Your members are not watching your online services. Well, at least not all of them are. According to a recent survey by the Barna Group, in the past four weeks, churchgoers have:
Streamed My Regular Church Online: 40%
Streamed a Different Church Online: 23%
Where did they go?
A pastor friend of mine told me last week that he just discovered that two core, committed families had left their church – 5 months ago! He just found out. Their senior pastor had taken a stand that they disagreed with, so they “left” the church. No one knew because churches in their state have not been allowed to meet in-person for worship since March 2020. These members didn’t need to move to the church down the street. They just changed the channel.
Most churches who are regathering for worship are only seeing about 30% of their attendance from 12 months ago. Most are continuing to see high levels of streams for their online services, but every pastor has to admit that there are a fair number of people in the “Neither” category.
While I believe this season presents a great opportunity for the church to reach people far from God, the church also has to change how they serve in this season. Most pastors have counted on the sermon and the weekend service to accomplish far more than it’s capable of doing. [LINK] As Andy Couch said, the church should keep the Who and Why, but change the What and How.** Here are the key areas to lean into in this season:
Create an Interactive Worship Experience
Just because it’s online doesn’t mean people are really watching. Three of our four children are doing online school this year. Our oldest graduated from high school this year. (What a bummer of a year to graduate, right?) Our daughter attends a charter school with about half the students in the physical classroom and the other half watching the stream of the class at home. She has to have her camera on. She has to wear her school uniform. She has to do her assignments. Mostly she sits bored in front of a Chromebook all day, but as she says, “It’s just like going to school in person except I have a more comfortable chair.”
Our two sons attend a completely online school. The classes are intended for an online-only classroom. They interact with their teachers. The lessons are taught for the small screen. While school is still school and still boring, our sons’ school does a much better job of keeping them engaged than our daughter’s streaming school.
Now, do you see your church’s online worship services in that example? Are you streaming the in-person service or are you creating an online experience? There’s a difference. Here’s an example. Morningside Baptist Church in Columbus, Georgia was a legacy church of about 400 members pre-COVID. When their services went online, their online attendance jumped to 800 views overnight. While the church has started to regather on Sunday morning, only about 120 people are attending in-person, but another 1,600 are viewing online. But, the innovation I would like for you to see is what they are doing with their midweek service called The Living Room.
The pastor and two of the staff appear on a living room set that they built. They bring in a guest via Skype and then take questions from Facebook and Instagram DURING the service. It’s a digitally, interactive service. Now, The Living Room is a work in progress, but it’s developing into something very interesting. Check it out (They’ll be thrilled with the views!).
There are better preachers online. There are more interesting services online. What is unique about what you are putting online? How do you build a relationship with your online audience? How do you KEEP a relationship with your members? Eventually your church will regather if it hasn’t already, but what is your responsibility to your online congregation?
Don’t Leave Kids Behind
Church online is great for adults, but it’s a bummer for kids. It’s like we’ve gone back 50 years when there was only a nursery on Sunday morning and no children’s church. As my wife and I have been watching church online for 26 weeks now, our kids are not interested. Our 7-year-old will join us for the singing, but exits when the preaching starts. But, kids engage online just not with the same things as adults.
My 7-year-old is a loyal viewer of Ryan’s Toys Review and the Izzy’s on Youtube. It’s almost like they’ve become part of the family. While we limit his viewing, their Youtube shows have sparked his creativity in building intricate Thomas the Train tracks, unique Lego projects, and his own DIY set pieces for these creations. He can’t get enough of it. Recently, he got hooked on new Youtube videos – Saddleback Kids (Early Childhood and Elementary). Taking cues from these other Youtube sensations, Saddleback has entered my 7-year-old’s world, and he loves it!
Connect Them into Groups
Your Fall 2020 Small Group Launch could be the MOST IMPORTANT LAUNCH you’ve ever had. (YES! I’M YELLING.) As far as fall group launches go, it’s a bummer. Many people are tired of Zoom. (There are other ways to meet online). Many people are not showing up to the online groups they joined. (There are better ways to get them there). People, including small group pastors, are ready for things to get back to normal, but normal may not be here for a while.
Resist the temptation to write your Fall 2020 launch up as a loss. There are new online followers who need a group. There are faithful members who need community and conversation amid the pandemic. Your calling and your mission did not stop because there’s a pandemic. The church has been through far worse and thrived.
Check Your Giving Records
I don’t want to sound crass, but I hope someone on your team has compared the current individual giving records with those from a year ago. Since pastors can’t count noses, you can still count nickels. This isn’t about money. This is about your people. If your people have stopped giving, it’s probably for one of a handful of reasons:
They are no longer financially committed because they left your church. You’d better find out why.
They no longer see the perceived value of giving to your church. You’d better talk about how your church is serving the less fortunate in your community and how many you’re reaching.
They have experienced a significant drop in income or a job loss. How can you help them?
I really don’t even like suggesting this, but how else do you know who’s still around? This leads to the last point.
Get on the Phone
Whether your staff is five or 500, every staff member should be on the phone with a dozen or more church members EVERY DAY. (I also think every staff member should be leading a small group. After all, what else are they doing right now? They’ve got time on their hands.) In one very large church I’m working with, the staff members were tasked with making 160 calls per day! Why?
People need to know their church cares about them. The call isn’t to ask why they stopped giving or serving, but it could certainly be triggered by that information. The call is to see how they are doing. The call is to offer help. The call is to offer connection.
Smaller churches have the advantage. The average church in America is 90 people. By calling three people per day, a pastor could connect with every member of the congregation over a 30 day period.
Call every giver. Call every core member. Call every leader. Call everyone who’s not attending in-person. Pick up the phone so your sheep can hear your voice!
The American Church is at the crossroads of opportunity and extinction. As David Kinnaman said, 1 in 5 churches will permanently close in the next 18 months. Some estimate there are 300,000 churches in the U.S. That means 60,000 churches will close! This isn’t “waiting until things get back to normal.” This is an emergency! How is your church connecting with your people?
If you are ready to up your game with digital ministry, I am hosting a webinar with Phil Cooke on Thursday, October 1 at 2 pm Eastern. Phil has a PhD in Theology and is an active media producer. He is saying some things about the church that you need to hear. Registration is limited. In fact, registration is not even set up yet, so if you’re interested email me at email@example.com ASAP.
Church online is direct-to-camera. Church online is interactive. Church online is an intentional effort to disciple a growing online congregation. Streaming video is passive. With streaming video (live or recorded), the viewer is an observer, not a participant.
The church has got to get this right, because according to some estimates getting back to “normal” could take up to three to four years (if it ever does). From recent conversations with pastors, the average church has about 30% of their people attending in-person. But, there are far more people joining for worship online. In fact, most churches are seeing larger online attendance than their normal worship numbers. One pastor I spoke to yesterday said that a year ago, they had 550 in worship. Today, there are 200 worshipping in-person and over 1,600 worshipping online. How are churches discipling their online congregations?
Church Online is NOT Merely Streaming an In-person Worship Service.
Online worship services require a tighter shot. The services are shorter. Sermons are more like 20-30 minutes than 45 minutes. The pastor needs to speak direct-to-camera because the sermon is going to the living room. There’s a big difference between speaking to a big room and speaking to a small screen. The church, in general, did a better job at church online before people started regathering for in-person services.
But, as people are coming back, even just a small percentage of the congregation, the temptation is to speak to the few that are gathered and ignore the online worshippers. This is both rightly and wrongly so. A pastor cannot ignore the people gathered in the room, but a pastor also cannot create a passive experience for the larger group who are watching at home.
This reminds me of a moment about 30-40 years ago when churches were transitioning from traditional worship services to contemporary worship services. Many churches could not immediately make the jump. After all, if you alienate the base, then the giving goes down, and the pastor gets fired. So, churches offered separate services for traditional worship and for contemporary worship. A few tried “blended” worship, but was Stuart Briscoe once said, “If you blend contemporary and traditional, you end up with contemptible!”
By streaming in-person worship services, you end up with contemptible. If you speak direct-to-camera and ignore those gathered in-person, your people will think that they’re watching a TV preacher. But, if you speak only to the room and ignore the online congregation, you’ll lose them. I believe it’s time for churches to adopt two worship styles: an in-person service and an online service. The in-person service isn’t streamed. It’s created specifically for the people in the room. The online service is created specifically for the online congregation. It’s direct-to-camera. It’s shorter. It’s more interactive. The online service moves people from observing to participating. Why do this? There are more people “out there” than there are “in here.” This will be the case for a long while.
Church Online Needs Next Steps
A year ago online ministry was just a novelty, but in 2020 online ministry became a necessity. For a few months, the church regarded online services as a band-aid until things returned to normal. Today, no one knows when normal will return or what normal even is. And, that’s okay, because there is a larger opportunity online. Just look at your metrics.
How are you connecting with your online congregation? What next steps are you offering them? Do you even know who they are? Every weekend, you need to welcome visitors. Every weekend you need to collect their information by email or text. Then, you need to challenge them in their next steps just like you would an in-person guest.
Put your membership class online. There are no more excuses for not being able to attend. When your membership class goes online, people have 168 hours per week to participate. Put your growth track online. Saddleback Church just put CLASS 101-401 online after doing it live and in-person for 40 years! (and as of 8/30/2020, Saddleback added 600 new members through online CLASS 101).
How are you capturing information? How are you offering next steps? Church online is no longer just a stop gap, it’s church.
Churches with online small groups in place are faring far better than churches without online groups. There is a lot to process. There is a lot of fear and confusion in the world. People need to gather with others who will listen, care for them, and point them back to God in a personal, individual way. Online groups can accomplish this for those who are not ready to meet in-person yet.
Church Online Needs Opportunities to Care and Serve
People need an outlet for ministry. The Coronavirus pandemic has forced people to mostly stay home and to venture out very little. This isolation is taking a toll on people’s mental health. It’s not good to be alone thinking only about yourself.
Years ago a prominent psychiatrist, Dr. Karl Menninger, was asked a question by an audience member at a conference, “If you knew someone was suicidal, what would you recommend for that person to do?”
They audience expected Dr. Menninger to recommend immediate and intense psycho-therapy. Instead, Dr. Menninger replied, “I would tell them to go over to the other side of the tracks and help someone in need.” It’s healthy to help others. It’s unhealthy to be overly focused on oneself. (If you or someone you know is suicidal: 1-800-273-8255).
There are many needs in our communities. People need food. Parents need childcare. People need to know that someone cares. Encourage your online audience to participate with the church in serving your community or to just find a need a fill it.
In a recent interview with NPR, David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, said, “I think also it’s really going to change the way people think about their donation relationship with local churches as well. There’ll have to be an even greater demonstration of the value that a church brings not just to those who attend but also those who are part of this community.”
While all of the things listed above will certainly add value to your online congregation, churches must show how they are helping the community. Where are these dollars going? After all, those who are worshipping at home aren’t receiving the benefit of the building or the staff. But, beyond this, people need teaching about giving. Generosity is a spiritual discipline. It’s a sign of spiritual maturity. As your people grow, they will also grow in giving.
The American church is in a precarious moment. “As many as one in five churches could permanently close as a result of shutdowns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic,” according to Kinnaman. “Obviously, there will be a lot more online attendance than ever before, even after all churches reopen. I think this digital church is here to stay.”
I see two camps in the church right now. There are those who’ve been hunkering down and waiting for Coronavirus to blow over so things can get back to normal. These are the churches that are in the most danger right now. Then, there are those churches who are embracing this disruption as an opportunity to meet the practical needs of people, re-evaluate their current ministries, reposition themselves for digital ministry, and embrace the opportunity of reaching a lost, hurting, and broken world online.
This year has been just as crazy of a year for Rock Church in San Diego, CA as it has for everybody else. They have not conducted in-person services since March. Pastor Miles McPherson streams his message every Sunday morning to a growing online congregation. Then, in addition to quarantine, the US began to experience racial unrest to a high degree. Pastor Miles just so happens to be the author of The Third Option: Hope for a Racially Divided Nation. Suddenly, he knew what his next sermon series would be. The church also decided to launch book groups to go along with the series. Even if your church isn’t a megachurch or your pastor has not written a book, the principles Rock Church used will help you launch more online and in-person groups. This is how they launched 119 new online groups in July:
The Senior Pastor Invited People to Join Groups.
Every week Pastor Miles invited people to start or join a new online small group during the online worship service. This invitation wasn’t relegated to the announcements or made by another staff member. Over the years, I’ve seen that when an associate pastor makes the invitation, the church gets about 30% of the result. In 30 years, of full time ministry, I’ve experienced the same. This is why a lot of churches get stuck with only 30% of their adults in groups. Pastor Miles gave the invitation, and he got a big response.
They Chose a Compelling Topic.
You want a topic that has a broad appeal to a large group of people. This is not the time to choose a mature topic like fasting or anything to do with money. There are times for those series. By choosing a topic on racial tensions and reconciliation, Rock Church was positioned well to start a maximum number of groups in the middle of the summer. Now, it helped that Pastor Miles was the author of a book on racial reconciliation, but your church could also start groups using Miles McPherson’s book or start groups with a weekly teaching video and discussion questions from your pastor. The more relevant the topic, the greater the appeal.
They Reframed the Invitation to Start a Group.
Rock Church did not start “small groups.” They started book clubs or book groups. Small groups already had a certain meaning in their church’s culture. Small groups implied high qualifications and a lot of training in advance. By inviting people to Book Clubs, they didn’t need a small group leader. They needed friends to discuss a book. Language defines culture. To change the culture of groups in your church, change the words you use.
They Gave Their People Permission and Opportunity.
People interested in starting book clubs simply invited people they knew who would be interested in the book. There was no lengthy sign-up process or website to build. People just leveraged their existing relationships to meet online and discuss a topic that was relevant to them at their pastor’s invitation. It doesn’t really need to be more complex than that. That’s how most of these got started.
Now Rock Church is a large church. Chances are that there were many people who wanted to join a book club, but didn’t feel they could start one and didn’t get invited. The opportunity was given to register to join a book club. About 600 people took them up on this offer. The risk comes when you assign prospective group members to book club “leaders” that the church doesn’t know well. Instead, the book clubs for those 600 are being led largely by the church staff. (The campuses are closed. Services are online. What else is the staff going to do….?).
They Gave New Leaders an Experienced Leader to Coach Them.
To prepare for this launch, Mark Richardson, the small groups pastor at Rock Church, began to recruit experienced group leaders to walk alongside these book group leaders during the series. With the pandemic everything is decentralized. They didn’t have the ability for large training meetings, so they delivered the training through experienced leaders who can support and encourage these new leaders and answer their questions as they come.
If you can get these five keys in place, you will see a big result: Senior Pastor’s invitation, relevant topic, reframe the invitation, give permission and opportunity, and give the help of a coach. It’s not as difficult or complex as you might think. In this past year, Mark Richardson and Rock Church were prepared through my small group ministry coaching group. When we started the year, none of us knew what this year would hold. In January, Mark didn’t know he would be starting book clubs in July. But, by being ready to try something new and having coaches standing by, when Pastor Miles decided on The Third Option series, Mark was ready. Their people and their groups have benefitted greatly.
There are several options for children during the online group meeting. The important thing is to be flexible. If child interrupts to ask a question, that’s okay. You can mute your mic and tend to your child. Some parents get uptight when their child interrupts the group meeting, but please remember your group is not more important than your child.
Here are some options to consider when it comes to meeting online and caring for your children:
Meet Later After the Children are Asleep.
If group members have younger children, then you might want to meet later in the evening after the children have gone to bed. This way parents can give their attention to their children at bedtime, put them to bed, then join the online group meeting. The group may need to meet at 8 o’clock at night, but it won’t take long for the group to get home after the meeting. They are home.
Offer a Children’s Online Small Group.
There are a number of online children’s ministry options on various online platforms. Maybe kids could have their own group during the adult group. Older children could moderate the group time. Kids are very interested in Zoom meetings just like they’re parents are doing!
Spouses Could Trade Off.
Spouses could agree to take turns in attending to children during the online group meeting. One spouse would help with the kids this week, if they need something during the meeting. Then the other spouse could help next week. Both spouse can participate in the meeting, but one would be “on call” when their children need someone.
Enlist Grandparents or Other Relatives.
If group members have family nearby, the group night could be a great time for a little Grandparent-Grandchild time. Other relatives or friends might also be available to help during the meeting. In one church I served, there was a group of grandparents that met on Tuesdays, then their children had a group on Thursdays. The grandparents kept their grandchildren on Thursday nights, so the parents could meet for their groups.
The most important thing is to relax and go with the interruptions. They happen. The author has worked from home for a number of years. I’ve had kids walk in during online meetings. Sometimes those interruptions involve a cookie or a hug. They’re not so bad. Remember, your group is not more important than your children!
While some people may feel forced into their groups meeting online, there are some definite benefits of online small groups. Online small groups aren’t new. After all, I started my first online group on CompuServe in 1994. They aren’t new, but online small groups are next.
Apart from the technology, there are many commonalities between online small groups and offline small groups, yet they are not exactly the same. In both types of groups, the members want to become more Christlike, seek spiritual answers, or find support and recovery. Most small groups are formed around a Bible study with a focus on applying the truth of God’s Word to their lives. The members are there to deepen their relationships with each other, serve together, and reach others for Christ. Online or offline these group purposes are very similar.
There are some distinct difference, however. In an offline group, there are usually side conversations before or after the meeting, where in an online group, everyone is all in one video conference, conference call, or other format. All of the conversation involves everyone. Of course, group members can discuss things offline as well.
Online small groups are portable. Group members can gather regardless of their geographical location. They can become a group even if they live in different cities, states, or countries. And, if the group members move or have to travel, the group is still available to them wherever they go.
Online small groups can keep snowbirds connected. A snowbird in the U.S. is someone who spends the summers in a northern state and the winters in a southern state. Having worked with churches both north and south over the years, often the arrival or departure of their snowbirds factors into their small group launches. With online groups, snowbirds can stay connected to their northern or southern group regardless of their location.
Online small groups are a great way for people to dip their toe into small groups. They might start with an online asynchronous group, like a private Facebook group, where they communicate with the group through a message board. Eventually they may warm to the idea of meeting via audio or video. But, initially the anonymity helps them get started.
Online small group meets are typically shorter than offline groups. There is no travel time to the group meeting or back home afterward. Groups can meet at various times of day. Group members may want to meet a little later in the evening after their children have gone to bed. That takes care of the childcare issue. The only downside is that members will have to bake their own brownies.
Online small groups shouldn’t be limited to meeting online only. Groups can meet offline for socials, service projects, or open houses to invite new members, if they live in the same geographic area. If group members have only known each other online, then the first offline meeting could be a little awkward, but they will get over that awkwardness quickly. They know each other!
Some people complain of Zoom fatigue. We’ve heard this a lot during the Coronavirus pandemic. Part of me wonders if Zoom fatigue is the replacement for the old “I don’t have time for a small group” excuse. The good news is that online groups can meet on video platforms, audio platforms, or asynchronous message boards. If members just can’t look at another computer, they could talk on the phone. If they are tired of video conference, then they could write back and forth in a private Facebook group. Most people are on Facebook anyway, why not use it for their spiritual growth.
The Coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying quarantine showed churches that there is a whole world they can reach online. An online group can provide community to people who participate in the church’s online worship services. Several ministries like Celebrate Recovery at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California and the Alpha Course at Holy Trinity Brompton in London, England have reported increased participation from a more diverse group of people once they put their groups online.
Whether an online small group is a necessity or an opportunity for you, you will discover a new way to serve others and to grow with your online group. Online small groups are not perfect, but then again, no small group is perfect – online or offline.