Enhancing Your Church's Digital Presence & Connecting with Online Viewers

Making sermons available online was a trend long before 2020. With increasingly affordable technology and a number of platforms providing free, easy-to-use live recording capabilities, streaming messages every week became a possibility for the smallest of churches. Not only do online sermons provide a way to reach a much greater audience, but they also allow members to remain connected when they’re out of town, at home sick, or otherwise unable to attend service in person.

Some churches have tried to take this further, providing a church experience that’s fully digital. In 2018, Churchome’s lead pastor Judah Smith announced their “global” campus that you could attend from an app on your phone. Long before that, Craig Groeschel’s Life.Church started hosting services in the virtual simulation game Second as far back as 2007 .

Actions like these once seemed like experiments only megachurches would bother with. Under COVID-19 restrictions, however, churches across the country were left with little choice but to embrace the idea of a virtual church. Online streaming was no longer a supplemental offering but the only way they could hold service.

In the early weeks of quarantine measures, approximately 96% of churches were streaming their worship services.

Still, even as churches across the country have rapidly adapted to the changing times, most have struggled to connect with their audience in the same meaningful ways that in-person attendance provides. This, in turn, has led to many churches seeing drop-offs in weekly attendance. According to Barna, 1 in 3 practicing Christians stopped attending church during COVID. For millennials, it goes up to 50%.

This stands in contrast to the early weeks of quarantine where most churches saw attendance increase, at least according to online streams. The limited statistics that platforms like Facebook and YouTube provide are vague at best. Churches are left wondering how many of these viewers are current members, visitors, or people who may have clicked on the wrong link.

For now, churches can take some comfort in knowing that at least 92% of regular members plan to attend in-person services as much as they did before the pandemic. But what about visitors? What happens to the people whose names, phone numbers, and emails you don’t know? With everything that has happened in the past year, people are looking for hope and answers now more than ever.

Even if church’s buildings are still closed or limited in capacity, they have the tools and opportunity to reach these people and present the love of Christ. But to truly make an impact and bring someone closer to God, relationships are needed. Regardless of differing views on the validity of online interactions, almost all churches would agree that simply watching an online sermon once a week isn’t enough.

There needs to be engagement. A person’s faith needs to be an on-going part of their life.

The question churches are wrestling with is how much (if any) of that can be done online?

Defining the Digital Church Space

The status of online church viewers has been debated for as long as sermons have been viewable online. Even before the internet, many people chose to watch church services on their TV rather than attend a church in person. While TV provided little means for connections or interaction (save for donation phone numbers across the bottom of the screen), the internet provides much more opportunities for engagement. Yet a number of churches have remained unconvinced that it’s enough.

COVID-19 has certainly forced churches to recognize people as being part of their congregation whether or not they walk through a physical set of doors, though the concept shouldn’t seem that foreign. After all, the first record of a building dedicated to church use was 200 years after the death of Christ. Even then, it wouldn’t be legal for Christians to publicly own a building for another 60+ years after that.

Even after nearly 1700+ years of dedicated church buildings, many Christians choose to meet in houses, schools, coffee shops, and more. Why can’t a virtual space be included in this? Whether it’s being used as an initial point of entry, a supplementary form of connection, or a foundational piece of your church, the internet unquestionably has a lot to offer modern Christianity.

That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate concerns about placing pieces of the church online.

A long-standing worry churches have had is that online streaming could hurt in-person attendance, reduce giving, and weaken the health of their community. The good news is there is little to no evidence of it doing any of that. In fact, a wide variety of churches say that it only helps them grow and expand their reach. After all, people who are attending church aren’t just coming for the sermon. They’re coming for the community.

This brings about the greater concerns regarding online church. By default, there’s a lack of direct interaction. It’s harder to connect with a person and learn their name, their story, and how to follow up with them. It’s easy for people to go unseen and unheard until they drop off entirely.

Still, one could argue these are challenges to overcome rather than reasons to write off online church altogether. Intentionality is needed, just as it is with people who visit your church in person. When it comes to connecting with someone watching your services from their home, however, you may need to make a little extra effort.

Making Authentic Connections Across the Internet

The hard truth is the only way you’re going to connect to someone viewing your online sermons or church’s website is to have them reach out to you. They have to take that step. That means it’s the church’s job to make that step as simple and obvious as possible.

Thankfully, there are a number of ways you can encourage viewers to connect and become a part of your church.

Online visitor forms, private Facebook groups, text messaging subscriptions, and even phone numbers to call are all simple, yet effective ways to invite people to take to connect. One of the best ways to make all of these readily available is by setting up a basic landing page on your church website. From there, a person can choose how to connect based on their personal preferences. We’d recommend keeping the URL to this page short and simple so that a person can easily remember it.

Word of Life Church in Missouri has a great example of embracing online membership here. They make it clear what it means to be an online member, what you can expect, and how you can better connect. They also have the pastor and other church staff holding monthly Zoom calls with online members.

Substance Church in the Twin Cities offers both In Person and Digital next step options on their website. They continue this theme through many of their other connection pages, offering both physical and digital connection points.

More and more churches are also integrating new tools like Clearstream. Clearstream is texting software specifically designed for churches, providing a simple way for visitors to take that first step while allowing churches to easily manage the people who reach out.

Whatever options you’re providing for people to connect, visibility is crucial. Phone, text phrases, and web addresses should be shown multiple times in online services in case someone joins late or leaves early. They should also be place prominently in video descriptions, on your website, and on your social media. It’s better to be a little overbearing then to have someone miss how to connect.

A great way to further incentivize people to connect is by creating welcoming packets for online visitors. When a person attends a church in person, they’re often given booklets, Bibles, and more. Why not provide the same offerings to people who are joining you online? You could actually mail them a packet, or you could provide them with a PDF that links to important information, explains the next steps they should take, and lets them know how they can be a part of your community.

For some, that means having them attend a physical church building in person. Other churches, however, are fine with maintaining an online-centric relationship.

Bring the Church Online

In light of COVID-19, many churches have taken to creating true online campuses for their church. This doesn’t just mean setting up a website or streaming your sermons online but bringing the true concept of the church into the digital space.

As Douglas Estes writes in his book SimChurch:

“It is critical that we do not confuse an online church with, say, a website of a real-world church. An online church is not a website (building or place), a podcast (ritualized institution), or a blog (fellowship or activity). An online church is a place where people professing to have faith in Jesus Christ gather regularly to be in meaningful community appointed to build up the kingdom—or more specifically, an online church is the confessing people gathering in a synthetic world.”

While there are churches that operate solely online with no physical locations, most churches are creating virtual extensions and online campuses where people can experience church to the fullest, no matter where they are. What this looks like can vary from church to church, but it typically includes things like joining small groups, making prayer requests, praying for others, joining leadership teams, and more.

Redemption Church in San Jose, CA has a separate website and branding for their online campus they’ve dubbed i.Church. Their goal is to provide a full church experience that allows for membership, life group access, prayer networks, and even volunteer opportunities. These opportunities are designed for members who cannot attend or participate in the church’s local volunteer opportunities.

Redemption Church also has a dedicated online pastor. As online activities become more prevalent among churches, it’s not uncommon for there to be dedicated staff for online ministries. However, most churches have their online ministry led by either volunteers or a staff member with other responsibilities.

This allows for churches of any size (and budget) to create a virtual campus for little to no extra cost. This isn’t just a valuable asset when there happens to be a global pandemic taking place. A true online church experience provides a great point of connection for those who are interested in church but intimidated by the idea of visiting a place where they’ve never been and don’t know anyone.

Beyond that, it can provide a church community for people who tend to be out of town a lot, work on weekends, have conditions that keep them at home, lack transportation, or simply live too far away. While churches tend to focus on building their congregations out of their local communities, it’s important to remember that not everyone has a viable church option near them. This is even true in America.

Ultimately, creating a virtual church experience allows you to more easily connect with new visitors while remaining engaged with members who can’t attend in person. It can also potentially assist in avoiding the usual seasonal slumps.

The Physical Church Isn’t Dead

Even as they increase their online capabilities, many churches are concerned they won’t ever recover their in-person attendance. Thankfully, research says otherwise. As we said earlier, at least 92% of regular church members plan to attend in-person services as much as they did before the pandemic. However, this is once COVID-19 fully behind us.

Even then, most Christians are hoping that churches will continue offering digital opportunities even once COVID passes.

In the meantime, it’s important that churches everywhere continue to preach the Gospel and provide a community for everyone. Now more than ever, we need hope, and we need each other. With today’s tools and platforms, it is possible for churches of all sizes reach the hurting and the lost even if they can’t open their doors.

It’s true that there are certain things virtual interactions simply can’t replicate. A hug. A shoulder to cry on. The feeling that comes from standing side-by-side as you sing a worship song. At the very least, an online connection is a great start. In the digital age that we live in, countless people have formed true, authentic relationships that started online. Entire communities have risen up from social media platforms, comment sections, forums, and more.

Online church and digital interactions might not be what you want, but that doesn’t invalidate them for others.

Annica Cook, Communications Coordinator at Warren Baptist in Indianapolis sums it up perfectly:

“Let’s not forget those who cannot or possibly will not enter a physical building. There were many prior to COVID who were homebound for various reasons now because of COVID there are even greater numbers who do not feel comfortable attending public worship. Additionally, there are those working and serving overseas who are looking for a little taste of home. These groups still deserve to be ministered to and discipled. God has opened a vast door of possibility to us here. We really need to expand our idea of church beyond our walls on Sunday morning.”

Rather than writing off online viewers as spectators and passerby, let’s take the opportunity to embrace online audiences and make them a part of our congregations, whether that’s in-person or on the internet. 

Building Tools to Help the Church Thrive

We’re currently building the next generation of Torrch. This platform is designed specifically to help churches deal with today’s challenges. Torrch will provide user-friendly tools organizing volunteer opportunities, ministry, and paid work within the Church body while keeping people better connected.

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