How your church can make your attendees who watch your services online feel more welcome
Digital natives are people raised in a world in which digital communication is the main form of communication. Rather than radio, TV or the telephone, the main way digital natives expect to communicate is over the internet.
Yet, 30 years of church research has shown me that churches will adopt online communication—but will not raise it to the level of their onsite communication. This causes problems. Here are seven things to think about with suggested solutions.
1. Foremost, those who tune in to online church services usually feel second-class.
The leaders speak, the vast majority of the time, to the onsite attendees. Only occasionally do we mention the online attendees. This lack of parity can create the feeling that the onsite is a preferred class of congregant.
2. We communicate a biblical theology that prioritizes face-to-face communication.
Oftentimes church leaders will say a variation of: “There’s nothing like being together face-to-face.” But if we look at a Bible-based theology, we see that most of the Old and New Testament were not communicated face-to-face, but by Spirit-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16–17) writings.
Whether in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic or more than 700 languages today, most people learned about the miracles of Jesus, not by being face-to-face with the miracles he performed, but by reading an account of it. Little wonder that Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to empower us in our communication the message secondhand (John 14:26, 16:15).
The Holy Spirit is still alive and vibrant today, and can anoint our online communications as well. If you’re going to embrace a biblical theology, consider the theological principles of Spirit-anointed online communication.
3. Fully reaching out to guests and getting to know them is largely missing in online experiences.
Almost weekly I analyze online services for clients and colleagues. Repeatedly, I observe they are staffed with only a minimal crew. There might be one or sometimes two people.
Yet most churches tell me that they have a sizable online audience. One colleague has about 80 people in person. But his church reaches double that weekly that through their online service. Yet he only has two people designated to interact with the online congregation.
Now ask yourself, would you have just one or two greeters for an onsite service of 80? So why do we minimize our online workers when online watchers are often double our onsite size? Perhaps we do so because it’s “out of sight out of mind.” Maybe we do so because we have an unrecognized bias toward seeing people’s faces.
Or it can be argued we are unsure how many people are actually watching, because some of the data might be generated by a brief click. Regardless, we need to look at where the sheep are, and shepherd them. Appropriately, Jesus gave us the parable of the good shepherd (Matt. 18:10–14) who leaves the 99 to reach out to the one. And, Jesus tells us to see what the “Lord of the harvest” has sent … and pray for more laborers (Matt. 9:38).
4. This brings us to prayer.
Prayer opportunities are not usually as vibrant or prevalent during online worship services. Flavil Yeakley, a researcher at the University of Illinois, showed that people come to a church because of “needs” in their lives. These needs can be ranked as because of a) grief/bereavement, b) health problems, c) marital/family problems and d) financial problems.
When visitors come with these needs they are usually looking for someone who will sympathize and then pray for them. So, if you have hundreds of people watching your service online, how many do you have designated to pray for their needs they bring?
In my observation, to be a healthy church you need about 20% of your service attendance deployed in prayer ministry. If you have 100 online attendees, do you have 20 people reaching out to them online? And it’s not just about praying on Sunday morning, but it also means offering to them synchronous or asynchronous prayer chats during the week.
5. Online ministry reaches people who have physical challenges that make it uncomfortable for them to attend church.
This means many people cannot physically attend the church because of health or physical challenges. But they can tune in. And, we know that people with physical challenges can often feel second-class.
Are we contributing to their feeling of being second-class when they turn to our online services? Recently a series of articles drew attention to how people needing a wheelchair are often left in planes after everyone leaves. It makes them feel singled out and uncomfortable.
We too often make people feel singled out or uncomfortable when they visit our online churches. Are they feeling like they can worship with their eyes on the Lord and without people’s eyes on them?
6. Online ministry reaches people who have moved away.
Another type of physical challenge is for those who may have attended for many years, but because of family or vocation now live in another city. They often miss the smiling faces, the familiar leaders and the songs of a church.
Again, they can be made to further feel second-class when leaders say, “I’m glad you’re here with us. Isn’t it better being together face-to-face?” For these people who still feel a strong historical and/or family connection to the church, this can make them feel like a hidden figure and even possibly an outcast.
To address this a Presbyterian church in Ohio, after hosting my seminar “Growing the Post-Pandemic Church,” decided to let congregants come by the camera after church and greet those online. The camera became a communication avenue between current and former attendees.
7. Online communication is often seen as a stopgap, post-pandemic measure … when in reality it’s the future.
Technology is pushing the quantity and quality of human communication. Online experiences now include holograms and immersive experiences. And in these new digital frontiers more of evangelism and discipleship will take place online.
In fact, some churches already are entirely online. As a professor, I couldn’t imagine such a scenario when I was told over 20 years ago that education would one day be largely online.
I was an onsite professor and enjoying the face-to-face community of my students. But here we are today with the majority of students getting their education online. It’s time for the church to see the future and begin to treat online ministry with equality.