Church Online on a laptop

Church Online: 3 Reflections One Year On

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My journey with church online is now over a year old, so I thought I’d share my reflections.

In the past year and a half I’ve had the task of setting up church online for two churches. It is not that they had nothing representing them online. They had websites and social channels. But as this pandemic has revealed, there is a big difference between having a presence online and having online ministry.

At my last church as Worship and Communications Director at St Mungo’s in Edinburgh it was to me they turned when suddenly online became our only option. In March 2020 it was time to figure out firstly how to get our services online from the ground up. A crazy busy few months began as our team scrambled into a world of online characterised by video editing, endless file sharing, copyright ambiguities, never ending upload spinners, coffee, WhatsApp and Slack messages. It has been a time of much hurry!

Before the pandemic hit it had already been announced my wife Jo and I would be moving on to take on the leadership here at North Berwick Christian Fellowship. Our move was delayed and it wasn’t until August 2020 that we were able to move home and take up post. We actually started the job before we had moved house, establishing a virtual presence, until we could physically move. A real picture of the times we live in! Once again the task was to move the church from having an online presence to having an online ministry.

As I reflect on this pandemic season I wanted  to write down just 3 things I’ve been learning about Church Online, two churches and a lot of trial and error later.

Earth

1. Church Online is a Real Alternative for Some

Before this pandemic, only a few churches were serious about church online. Those who already had a vision for it, or those who had the resources to invest in creating a global platform. So when this COVID pandemic began and nearly every church in the country appeared online in a matter of weeks many felt it would just be a short lived break from church as we know it.

However much to people’s surprise, at least for some, church online has become more than just a good stop gap, it has become an alternative option to attending in person.

Is this a good thing?

We could probably divert at this point and spend a serious amount of time discussing whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Does this fit with a biblical description of church? Are these people really engaged?

These are all topics I’d love to return to in due course. However the point remains. For many, church online is not just a great alternative when church can’t meet, it presents an attractive way of being part of a church.

The Winners

It’s not too difficult to think of those who have immediately benefitted. Think of those who, due to circumstances or health reasons cannot make it to church every week. Suddenly they too can feel part of what is going on. Their lack of presence does not leave them as isolated.

Geographic boundaries are being stretched too. We have a number of valued members of our church who simply live, at the moment, just too far away to commute.

The other aspect that has hit the headlines at different points this past 18 months, is that for those with no church connection, it has never been easier to “drop in”. Gone is the stigma of having to show up in person, handle the awkward conversations or avoid being spoken to by arriving late and leaving early. Just stepping over the door of a church building or community building to attend church feels like a huge thing for many in our culture. Particularly when most people I speak to have very little idea what church services actually look like these days. Church online presents a unique opportunity to put on display to those interested, at least a flavour of what church is about. For those who are mission minded this should cause us to stop and think.

Whatever the reasons, for many people both now and into the future, Church online is not just a stop gap, it’s a real alternative.

Megaphone

2. Broadcast Alone is Not Enough

The first step for every church I know of, was to get their Sunday services online. To provide access to the worship and the word on a Sunday. For those early to do this, they saw massive spikes in viewing figures (more on the challenges of interpreting these later). As I mentioned above, people who had never been near a church, were for a time now seeing church services as they scrolled aimlessly through their feeds on a Sunday morning.

However, those very same churches, for the most part, then witnessed a slow and gradual decline over the coming months. The initial excitement began to fade as the pandemic season stretched onwards.

What is working?

Beyond that initial drop off one thing that has become clearer with time is that when it comes to online content, the more interactive, the better.

Traditional church services do tend to have a certain amount of natural interaction in them, via the conversations before, perhaps some shared liturgy during the service, sung worship together and a sense of shared purpose in times of prayer. However when you set a camera up in the corner and that is your experience of church it suddenly loses nearly all those interaction points.

Simply broadcasting what would happen in-person is generally not the best solution in my view. How do we help the people joining online feel part of something, not just silent observers in a conversation?

As someone who is particularly passionate about sung worship this gap has been all too obvious to me. As much as I like to think the majority of people are standing up in their living rooms, eyes shut, hands in the air, immersed in a sense of God’s presence – the reality is much starker. Most people do what we have been programmed to do in front of a screen. Observe. Let’s be honest if your voice isn’t great, belting out ‘How Great Thou Art’ in your own living room doesn’t have the same appeal.

For the larger churches with budget and skill, the broadcast model may continue to work for a while as the production quality draws people in. For those of us in smaller settings we haven’t had that luxury!

The key to online however is interaction. It seems obvious when we stop and think about it. That is why those on YouTube are endlessly reminding us to subscribe and comment. Interaction is the foundation fo the rapid rise of social media. It is important that churches design everything to work against our default of sitting back and passively consuming.

Engaging People

We want to provoke questions, we want to answer questions we want to interact with the real people behind those 30 second viewing figures. That after all is the heart of ministry. Reaching real people. For those skeptical of online church – the turning point for me has been the recognition that behind each viewing figure or comment is a real person, with real questions, real needs and real potential to grow in their faith journey.

As someone who has been involved in church all of my life, I’m aware how this desire for interaction flies in the face of more traditional pulpit models. Most preachers don’t want to be interrupted in their 40 minute monologues. We don’t want our comment stream to be dominated by that troublesome person. We don’t want to be asked questions we don’t know the answer to. The truth is that discipleship and evangelism ultimately require interaction and space for questioning.

The online world invites us into this space. Broadcast is simply not enough in todays culture.

The honest truth is that creating interactive content is much harder (at least for me) and I am very much on a sharp learning curve with that. Finding the right technology to enable it is also part of the challenge we are all facing into.

3. Measuring Church Online ‘Success’ Is Harder

For the longest time, success for most churches, whilst perhaps not verbalised as starkly, has been largely measured with the crude tool of Sunday attendance.

Translating this measurement to the online world led to the initial elation many experienced during that first online phase in early April 2020. Churches with 100 in attendance on a Sunday were suddenly reaching 1000 people online. It would take some time for most church leaders entering this world to begin to understand what this actually meant. Diving below the surface the fact that more than 80% had only watched for 30 seconds and perhaps even those had the sound off was a little bit of a hard blow for most leaders.

Measuring online is like entering a whole new game. A game many don’t particularly want to play. Translating physical attendance to online views just simply does not work. They are different languages and very different landscapes.

In the online world, views are much more transient. People stay anonymous. They can dip in and out, they can “attend” church whilst watching TV and preparing the Sunday roast. To add another complication, as streaming services have taught us, people can ‘do church’ whenever it suits them. Not simply at a specific time on a Sunday morning.

Whilst there are many complications with measuring things online, I would still encourage people to do it. It is just important that we understand what the numbers actually do and don’t mean.

Rethinking Success

I actually think this forced challenge to what we measure could be a really good thing.

I’m not convinced that Sunday attendance or online church views are actually good measures of success for most churches anyway. In physical gatherings, we can attach our worth as leaders to the number of people in the room, and the same applies to online views. We feel great on a bumper week and like the whole thing is falling apart on a quiet week.

Fundamentally we want to measure what we want to see increase. Defining success online is just different expression of defining what “success” is for any given church community. It is more complicated than the number at the bottom of our video on YouTube.

We are ultimately talking about measuring life change and the impact in our communities.

Yes measuring things online is hard but so is measuring any form of ‘success’ in the church. Maybe you have some thoughts on how we do measure this?

A Brave New World

As a global church we have been thrust into a brave new world this past year.

It’s a strange world for many and yet increasingly our culture lives these hybrid lives. Online and in-person. Ordering our shopping online one week and popping to the shops for milk the next.

I’d like to think that most churches have been awakened to the possibilities of online, though I do fear that many are simply desperate to get back to the way things were…

What are your thoughts? What have you been learning about church online?

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