Fireside 2.1 ( Inside Out Group Blog Wed, 06 May 2020 15:00:00 -0400 Inside Out Group Blog en-us When and How do we Reopen? Wed, 06 May 2020 15:00:00 -0400 04889a9d-f035-4c94-af0a-49d04f795698 Roughly eight weeks ago, every church in America shut their doors and panicked in moving to an online format to hold regular church experiences/services. For many people, including us, we have moved into uncharted territories. Questions about engagement, groups, discipleship, giving and more has kept pastors and leaders up for many nights as they try to navigate through a pandemic that our world has never felt before. Today, churches are now looking at “reopening” as quickly as possible. People are desperate for social interaction. Pastors are tired of preaching to a camera. And most people want life to resume back to normal as soon as possible. Here in New York State, our situation is probably a lot different than a lot of other states and even countries around the world. We have seen over 321,000 people infected with the Coronavirus and around 25,000 people have lost their lives, with these numbers ticking upwards still. But the question people are asking is, “When are we going to reopen?”

Nearly eight weeks ago, every church in America had to shut its doors and panicked as we all moved to an online format to hold church experiences/services. For many people, including us, we have been exploring uncharted territories. Questions about engagement, groups, discipleship, giving and more has kept pastors and leaders up for many nights as they try to navigate through a pandemic that our generation has never seen before.

Today, churches are looking at “reopening” as quickly as possible. People are desperate for social interaction. Pastors are tired of preaching to a camera. And most people want life to resume back to normal as soon as possible.

Here in New York State, our situation is probably different than many of other states and countries around the world. We have seen over 321,000 people infected with the Coronavirus and around 25,000 people have lost their lives, with these numbers ticking upwards still. Despite the rising death toll and amount infected, the question people are asking is, “When is the church going to reopen?”

Should we reopen sooner rather than later?

This is a question that has come up in a lot of community circles that I am engaged with and follow. Many people have total opposite opinions concerning how and when the church should reopen. Let’s face it, no one wants the church to open more than a Senior Pastor. But how we plan and the steps we take are so important during this season.

Remember the words of Paul in his letter to the Romans, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1 ESV). Paul was addressing the Christians in Rome who were under persecution from the Roman government. Even under persecution Paul was encouraging them to be subject to the Roman authority. The reason I bring this up is because we are not being persecuted at all. We can still worship, read our bibles, share about Jesus, post videos, etc. By changing our method and approach to church, we are honoring our governing officials while protecting those that are most vulnerable.

Should we reopen?

Yes! But how we reopen is going to be crucial. I believe we have more nonbelievers looking at the church right now for a source of hope. They are looking to see how the church is going to respond or react. By stating that we are going to honor our governing officials is displaying that we are not consumed with ourselves, but that we are genuinely looking at the best interest with everyone around us, regardless of our stance on politics. This is an opportunity for the churches reopening to be a witness to everyone around us. It’s an opportunity for us to be a humble, selfless church, putting the needs of others in front of our own. (See Philippians 2)

We need to be a people that's moved by wisdom and humility before pride and emotion. When we reopen our churches, we must be clear, precise and thinking of others. I strongly recommend every church to follow the guidelines laid out by the federal and state governing officials. Wear a mask, disinfect, practice social distancing etc. This is an opportunity for us to be as wise a serpent (Matthew 10:16) and to prove to the world that we care for them above our need for church to look as it did.

If I could be so bold to say this to anyone reading this, if you feel the spirit is leading you to have church open, not follow the guidelines laid out, and do whatever you “feel” the spirit is leading you to do, it is foolish and what I would argue, against the will of God. The same spirit that inspired the scriptures is not going to inspire you to contradict the character and nature of God. Please, for the sake of those who are far from God, don’t be unwise. For the sake of those that are more vulnerable, don’t be selfish. For the sake of your influence, don’t be too hasty to ignore what has been laid out. Pastors, we need you to lead the world through this reopening. Let the beauty of the church shine bright. It is our charge from scripture to lead her well.

That is why, at City Church, we will be following our governing officials and local leaders closely during our reopening. The Federal and State government is recommending a phased approach to opening the economy back up again. I think that this is a lesson that the church can learn from and honestly, use to their strengths.

As of the writing of this, we are still on “lockdown” as a state. However, many businesses are taking steps towards reopening. I think that the church should do the same. Therefore, what I am laying out below is not set to a timeline based on dates or hopeful wishes, but based upon state recommendations and medical data.

In every phase we will:

  • Follow the CDC and State Guidelines
  • Practice Handwashing
  • Wear Mask and provide them for those who don’t have one
  • Practice Social Distancing
  • Enforce that the sick stay home
  • Protect our church body and the most vulnerable

Phase 1

We know that in New York when the stay at home order expires, many people are going to want to get back to normal. However, that is just NOT the case for our church. Upon the first day of “Phase 1” in our state, we are going to move to Phase 1 as a church.

This is a simple, first step to start to encourage people to safely gather again. During Phase 1, we are allowing the Community Groups that have been meeting online or have disbanded during this time, to open back up for in home meetings as long as they follow the CDC and State recommendations. As of now, we do not know the amount of people that will be allowed to gather together, but we are expecting it to be somewhere around 10-20 people. We will allow groups, if they are comfortable, to start meeting again in person.

Phase 2

Regardless of what Phase we are in as a state, our phase two will take place at least 14 days after the mandate on groups gathering has been lifted, so a minimum of 14 days after phase 1 for our church has started. This will be the most crucial stage of our reopening as a church.

We will be moving to a House Church model, where the House Churches will meet together in homes, pray, take communion, share a meal and watch the live stream together as a group. The limit to the amount of people in the home is still undetermined until we know what the state is going to allow.

We believe this will give people a chance to start gathering again on Sunday mornings while building intentional community. Our goal is to start with 8-10 House Churches, knowing that not everyone will attend once this starts.

We have a House Church guideline that will be handed out to each host home leader. They will include taking attendance, having a clean and safe home, sharing a meal together, etc. We will also provide City Kids activities for the smaller children while the adults are watching the online experience.

I will be doing a second blog and a podcast in the next week to talk about the mechanics of this structure, the guidelines and how people “sign up” while protecting the host home. I am very excited about this approach and what we believe will happen through this.

Phase 3

Phase 3 is not a huge change, but one that will start to build momentum. Our House Churches will continue as planned on Sunday mornings. We will move to a live audience on Sunday Mornings for our stream once the state allows groups of 50 or more to start congregating.

This will be an RSVP only through Eventbrite or similar platform, and despite it being 50 people, we will limit a live audience to around 30 people to ensure that we can practice social distancing as well as have room for our volunteers who are currently serving. (Our studio space is much smaller that our normal auditorium space). Again, I must stress that we will be enforcing the CDC, State and Local mandates for gatherings.

Our hope is that the House Church model will continue to grow during this season for people and the we can start to multiply some of them as they expand.

Phase 4

We feel that it is best (as of now) to not hold a Live Sunday for the entire church until we can meet together in a large group with at least 250 people. This will be the start of the “New Normal”. We want to make it feel like a Sunday Experience again, one that is engaging, full of energy, and one big party.

We will have City Kids, all of our volunteer area’s staffed, and want it to be as close to normal as possible while practicing the CDC guidelines. We understand that this will take months to get to, but we feel that this is the safest way and best way for our church to move forward.

We will continue to stream our Sunday Experiences live for those who still might not feel comfortable about coming out to a large gathering.

Our hope is that through these phases, we can rebuild community within our church as well as depth with Jesus Christ. It is a more simplistic approach to ministry than what we’ve had before, but it is also a chance for us to be very intentional about developing and creating community.

Is this for Everyone?

No, the bottom line is that this approach is not for everyone. This is what our Leadership Team feels is best for us at this time. We understand that smaller churches may be able to meet together much sooner. We also understand that larger churches may have to wait until a later time. I think what’s important is looking and thinking outside of the box of what church has been in the past.

As a church, this is an opportunity for us to model what submission and honor to our governing authorities looks like. This is a way for us to set an example to nonbelievers while inviting them into Gospel Community.

Remember, we’re doing this "For the One” above, our Heavenly Father, by reaching the one who is far from God, seeing them come into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.

### Listen to the Podcast

Setup your own Text Number Service Sat, 25 Apr 2020 11:00:00 -0400 20f6c306-58c7-47e0-846f-3f695928785c As we find new ways to reach churches or your organization, a simple number people can text is an easy way to stay connected. At City Church, we set ours up in about 30 minutes and made all those resources we used publicly available. This should provide a quick guide on how to set it up. Overview

When COVID hit, we wanted to find a way to better reach and serve our community after going digital. We had an idea to setup a text number service where people could text a number with a keyword and get all the up-to-date information they need. This idea turned into a weekend project, which turned into a 30 minute project from start to finish. This ended up being the project that I worked on and setup. Outside of serving at City Church, I'm a Software Engineer at a large company and work with these types of services everyday. We understand everyone doesn't, so we wanted to make all the resources available so almost anyone could set up their own text number service, specific to them at almost no cost.

How does it work?

There are a large number of services that exist that do this already, but they either cost too much money or can be overkill for what we wanted to do. Since I'm a software engineer, I knew I could build something that fit our need with little cost, highly customizable, and quickly.

We use a few online services to make this happen. The first one is Twilio, which gives us a number and handles the receiving/sending of SMS messages. First, we signed up for an account, bought a number (local to our area), and we were off to the races. We will dig into more later how to setup this account and how much it cost.

While Twilio gives us a number and handles the incoming/outgoing SMS messages, it doesn't have any logic on how to handle what each keyword means and how to reply. Twilio lets you setup what are called webhooks. All this means is, when Twilio gets a message it needs to go somewhere tell it what the message is and wait to see how to reply. To do this, we use Amazon Web Services and a service they offer called AWS Lambda.
Twilio Send and Receive Diagram

I know I'm starting to get technical, but we will land the plane. We did all the heavy lifting for you, so you should just hav to follow the steps below. While it is a fairly simple setup process, if you have someone on your staff who is technical, they would probably be the best person to setup this service.


Twilio will be the majority of your pricing, but still very small. You have to pay for the phone number and then each SMS message, both incoming and outgoing. The phone number costs a total of $1.00 a month and then $0.0075 for each incoming or outgoing message (that's not a typo, it's less then a penny!).

So to run some quick examples, let's say you have 1 number and get a total of 250 messages from people. Since we have 250 incoming, we will probably have 250 outgoing (you got to respond!). So this comes to a total of $1.00 + (250 * 0.0075) + (250 * 0.0075) = $4.75.

Amazon Web Services pricing is even less, even sometimes free! With each AWS account, you get a "free tier" of resources for 12 months, which the project will mostly likely stay in. For AWS Lmabda you get a total of 1 million requests a month. So let's just assume that's free. You also need to use API Gateway to let your Lambda function be available on the internet. You also get a total of 1 million requests a month for free. For the sake of this project, a request is going to be each time someone texts your number. So unless you expect to get over 1 million requests a month, you aren't going to pay a dime.

You might want to keep this service available after the 12 months, but the pricing doesn't immediately skyrocket. With AWS Lambda you are only charged for how many "seconds" your application runs. Most of the requests to process your text message, will actually be less then a second. How much does each second cost? Only $0.00001667... Again not a typo, that's a real cost point. It's so low in fact, that the examples on their webside start at a minimum of 30 million request and that comes to a total of... $5.83 cents...

So far between both services, we are looking at under 5 dollars a month for 250 incoming messages. $1.00 of that being just for the number, meaning as you grow, the cost grows slower. So for basically the cost of a cup of coffee from our wonderful friends at Storied Coffee, I can provide a valuable service to my church or organization. Perfect!

Ok, I get it. It's great. How do I set it up?

To setup, we'll do the AWS Lambda side first. We need the URL it generates after we create it for Twilio.

First, either create an account or login to an existing one. I assume for most people, you have to create a new one. This shouldn't take long and even though it might ask for a credit card, know that if you follow the guidelines here it should never be charged (with that said, I'm not responsible for any unexpected bill charges, sorry). After creating an account and logging in, you will want to search and open "Lambda".
AWS Console
You will then be brought to the Lambda dashboard. You might see a welcome or get started screen, or be brought right into your functions. Either way, you are going to want to look for a button that says "Creat Function" and click it.
Create Lambda Function
Fill in a name for your function and then make sure the "Runtime" is set to "Node.js 12.x" (should be selected by default). Then click "Create Function".
Create Function
Might take a little bit, but once the function is created, you should be brought to a screen that looks like this.
Function Created
If you see something like this screen, perfect! We just need to do a few more things and then it's over to Twilio to get your number!

From this screen, you are going to click "Add Trigger". This is how we connect the API Gateway and get a URL for your service. After hitting "Add Trigger" select "AWS Gateway" from the dropdown and fill it out similar to how I have it below, again changing the name to whatever you would like. When complete, go ahead and click "Add". This again, might take a minute.
Add Trigger
After it's created, you should see something similar to what's below. Under the new trigger, you should see a URL listed next to "API endpoint". Copy this and save it for later! This is the URL we will use when we setup Twilio. To make sure it works, open a new tab/window and try to go to it. If working correctly, you should see "Hello from Lambda!". It might take up to 30 seconds for it to work, so if it doesn't work the first time, wait a minute and try again.
Trigger Created
Next, click the function name at the top (the one with the orange icon) to go back to the first screen. Scroll down a little bit and you should see a section for "Function Code". This is how it knew to return "Hello from Lambda!" before. We are going to replace this with the the code in this file. If you look at it, it might be confusing, but you should be able to see the keywords that we have setup at City Church. Some of these include "new", "jesus", "groups", etc. Each keyword has a "message" that we associate with it. The "message" is what will be sent back to the user! So if I text my number "groups", it will find that keyword and then send the "message" that I wrote back to the user. What you are going to do first, is copy this code and replace all the code in "Function Code". It should then look something like this.
Function Code
To make it specific to your church or organization, we are going to want to edit what is inbetween the " " after the word "message. Don't be scared if you've never programmed before, this is just typing sentences! If you want to use the existing keywords, then just replace the working and/or the links to our website with yours. If you want different case words, replace ours with what you want! The definition case "new" means that a keyword option is "new". If you want to change this to maybe "first time", then you would make it case "first time". Now you have your own keyword! The important thing with keywords is that they all have to be lowercase. The user texting can text whatever case they want (iNcLudInG tHiS), but we check again lowercasing. After you make the changes you want, Just hit the "Save" button in the upper right and you're done! If you ever want to add more keywords or change a message, you will come back to this function and just edit the "Function Code" section again. You do not need to go through all the steps, just this section.

Now that our AWS account is created, our lambda function is running, and our messages are written, we should get a number so people can start using it. Head over to Twilio and create an account.
After creating an account, go the Twilio Console and from the left menu, go to "Phone Numbers". We are first going to buy a number.
Programmable SMS
You should then see the following screen (or something similar). Click the big red "+" icon at the top to buy a number.
From there, go ahead and use their search tool to pick whatever number you want. The only requirement is that under "CAPABILITIES" you select "SMS". This is a required feature that your number needs to be sure it can receive and send text messages.
After you buy the number, open the menu on the left again and select "Programmable SMS". We now just need to attach the number to your Lambda function.
Programmable SMS
From there, select "SMS" -> "Messaging Services". Here is where you will take your number and attach the URL from before. Click the blue "+" icon, enter a "Name", select "Marketing,2-way" for your "Use Case" and then hit "Create".
SMS Attach
New Service
From there, you need to change "Inbound Settings" to be "Send an Incoming Message Webhook". This will give you an option for "Request URL" and "Fallback URL". Take the URL you saved from before and put it in both fields. When done, hit "Save".
Setup Service with Lambda
And... that's it! Go ahead and try to text your number. If might take a little bit to reply on the first attempt, but you should get a custom response from one of your keywords! Congrats!

In Closing

Let's recap what we did. We setup a new AWS and Twilio account, create a new Lambda function with our own code for messages and keywords, bought our own number and got it to communite withour function. Amazing! Give yourself a pat on the back!

Unless you plan on adding more keywords, messages or changing links you should never have to touch this again. Twilio will keep working as long as their is money in your account and AWS will forever keep running. You should also make it a habbit to check on billing every so often, but you shouldn't have to run any of the setup steps again.

If you had issues setting this up, we would love to help. You can comment below or email myself at and I would love to help!

In the same, if you got it to work and have people using it, let us know! We would love to see how you are using these tools to better reach your church or organization.

What Are Mission & Vision Statements and Why Do I Need One? Thu, 19 Jul 2018 14:00:00 -0400 aaa61fee-1afe-402c-a833-bf785e33bec1 What is mission? What is vision? Did you even know their is a difference between the two? It is important to every church or organization. City Church Leadership Team
Want to listen instead? -> Episode #8

Several years ago I was sitting in a Panera Bakery around town doing some work for ministry. I was trying to pass some time before meeting up with a friend of mine, who was also a faithful congregant at City Church. When he arrived, I bought him a coffee and we proceeded to start small talk about life, our family, theology, and whatever else came to mind.

Maybe a half-hour into our conversation he challenged me with something. He said, “Hey Michael, I want to hear the vision of the church.” So that was simple… I told him what we had on paper, then elaborated on it even more.

What he said next would be a catalyst for change in our organization:

“I think that what you have is not a vision statement but a mission statement. This tells me nothing about the vision, but all about the mission of the church.”

At first, I was taken back. I wasn't quite sure what the difference was, but, as we kept discussing, I started to see his point. He then asked if he could send me an article from Forbes magazine. I said "yes", and the rest is history.

When I received the article and after talking with him, everything about our vision and mission started to change… but in a good way. I realized that what we had “written” as a church was a mission statement, but that we had really very little, or no, vision at all.

So let's start with the difference:

What is a mission statement?

A mission statement explains what you are all about. For example: City Church exists to lead people who are far from God into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. This statement right here explains who and what City Church is all about. For the longest time, I thought this was our vision.

I think that it is easy to get the two mixed up. They are so closely related, and they sound quite similar. You even make comments like “our mission and vision is….” so it is easy to mix the two up.

But, I hope that right here you can see the difference.

What is a vision statement?

Andy Stanley says it best, in my opinion. A vision statement is “a mental picture of what could be . . . fueled by a passion that it should be.”

Think about that for a second. Even when we talk about faith and hope in Scripture, we are talking about a better day than what we are experiencing now, right? So a vision statement is similar to that: a vision of what could be.

We started talking about this at City Church in a lot of depth in 2016. First and foremost, I believe that vision comes from the Lord, but it is executed by the people that God places around you. When we started talking as a team, we started to realize that we didn't have a clear vision for where we were headed. We all had our own preferences, desires, and, ultimately, what we thought the church should look like. THIS IS NOT GOOD. Here's why: it will pull people in multiple directions. Each of you will be doing what you think you should do, but you won't necessarily be headed in the same direction.

So we sat down and started chatting about this. Here are some of the questions that we started to ask ourselves, which you might find helpful to ask yourself:

  • What do we want to be known for?
  • What does our current target audience see in the church?
  • If we were missing, what would the need be in the community?
  • Where do we see ourselves being in 1 year, 3 years, 5 years? (notice this is NOT a 5 year plan, but a vision of where you'd like to be)
  • What steps do we need to take to get there?

All of this led to us really defining and putting measurable goals on our vision.

City Church will be a multicultural, multi-site church with a heart to reach over 5,000 people. That is our vision. Or, in simpler terms, we want to reach 5,000 people. We know exactly how many people need to come in the front door, what our community group goals are, City Kids goals, and so on based on that one vision.

Now when you start looking at the details of this vision, it is much more than just a number. But what this has done is it has allowed us to come up with measurable metrics for us to hit. How can you celebrate a milestone or achievement if you don't measure it?

So mission is what we do. Vision is where we are headed. And let me take it one step further: your vision should communicate why it is important to head in that direction. In our case, it is very easy: we are one of the least churched cities in America, most “post-Christian” city, and the list can go on and on and on….

Remember, that one fuels the other, but they are not the same thing.

What's the mission & vision for your church plant?

For more, listen to Episode #8
Want to hear what Michael has to say? Contact Us!