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VOMO + Barna: An Interview with Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman

Church and volunteering often go hand-in-hand.

Our CEO, Rob Peabody, recently chatted with faith leaders Carey Nieuwhof (Founder and CEO, Carey Nieuwhof Communications) and David Kinnaman (President, Barna Group) about how churches can help their members put their faith into action.

Read Rob’s parts of the discussion below.

To catch the entire interview, watch the video below or tune into the ChurchPulse Weekly podcast.

Carey Nieuwohf: A lot of the pastors I talked to are still struggling with recruiting volunteers that they need to even run basic ministry. It seems like there hasn’t been a rush back to church that everybody hoped for. Part of that is there seems, generally speaking, to be a volunteer shortage. Any thoughts on, number one, whether you’re seeing the same thing? And number two, how to begin to address that? 

Rob Peabody: I hear that a lot from the churches and pastors that we serve, and a lot of nonprofits as well feeling the same way. We did a thing with VOMO called the Be A Neighbor Campaign this past year and we found, through statistical analysis, that on a weekly average we were short 6.5 million volunteers per week across the US. I’m down in Dallas, it’s fairly open down here. Churches are quasi back to normal here. But, a lot of different parts of the country that we serve, I mean, they’re completely closed down still. And how do we do church? What is the new normal? How do I, how do we, even open up the building and get the volunteers that are required to do that? And so I think it’s forcing people to really analyze the moment we’re in. And how do we shift? How do we pivot? What does it look like as we move forward with church? And now it’s the opportunity in front of us. 

CN: I think Texas has been as open as anywhere has been since the early stages of the middle of the pandemic. Have you found, based on what you know connecting with leaders, have volunteers now caught up in Texas that you’ve been open for six or eight months? Is it just a lag in the system and they’re all coming back, or is there still a bit of a chronic shortage of volunteers from what you’re experiencing in Texas?

RP: Yeah, from what we see in Texas, I mean everything was shut down during the whole quarantine. But early summer things started coming back on. People started coming back. What’s been interesting though, is when everyone moved to digital church. The churches are back open and the staff are there, but I’m finding there are less people attending on a weekly basis because they got so used to doing this virtually or following other pastors or listening to other people. Or doing home church, whatever that might look like with their family. And so yes, the churches are more open and there are enough volunteers back to run the services. But it’s the same story. It’s like, “Wow, there used to be a lot more people in the room,” and now there’s 50% of what used to be here. 

CN: So the volunteers are adequate for what they have, but there’s just a lot fewer people. 

RP: Right, so it goes kind of the same, it’s just a smaller number. 

CN: Well, and if you’ve ever been to Texas, everything really is bigger in Texas. So the fact that Texas is running at 50% is telling. 

David Kinnaman: There’s a real need in today’s world for a little innovative thinking and a real sense of spirit-lead, like “What are you calling me to do?” It shows up in the fact that smaller or midsize [churches] sometimes have 30 to 40 different programs they’re running. They’re absolutely not capable of running all those things with any kind of excellence or any kind of effectiveness, but they feel like they have to because that’s what every other church is doing. Or you end up seeing some of these trends. Again, I also think there’s some really good side to this idea of the Jesus movement and charismatic worship as has really, whatever your denominational stream, opened up this expressive form of worship. So there’s some good that can come from, you know, new waves of change in the church, but to a degree that we just end up relying on what others are doing is a, I think, a real disadvantage to today’s church. 

CN: Rob, thoughts on that?

RP: No, absolutely. It’s been my whole life journey. At 26 I’m leading a megachurch in Dallas right out of seminary and it’s a campus site of a megachurch that becomes a megachurch itself. And all of a sudden I inherit an $8 million building and 20 staff, and you’re the youngest one. And I have this overwhelming holy discontent that I’m like, “Gosh, there’s got to be more than us just running through the systems and getting more ushers.” Like what are we here for? How can we be mobilizing the church outside the walls of the church? It led to meeting the mayor of our city.  Adopting local title one schools. I didn’t even know what a title one school was at the time. Then, how do you bring people on that journey?

CN: For international people and others, what does that mean? 

RP: It’s a school where the majority of the population, the families there, are on government subsidy. 

CN: Gotcha, thank you. 

RP: You find out that the school is the “modern day well.” It’s the cross-section of society where everybody is coming together. And so, as a church, how do we live out our calling and our gift, not just our money, and leverage all of it? And our time to go live out the Kingdom and take those risks to see the church multiply in our community instead of empire-building. Because there’s a draw to that right? There’s a huge draw to it. I think everybody on this call has experienced different levels of that. Yet I’m not convinced that that’s, I think God uses that at times, but I’m not convinced that’s the best way. 

CN: It’s a machine you end up feeding right? Which can be interesting and it has a really good purpose. Great stuff is done within the walls of the church and lots of great stuff is done outside of the church. Rob, you are a bit of an entrepreneur. What have you learned by creative experimentation about engaging volunteers? What catalyzes the body of Christ? What, in your view, could leaders look too?

RP: You know you go around the church, take a poll, everybody knows Great Commandment, Great Commission. They can teach the Bible study class. They sing the songs and know them all. OK. So then that’s great. And then here’s Monday through Friday. How do we implement that? I found a thing I ended up calling the ignorance barrier. I think most people in our churches if you go tap them on the shoulder or knock on their front door and say, “Hey, we’ve gotta need down the street,” somebody would go and be compelled to action. But the issue is because we don’t get practical a lot of times, I have no clue what the needs are in my local community. I don’t know what the needs are my local congregation. I don’t know what’s going on outside. I’m too busy. I’ve got rhythms of life and so much noise going on in our entertainment and social media world that I’m just ignorant of what the needs are. So, if we can start identifying those and serving those up, not only in our church community but in our society or our culture as a whole, that we could be addressing. Then, here are very easy on-ramps for us to actually go do something tangible about it, that makes a world of difference. I was a church planner in London for six years and it was the exact same issue there. I started seeing this all across the Western world. This wasn’t just a Dallas, Buckle of the Bible Belt, issue where we were just going to the church and doing our thing and clocking in and out. This is a much larger issue and how we as leaders can be addressing that and make it very simple for people to have those on-ramps and then experience that lifestyle of what it looks like to put faith in action.

CN: What about the normal-sized church? 100 people, 50 people, 150 people, one or two paid staff max. Any ideas on engaging volunteers there that could be super practical for them? 

RP: Yeah. We saw a lot of this brought into focus during the first quarantine of COVID. What we ended up doing at Vomo is offering our platform for free. We did it with Right Now Media to any church that wanted to come in. So we have a lot of smaller churches that are using it to [staff their church]. But how do I get there with two people on my church staff and I need an operating system? We know that every person in your church is going to have access to a smartphone. Just statistically speaking, they touch the phone 2,700 times a day. So, if we can put all the needs and the activation points in the palm of their hand and help them move from becoming consumers to producers right in the local church in the local community, that’s using technology in a redemptive way. A lot of our small churches, that’s what they’re doing. Then VOMO becomes the operating system of how do we get not only volunteers for the services, but also, how do we activate them in this journey of going out and putting action to their faith right where they live. That’s how we’ve done it through our technology, and we saw a big shift from churches who maybe never had online giving, or maybe never had a platform like this or even websites. We love having the opportunity to serve those churches and say, “OK, here’s a way to take it to the next level and get the volunteers you need to have your services.” 

CN: This is super helpful. I think this addresses the immediate need which is, for a lot of churches, we don’t quite have enough volunteers. But it’s also an invitation to rethink what does that even mean. What are we doing? What are we doing in really exploring people’s gifts rather than just maybe exploiting them? What are we doing in terms of really equipping people to serve the world, not just the needs of a particular location, etc? So Rob people get can get access to VOMO at vomo.org. Is that correct? 

RP: That’s correct. Or they can download VOMO in the App Store. 

CN: OK, great so it’s vomo.org or the App Store. 

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