InterVarsity & COVID-19
Setting the Scene
InterVarsity is not a tech savvy organization. After all, why should we be? We’re not a technology organization. Our mission is to disciple students and faculty and to create witnessing communities on campus.
InterVarsity campus work almost exclusively operates on word of mouth and physical proximity- discipleship meetings in coffee houses, flyers in the campus quad, people walking around with 1 foot of each other, worship in dorm rooms: all of them in-person, physical meetings.
You don’t need an app or website or anything digital for that. While I have been advocating for a few years that we needed to up our digital game, to be fair, we were doing ok.
As students disappeared to go back home and finish out their semester remotely, campus staff tried to preserve their ministry by moving all of their normal ministry rhythms online.
We found staff fell into one of three modes of response:
- Dived into creativity and innovation
- Paralyzed and unsure of how to engage a new digital context
- Disrupted and distracted because of home life, lockdown restrictions, and virtual learning.
Regardless of the response, it was painful.
“I didn’t come on staff to sit in front of my computer.”
“Everything happens in this tiny space, discipleship, large group, small groups, bible study— I’m going crazy!”
“I don’t know how to do any of this — I just want to have a conversation, not facilitate a video call…”
“I just gave a talk last week on disconnecting from technology. I have actively avoided this, and now you’re telling me this is how I have to do ministry?”
Our creators and innovators started sharing tons of quickly-created resources, our paralyzed staff didn’t know where to begin and became overwhelmed, and disrupted staff couldn’t even begin to engage.
We began calling what happened next, Phase 1. We sought to shift our core ministry rhythms as quickly as possible. While we wouldn’t squash the creativity of the staff who were moving on their own grassroots efforts, we still need to provide a foothold for the staff that were overwhelmed and distracted.
Several spaces of support were created
- The 5 Rhythms of Online Ministry- trainings and specific guidance on how to host certain types of ministry online
- Ministry Disruption Podcast — a collection of stories from campus ministers and others on how they have navigated the crisis.
- InterVarsity Live– a weekly online gathering for all InterVarsity students, staff, and faculty to worship and engage with a relevant passage and exhortation.
- Daily webinars– talks and events that ranged a wide spectrum: dealing with isolation, how to use Zoom — you name it, we probably talked about it in a webinar.
- Digital Bootcamp — trainings to help staff create a website and social media accounts.
- An Online Ministry dedicated email newsletter twice weekly to anyone who signed up — we had churches and other ministries were who able to receive and benefit from the resources being created.
All of these needed to live somewhere, and my job along with our development team was to create their home and integrate them into an easy way for staff to get oriented to the new reality.
For nearly 3 weeks I was working 12–14 hours a day to design and build InterVarsity Online and to be honest it’s a blur. The website shape shifted constantly as new resources became available, as we took in quick feedback, and as stakeholders weighed in.
I’ll admit I nearly didn’t write this case study because I didn’t get to run my process. I didn’t get to hold an exploratory workshop, think about the architecture deeply, organize content, instead we were building the plane while it was taking off. I was afraid of opening myself up to criticism.
However, it’s important to recognize that there will be emergency circumstances and that designers have to step in with the best that we know to do the best we can with the lowest amount of information possible to make big decisions.
In other ways though — it was what I had always wanted for InterVarsity. For the first time, we were creating a digital hub that responded to need and adapted. What InterVarsity Online looks like now is very different from what it looked like in April.
Did it work?
We had been churning out a massive amount of work and needed to assess what was next. Working with National Leadership, I created a 3-part survey to help us know what happened, how it went, and what was needed next.
To alleviate burden on staff, the survey wasn’t mandatory but we hadn’t a decent response rate and were able to assess what we should keep and what we should kill.
- 96% of InterVarsity chapters went online in some fashion. Although we don’t know the quality or the caliber of each of the distinct moves online, it was still heartening overall.
- 244 people made decisions to follow Jesus through InterVarsity Live (15 first-time, 229 recommitments)
We also learned that some of what we created didn’t catch on as we’d hoped — InterVarsity Live was not renewed, the Ministry Podcast closed production due to low downloads, and the daily webinars started dwindling in attendance.
Which brings us to June — and it wasn’t over yet
Our survey had indicated that the new hurdle was how to reach new students in the coming Fall semester. Staff had begun experimenting already, but overwhelmingly needed support, leading to the next big project: Online New Student Outreach