“Go, but not there.”
Jesus doesn’t say that at the Great Commission. Our calling to tell people about our Savior and help those same people live out their faith is crystal clear. It’s not optional. We gotta go, but what does that commission look like in a digitally saturated world? Would Jesus be on Instagram and upload his messages to YouTube? What is okay and not okay? How does online fit into the church’s purpose? Jesus was always more focused on the people and less on the means. Jesus, and later the apostles, leveraged the Roman Roads and all sorts of their modern-day tech. You and I know the question is never about being relevant, but can a specific platform help accomplish our mission. The short answer is you can use most social networks and online tools to reach your goals, but it doesn’t mean it’s the solution for your church. Being on every platform won’t automatically grow your church. It takes a well thought out strategy aligned with your vision for it to work.
The key with online ministry, #CHURCHONLINE, or launching an online campus is zeroing in on your church’s wins. Don’t replicate what other churches are doing just because you can quickly build an audience. Do what makes sense for your church. I’ve found online church efforts, from a killer social media strategy to streaming to your very own Church Online Platform, highlights your strengths and amplifies your problems. In other words, a healthy church, balancing God’s 5 purposes for the Church, will be able to simply extend their vision and values using the internet because they are focused. Unhealthy churches will struggle. Remember, you don’t jump onto the online bandwagon to multiply your church, but to accomplish your vision, which is way beyond filling a room. You need to find the best approach for your local church’s goals. I want to challenge you to start to think through how to move watchers into your church, a partner church, or maybe a home church, but you need to think through how it all works together. I will provide three approaches to consider as you think through expanding online endeavors, but first, let’s look at some data of what’s been happening with those already streaming their services online.
Example Connection Strategy of “Watcher” to “In-Person Community”
Two case studies on this topic are The State of Online Church and What Do We Know About Online Church. I highly suggest reading the reports yourself, but both validate the importance of embracing online and, if done correctly, can help your church.
Three learnings stand out to me from the studies.
First, online is your new front door. Seventy-five percent of churches surveyed in one report said people attended their online church experience first, then showed up in-person. The unchurched want to know what is going on inside that building you call church. Watching a service from the safety of their home demystifies the unfamiliar experience. The potential visitor is making judgments the same way you and I make decisions for dinner using Yelp.
Number two, both studies revealed streaming wasn’t hurting local attendance for the majority of churches embracing an online approach. I will say it’s hard to understand the real impact of putting your service online, but I find it insightful that most churches aren’t seeing a recognizable negative affect. When people first started streaming, many thought their building would be emptied. Some put up geo fences limiting local watchers, and others just avoided streaming and YouTube like the plague. I’ve always thought this theory was false and fear-based. People come to your church because of personal relationships, and they stay because of the community and vision. The content from the pulpit is a factor, but not the main contributor. The majority of the churches surveyed saw growth locally since launching online streaming or no direct impact on attendance. Only twenty percentage think online streaming is hurting their church locally, but that number has drastically gone down over the last ten years. My suspicion, for the twenty percentage seeing a negative impact on attendance, is their local church needs to reevaluate their connection strategy.
Thirdly, eight-eight percentage see online as a vital part of their future. Still, thirty-nine percentage lack vision in this area and thirty-seven percentage are not sure how to integrate online into their vision. Many churches are empowering younger leaders to explore online church methodology, but not providing enough resources and coaching. Your online presence is becoming the most crucial first impression outreach to your community and needs more attention from senior leadership. I hope you find it encouraging that everyone is struggling with how to capitalize and integrate an online paradigm into their local church’s vision. You’re not alone, and by the end of this resource will have some guardrails and context to launch an online ministry better.
I do want to back up to a 30,000-foot view. There are three approaches for online church or expressing your church’s paradigm using the internet. Your church should consider all three strategies when making decisions from investing in a social media presence or why to launch a stream on Facebook. It all needs to connect to your church’s goals, and high-level conversations with leadership need to happen for success to clearly be defined.
Three Approaches for Online Church
1st. Nearby Approach: Engage with people locally using the internet.
Front Door – Use the internet to reach people in your community and drive them to your church location. (ex. Facebook Live, Church Online Platform, and/or YouTube, which invites people to attend the next weekend in-person)
Anywhere Nearby – Use the internet to reach people in your community and drive them to your church location + leverage the internet to help your members engage with the church’s paradigm while not at your church. (ex. Provide ways for people sick, in a restricting season of life, or allow to engage in their ideal learning preference to complete discipleship material and/or be part of an Online Group)
2nd. Anywhere Approach: Engage people through the internet to participate in your church’s paradigm by starting a location in their city.
1.0 – Participating in the church’s paradigm online only (ex. Online Groups)
2.0 – Participating in the church’s paradigm online + expressing the paradigm locally with others in their city. (ex. House Church)
3rd. Hybrid Approach: Engage people through the internet to participate in your church’s paradigm by attending your church’s location or starting a location in their city.
Carefully consider all three approaches when thinking about launching a weekly stream on Facebook or providing a robust interactive #CHURCHONLINE experience using the Church Online Platform. Which method works best with your church’s vision? The approach defines the goals. If you’re using the Nearby Front Door Approach, then make sure during the live stream to invite people online to visit your church the next weekend and provide an easy way for the watcher to complete a connection card. If the Anywhere 2.0 Approach is your choice, then provide a way for watchers to engage in your church remotely. For example, problem-solve, so online attenders can take your classes online using a Learning Management Software (LMS), access small group material digitally, or whatever other programs part of your church’s paradigm are online accessible.
So, what’s your next step? I suggest loading up a sketch app on your iPad or clear off that dirty whiteboard and draw your church’s funnel, flywheel, or baseball diamond pathway. With the sketch front and center, have a real dialogue with your leadership about the pathway. Bring up all three approaches and draw a clear line of what you want to try expressing online and at what point do you want to drive people to a local church or in-person experience.
Talk openly about the approaches, and I highly suggest starting with the first approach. Once the sandbox is created on how to explore online church in your context, and the wins understood, then you can build towards those goals. For example, in the Nearby Approach, the win is figuring out how to take someone from a stream to attending in-person. What are the barriers to moving someone from watching online to sitting in a seat the next Sunday? Who oversees the online experience? Does a tech role or pastor play point person of the online service? How do people online complete a response card? Who is handling the follow up on response cards? What do you measure weekly for attendance? All these questions and more have clearer answers once the approach and pathway are decided. One more suggestion is to get one story of success throughout your testing period and allow that story to prove the potential of further investing in your online paradigm. I’ve provided many data points and thoughts around what online church can do, but I believe the stories brought flesh to the vision.
The internet provides a tremendous opportunity to fulfill the Great Commission, but wisdom is needed. It’s not about being relevant, but purposeful with time and resources. Pick an approach for six months. Define the win to driving people to your church in-person or another congregation. After the trial period, regroup, and talk about what work, didn’t work, and dream about phase two of the experience. Now, “Go” and start the conversation of launching a healthy online church experience.