The Dreaded Question – Where Did They Go?
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.
Churches can pivot toward digitally, interactive worship services, but if your people are not connected to each other, they have fewer reasons to stay loyal to your church. People need biblical content, but they also need conversation.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org ASAP.
*The Original 2020 is History by Carey Nieuwhof
** This is a gem of a podcast with Andy Couch, Leading Beyond the Blizzard, from 3/20/20.