Optimizing Online Services Without Cannibalizing In-Person Services

I keep hearing people say, “When it is back to normal …” Well, that ship has sailed. Even when it is “back to normal,” it will never be the same again. It will be a new normal. Church as we know it is over. The debate about online church is over. Online won. Stop trying […]

I keep hearing people say, “When it is back to normal …”

Well, that ship has sailed.

Even when it is “back to normal,” it will never be the same again. It will be a new normal.

Church as we know it is over.

The debate about online church is over. Online won.

Stop trying to stuff the online genie back into the bottle. Instead, use your three wishes.

Ready?

Wish #1: I wish for my church to be strong in both online and in-person services.

Yes both!

The online church has moved from the sideline to the front line.

So now you need to build both front lines.

The nature of content consumption has morphed from in-person to online. Your faithful churchgoing congregation has been exposed to the online church. They have now tasted the honey and they like it.

While the traditional in-person service attendees are generally faithful to their “home” church, the online viewers are polygamous. If you don’t have an online option, they will just drink from another well.

The unchurched have also taken that half step towards church and Christianity. You can’t cut them off after the coronavirus crisis. As much as we want things to go back to normal, we don’t want those seeking and searching to go back to normal. They are literally so close (digitally) and yet so far (physically).

If you have not already done so, start planning and preparing to permanently hire, redeploy staff/volunteers to your online church. Start allocating a permanent budget and resources to your online church.

Shift our thinking permanently—we don’t have a main church plus an online department.

No.

We have two main churches or two congregations—on-site and online.

Wish #2: I wish for my in-person service to offer something unique that online cannot.

From what I hear, the big concerns of having both online and in-person services are:

“We will lose physical attendance.”

“Christians will get lazy and lose the habit of attending church services.”

“We must not lower the bar for church commitments.”

“We don’t want to cultivate a consumer Christianity by making it even more convenient.”

All very real concerns. Trust me, they crossed my mind too. I have been trying to solve this puzzle for a long time.

Here’s how I see it.

• The online church is for the unchurched and non-Christians. It is primarily for evangelism and integration. It is designed to reach people who don’t go to church anyway.
• The online church is just an introduction to church and Christianity.
• The online church is just an appetizer for people to check out your church.
• The online church is a tool for Christians to invite their family and friends to church—albeit online. It is a lower commitment, less intimidating half step.
• The online church must have a roadmap leading (almost nudging) the interested seekers towards the on-site church.
• The online church is not a substitute for already churchgoing Christians.
• The online church is for those who cannot physically get to your church because of distance, travels or sickness, etc.

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But how do we practically educate Christians about this underlying purpose? We can’t possibly control our members to not watch online and compel them to come in person.

Here’s what you need to think about: What makes people want to come to an in-person church service?

How do you prevent your online service from cannibalizing your in-person service?

What part of church life will they not be able to get online?

What is non-downloadable?

I can think of quite a few …

• Fellowship
• Corporate atmosphere
• Face-to-face ministry
• Holy Spirit encounters
• Kids’ church
• Youth ministry
• Volunteerism—serving
• Purpose
• Revival
• Belonging
• Warmth, buzz, vibes and energy
• Discipleship … real life, real time, on the job
• and many more …

My team has been experimenting and trying to solve this puzzle at Heart of God Church Singapore for a long time. This is how you can differentiate your online and in-person services. It is almost like producing two kinds of content for two audiences. In essence, almost like building two churches. (See Wish #1)

Here’s the common mistake.

• If your online service is just an identical recording of your in-person service, then it is a substitute. Consequently, people will just stay and watch at home.
• If your church is built solely on the teaching/preaching eloquence of a “gifted man of God,” then guess what? All oratory content is downloadable. Consequently, people will just go online to get their weekly fix of their favorite preacher.

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Good and bad news.

Bad news is, if the church is built on the “revelational” content or oratory performance of a preacher, he/she may be able to build a huge following online but it will also offer nothing unique to get them coming in person.

Good news is, if your church is built on non-downloadable elements (listed above), then the pressure is off your stage/camera performance and the load is shared among all the other departments.

To prevent the online services from cannibalizing in-person services, the on-site church must offer the non-downloadable elements.

What makes people get out of the house, prep the kids, commute to your physical building are ______? Figure this out and they will come.

So whether or not the on-site and online church become a zero-sum game depends on how you build both.

Future-ready churches are those who can clearly differentiate the purposes, audiences, content and elements for both platforms.

Future-ready churches build an in-person service by focusing on the elements that are non-downloadable and build an online service by focusing on the unchurched, teasing them and leaving a breadcrumb trail that leads to the physical church.

The future belongs to churches who can do both online and in-person services.

Both!

This line of thinking should get you started: Ponder over soccer, NBA or sports events like the Super Bowl. They are broadcasted live to every home, yet people still go to the stadiums. Some season ticket holders go religiously, others make it their once in a lifetime pilgrimage.

Why?

Sports executives have figured out how to have both packed stadiums and broadcast/online fans. The two do not cannibalize from each other. In fact, they feed off each other.

How?

If you can solve this puzzle, you will build a strong church for generations.

In the movie Field of Dreams Kevin Costner keeps hearing a voice telling him: “If you build it, they will come.”

Another voice is telling us today: “If we build it (physical and digital), they will come.”

Last wish?

Wish #3: I wish for my team and I to have the commitment, wisdom, energy, tenacity and patience to make both wish #1 and #2 come true.

Read more about Pastor How’s church »

This article originally appeared on Pastor How’s blog and is reposted here by permission.