three that would have preschool and elementary age programming. We would have middle school and high school students attend with their parents. I say that because the main service is happening all over the building. We have two main rooms at the Alpharetta campus, which is the North Point campus. We're one of two campuses that have two rooms. So basically all of the insular rooms, including hallways and all that, would be filled with adults who are watching via video while it's happening live in the main auditorium. Tim, I'm not exactly - do you mean programming-wise, what has service looked like?
Tim Nations: No, No, just -
Elizabeth Lincoln: I'm not sure I'm fully answering your question.
Tim Nations: Just getting at what was the central element or elements of the Christmas experience for you guys. So it was, like so many churches, it was an experience at the campuses, that kind of thing.
Elizabeth Lincoln: I see, I'm with you. So with regard to what pre-COVID Christmases looked like for us specifically at North Point, but really across all of our campuses, certainly it was an in-person experience. Now we would stream those experiences from our campuses that, pre-COVID, had online streams, which there were only three at the time. Now all seven have them during COVID. So they would stream that experience live, not at on-demand times but only available at the service times when we were meeting. It was an in-person experience. It usually consisted of more music than a typical Sunday for us. The message portion was usually shorter. Tried to put it more in a devotional-type thing, so it would be more like 15 minutes, which would just allow us to do big massive opening song that's huge and then to do some Christmas worship and then to have a closing song at the end and still get out in time.
Tim Nations: Mainly, I wanted to set up the contrast to what you guys are facing now because you made the decision, as you were sharing with me, you guys made the decision mid-year to not reopen until sometime in 2021. I know that you had mentioned different campuses are probably going to do that at a different rate. I know your time is short, so I won't have you unpack that right quick. But I do want to hear, what is it now that given your circumstances, what are you guys planning for Christmas this year, in contract to what Christmas has been like in the past. And what would you say has been the key thing that has influenced the decision that you guys made? How did you make that decision?
Elizabeth Lincoln: That's great. I'll start with the "what" and then go to the "why." The "what" for us at North Point. Once we decided that we weren't going to meet in person until 2021, Christmas obviously became a big thing that we were thinking about, it being a time where people especially want to be able to gather, even just beyond the week in and week out. So where we landed is, at North Point we're going to do three online experiences in December, the 6th, the 13th, and the 20th, those first three Sundays of December. We have historically as a church, we have always taken off the Sunday closest to Christmas, so we're not going to put up any unique content on that day, and I'll come back to the "why" of that. We are going to add an online experience that I'm saying is an adult experience that is kid-friendly, so it's really geared toward adults but meant to be something that families with kids of all ages can watch and enjoy together. That'll be about a 25-minute experience that will actually become available on demand on our website probably first thing on the 24th and will be available - I say will be available the 24th and 25th, it will probably be available until the next thing goes live for our first Sunday in January. But for sure it will be available on the 24th and 25th. That's something that is new for us. I'll come back to the "why" of that. That particular experience will be for all of our campuses, so every campus will share the exact, so we call that a "one stream." That one experience is the exact same thing that you would watch whether you went to buckheadchurch.com, northpoint.org, brownsbridge.org, any of our streams. It will all be the exact same thing available in the exact same time frame. And then we're also doing an in-person experience. We're making ours a Christmas tree lighting. That's going to be the weekend of, for sure the 12th and the 13th, which is a Saturday and a Sunday. We're probably going to have to add services on the Friday as well, so we're going to do two per day. And that's really more of an "invest and invite" event that's for the community and allows people to have an in-person experience with Christmas, but one that's really a lot more outward focused than it is inward focused. Which leads me to the answer of why and how we landed there. I feel like one thing that's been really interesting since we decided mid-summer not to go back until 2021 was we're this church where we are a church but that we hope unchurched people love to attend. What does that look like in a season where people may be engaging for the first time because of their circumstances, because we know that's often times a thing that points people back to being interested in spiritual things or a return to a spiritual life. So that's a thing that we've had to take into account. And then also knowing our core, our people who are really engaged with us, who give, who serve with us, who attend regularly, who are bought in, how do we continue to serve them well? How do we continue to meet their needs, meet them where they are, and to do that in new ways that are tangible and helpful in this season? That's been everything from figuring out what does it look like to create online content that's engaging and helpful. I feel like we're hitting the mark sometimes, and sometimes we're like, "that didn't go the way we thought it was going to go," you know? But I also, once we decided we're not going to meet in person through the end of the year, it was how do we in a tangible way communicate - and this is, to answer your question Timothy, one of the probably two most compelling reasons for how we landed where we landed. Number one, the main reason we decided not to open is we wanted to maintain our influence within our community. We wanted to, in the way that we handled this crisis and the way we opened or not - and there's no one-size-fits-all, it's not like we think this is right and what anyone else has done is wrong. It's not that. It's just that we felt like this is a tangible way that we can say we see what's happening in the community and we want to be a part of taking care of our community physically in hopes that we will be able to help take care of those spiritually. And so because of that, we made a decision not to hold services in person also knowing that our numbers are so through the roof on Easter and/or Christmases, there's no way we could just try that as a one-off if you will or our first time back in the building being Christmas. Also recognizing, hey that felt like a really long time in July to say we're not going to meet for the rest of the year was like, "oh my word," you know. How do we tangibly communicate to our people, not only are we trying to create online content but we know that you really miss gathering together, and how do we create opportunities for you to do that in a way that is sustainable for our staff, that we can actually pull of while we're pulling off all of this online content as well, but that is consistent enough hat feels like it is a consistent encouragement. We started in August. We did a night of outdoor worship out on the lawn like a lot of churches are doing. We did one in September. Our October event was this past weekend. It was varied. We're going to do another night of worship in November, and then in December we're going to do our Christmas tree lighting. So the August, September, and November nights of worship were really more for our crowd, our insiders for lack of a better way to say it. It's a chance to be together. It's a chance to worship together. And so that's what those were intended to be. And then the October and December live events were really intended to be more outward facing. So we did something for kids, like they had an awesome costume party on the lawn on Saturday. Lots of kids from the community came, so it was just real fun. Had a program, a big outdoor stage for them, lots of games and stuff. And then we did the birthday party thing, which probably is a little more insider as well I would say. Not a lot of people in our community are wanting to come to a birthday party for a church. So that I guess was a little bit of a mixed bag, but it was cool to do that for our insiders. The 25th thing allowed us to look back at who we've always been and for Andy to be able to contextualize from a vision standpoint how what we're doing now fits into the context of who we've always been, which is we've always wanted to maintain influence with outsiders. And how does what we're doing right now fit into that? And how do - and you alluded to this a moment ago, and I won't dive deep on it - but when we look at our reopening plan for the new year knowing that for the first at least couple of months of the new year, we're not going to be able to have children and students in the building safely and socially distanced and have adults in the building, we're going to prioritize the next generation. So casting that vision with them at that event, to say, "hey, happy birthday, look at what God's done." At the same time, what is he going to do in the future? And how are we going to allow him to use us and for us to set aside our own personal preferences, which we want to be back in the building, but let's prioritize the next generation. Allow our children and our middle school students to meet in the mornings, to be in the building, and for our high school students to meet in the evenings, for them to be in the building as well, and for us to continue to wait until we can all be back in the building. And that's another piece of it that I'll say for us, beyond just wanting to keep our influence with the community and how we handled this. We really wanted to, if we were able and time will still tell if we're able to wait until we can come back and really be us. but that's been important to us too, to not have to do the socially-distanced thing, the lots and lots of services with everybody so spread out you really don’t feel like you're together anyway. Again, no one-size-fits-all. Some of our campuses are going to be opening up exactly that way early January, so we're going to do our best to support them and hope it goes great. Each campus has been able to figure that out. We will probably be one of the last ones to open. We're the largest campus is part of it, but anyway we'll see. So that's how - did I fully answer how we did it?
Tim Nations: You did.
Elizabeth Lincoln: I guess the last thing I'll say is, for us it was important for us to have an in-person element to what we were doing for Christmas because we felt like that was really important for people We wanted to have our three Sundays as regular content, even though it's online. But then the addition of the 24th and 25th was really a desire to, number one, capitalize on the season that we're in right now of this creation of online content and maybe this is something that we could continue to do for years to come. For me, part of the burden was I think a lot of people want to be able to have a spiritual moment on Christmas day and don't necessarily know how to do that by themselves, so what if we created that for them. Both for parents with kids but also for parents with family members or neighbors that they might spend the holidays with that might not watch a full-length service on a Sunday that's like a "Sunday service" or in future years that might not come to the building but who might watch a 25-minute, music-heavy, really hopefully compelling telling of the Christmas story that feels really acceptable to believers and nonbelievers alike. So that's just something that we're going to try, and that's how we landed on what we're doing and where we're putting our energy for the Christmas season. And - can I just add? One last thing. This is about other campuses, not about North Point. So we will be what we call multi-campus, which means that we're all taking the same message portion of the service for the first two weeks of December. And December the 20th, that third week, is a local option, so that means campuses can be totally local that week if they want to. And a few of the campuses that are going to be totally local are doing something in person outside for the service. So their big in-person thing will be their December thing. We're not doing that because we're doing the Christmas tree lighting what will be the weekend before. And then there's one campus that's going to do ten services on the 19th and the 20th. They're going to do three on Saturday, the 19th and seven on the 20th to be able to do them in person. But I think theirs is going to be inside, and that's why they're doing so many. So that's kind of a cool thing too that even inside of our one organization and network of churches we're going to get to see a lot of different approaches to what Christmas is going to look like. We'll learn a lot from each one.
Tim Nations: Yeah. It goes back to what you said about, in churches in general one size doesn't fit all. But you guys are even taking that approach in a local-specific ways. It's not one-size-fits-all for the communities that you guys are serving.
Elizabeth Lincoln: Exactly. And some are closer to the city than others, and that's part of it too. The ones that are in-town campuses, they're going to be later opening up. You know, the ones like Woodstock and up in Cumming, our Browns Bridge campus. For example, those school systems have been in person the entire time this entire school year. They never did online hybrid. So those communities have been a lot more ready for in-person than Fulton County schools where it's like... no, it's not happening yet. So anyway, it will be - pardon my dog, but she wanted to be in the, bougie little dog.
Tim Nations: Well listen, I really appreciate you sharing. I know that now you're really late to what you needed to get to next.
Elizabeth Lincoln: Oh, it's fine.
Tim Nations: I appreciate you making the time and sharing this because I know this is going to be a helpful conversation.
Elizabeth Lincoln: I hope so, and Tim honestly happy to talk any time. If there's anything I can do or if there's anyone that watches this or has other conversations or wants to reach out and to have follow up, I'll make all the space I can. I love learning from other people too so I would enjoy those conversations.