Moving from adaptation to innovation
You’re already seeing the trend: After an initial surge in online viewing numbers when the Coronavirus shut down church buildings, online viewing numbers are dropping.
The spike was significant. Heading into Easter 2020, half of all churches reported online attendance that was greater than their in normal attendance would be.
Now, that’s no longer the case.
As we head into month three of lockdown and the slow reopening of some churches, only 29% of church leaders report their attendance is higher than it would normally be. 71% report it’s now flat or lower. (Barna President, David Kinnaman, and I bring you fresh data and insights every week on the changes in The ChurchPulse Weekly Podcast. You can listen here for free.)
You can argue that everyone’s measurements might be to blame (here’s more on how to accurately measure online church attendance), but when the numbers change that dramatically, there’s a bigger trend happening than just “adjusted” reporting.
So, what’s going on?
Here are five reasons online attendance is dropping, and what you can do to respond.
1. The Novelty Is Wearing Off for Your Congregation.
Whether your church had an online service prior to the COVID shutdown of in-person services, there was a novelty to online church all of us experienced.
Church online went from being one option to being the only option. So a surge isn’t that surprising.
But as the lockdown and lack of in-person gatherings wears on, and the deeply modified in-person services are emerging, the novelty of church online is wearing off.
I’m not saying that’s good. I’m just saying that it’s probably true.
Living in a consumer culture, most people behave like consumers.
The Christian faith, of course, is hardly about novelty or consumption. In many ways, as Eugene Peterson said, the faith is a long obedience in the same direction.
And in that is a lesson for both church leaders and parishioners alike: This isn’t really about what’s new, what’s cool, what’s interesting or what’s fun. It’s about connecting people to God and each other.
The church has always been about that, whether in-person or online.
Just because the novelty of online church is wearing off for people doesn’t mean there isn’t great long-term potential for online church in a world in which everyone you want to reach is online.
2. The Novelty Is Wearing Off for You as a Leader.
This strikes a little closer to home.
And please hear me, I know leaders are tired. I get it.
But as a leader, I’m also attracted to shiny new things and get bored when they don’t instantly produce what I want them to.
Think back to the first month of church online when everyone was in lockdown. There was a lot of innovation, experimentation, new things tried.
But post-Easter, on my personal feed, I saw a lot of leaders just dial back, way back, on what they were sharing online.
Everyone was in, until they weren’t.
When you lose interest in something, don’t be surprised that your congregation does. The focus of the leader usually determines the focus of the organization.
Your fatigue is showing more than you think it is. So is your frustration.
And with in-person attendance returning far more fractionally and slowly than anyone expected, leaders who lose interest in church online stand to lose connection with their congregation and the people they’re trying to reach.
Just because you’re bored with church online doesn’t mean it stopped being the best single tool you have at your disposal right now.
3. You’re Overfocused on Reopening.
As one leader shared with me recently, reopening the church is far more complicated than closing it ever was.
Socially distanced worship, questions about how to do kids ministry, sanitizing facilities, new maximum capacities, repositioning staff and volunteers are all complex and exhausting. And by definition take a lot of your time.
But, think about what all of this means.
Because of their age (over 60-ish or young with kids), many in your congregation can’t come back for the foreseeable future.
In addition, as data like this shows, some aren’t willing to come back.
This means your in-person attendance is going to be reduced for a long period to come. In all likelihood, you won’t be able to see in-person attendance levels that match your previous in-person numbers for a while. Perhaps for a long time.
Which also means online remains as important as it did when your facilities first closed.
Overfocusing on reopening your facilities will mean you lose the very people you’re trying to both keep and reach.
4. You’ve Stopped Experimenting.
So here’s the thing about online church and online ministry:
You haven’t even really started yet.
The “innovation” that happened in the first few months of lockdown wasn’t really innovation. It was adaptation.
After Easter, a lot of church leaders settled into a pattern that would get them through the next few months and stopped experimenting.
Which means the innovation hasn’t even started yet.
If you’re really going to grow your mission, serve your people and reach new people, it’s going to take a lot of innovation and experimentation.
Which means you’ll need to stay curious and agile.
Having been doing online church now for over four years, podcasting for five years and writing on this blog for over seven, we’re still hitting all-time highs in all three areas.
The key is to not quit.
As always in leadership, you’ll be most tempted to quit moments before your critical breakthrough.
5. You Haven’t Fully Figured Out How to Help People Yet.
Streaming content is one thing. Helping people is quite another.
Of all the things I’ve learned about online ministry and online leadership development, the key to sustained, meaningful online growth is simple: Help people.
From a church leader standpoint, that simply means helping people grow in their faith or find faith.
In the leadership development lane, that means helping leaders solve real problems they’re facing.
Do that long enough and consistently enough, and people will trust you, come to rely on you and share your content.
That’s how things grow in the digital space. You can hire someone to find you followers, or use some cheap gimmicks you saw some guy peddling on YouTube. But long term, that has at least two problems:
• It really doesn’t have any integrity.
• It’s fake growth.
Real online momentum comes back to helping people.
As Zig Ziglar said, “Help enough people get what they want, and you’ll eventually get what you want.”
Growth and impact online are by-products of doing the hard work of helping people every day.
So, help people.
When you share or produce content online, ask yourself:
• Will this help people find faith?
• Will this help people grow in their faith?
If the answer is no, you’ve found your problem.
The other frustrating/wonderful thing about the internet is that it doesn’t lie. It gives you real-time feedback on what is connecting and what isn’t.
If three people like your video, that tells you something. If no one shares your sermon, that tells you something. If your Instagram isn’t growing, well there are clues in that.
Eventually, the numbers will reflect the degree to which you’re helping people.
If you don’t like your numbers, focus on your message and method.
It’s really not that different from in-person ministry, except online ministry scales in a way that in-person ministry doesn’t.
This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com and is reposted here by permission.