11 minute read

Over the last two months, I’ve watched a scene unfold more than once. As the reality set in for pastors and church leaders concerning the ramifications of this pandemic, an initial concern followed. Many churches that were already plateaued or declining in regular attendance suddenly faced the need to forego in-person weekly corporate worship services.

The vast majority of these churches rightly placed the needs of congregation and neighbor ahead of their attendance concerns and pivoted quickly to some other form of corporate worship. Some attempted drive-in services (many with a measure of success), while most turned to online options. A great deal of pastors who had never recorded a service suddenly found themselves neck-deep in how-to articles for using your smartphone to livestream.

The Excitement of Online Engagement

For many, however, an interesting thing happened: they had more views of their online worship services than people who normally attend in person. If you work in ministry leadership, I assume you’ve heard the tales. Pastors and church leaders that initially had little interest in their online presence suddenly found themselves excited about the potential for reaching new viewers.

Soon, the tweets started. Ministry leaders began pointing out the amazing ability to reach into homes and places they simply could not reach prior to the shift online. Anecdotes emerged of lost family members across the country viewing church services on Facebook. Stories surfaced of old college friends reaching out via social media seeking counsel because a friend posted their church’s service online.

These are the stories I have personally heard. I’m sure you have heard your own. The fear of not gathering, while still on the back burner, was crowded out by the excitement of having an “increased attendance” online.

Numbers like this are exciting, especially if you’ve become crestfallen in your church’s normal attendance of engagement with those far from God. And rightly so. Having new people tune in for your worship and exposition of the word should be exciting for church leaders and members alike. I know in my own church others have shared about how much easier it is to invite people to participate through online means, and many have seen positive results as friends and family “show up” online for our worship time.

Furthermore, it has been really encouraging to scroll through Facebook of a Sunday morning and see links to dozens and dozens of worship services. I’ve tuned in to several other churches merely because of the opportunity to be a onlooker, a fly on the wall, so to speak.

It is precisely this “fly on the wall” opportunity that creates easy engagement, and I believe it has had tremendous impact on viewer analytics for many churches. It takes virtually no effort for someone to peek in on the events that transpire behind the sanctuary doors. Add to that the increase in people asking the big questions about life, meaning, purpose, and death right now, and you’ve got a recipe for a swell in viewers.

People who wouldn’t walk into your church have viewed your service online, if only from morbid curiosity. These people, whether they meant to or not, have hopefully heard the gospel. I’m enough of an optimist when it comes to our churches that I believe the statements about the gospel being heard by so many more people through this are probably right.

Temper Your Expectations of Online Engagement

As good as these views are, and I do believe they are a good thing, we must not make more of this phenomenon than it is. We need to be careful that we do not misunderstand what these increased views mean. It would be easy for us to treat online viewer numbers as a new vanity metric to follow, propping up our own sense of success by measuring something that sounds prestigious but says little about real Great Commission ministry.

First, we need to realize that views are not equal to attendance in any conceivable way. Of course, advice is all over the map on this point if you peruse the internet. Take Facebook analytics as an example. Within the analytics page, Facebook will break down your views based on whether it was viewed for 3 seconds, 10 seconds, or 1 minute. Of course, the public-facing number is the 3 second number, since that will always be the biggest and provide the ego-boost.

But, despite the advice of some, using any of those numbers as a metric of attendance is problematic. Simply put, a 3 second view may just be an accidental click, and even a 1 minute view is a really low bar to measure whether someone actually participated in worship and heard your sermon. It’s best to stick with Thom Rainer’s advice and not count them as attendance at all but to certainly keep track of them. Sensational claims that half of all churches are now growing because of equating online views to church attendance are an overstatement at best and downright deceptive at worst.

Second, online views will not naturally translate into increased attendance. I did not say never. I’m talking norms, not exceptions, here. Keep in mind a viewer statistic is only a number. Was that person an unchurched agnostic who is now considering the gospel for the first time? Was it one of your regular church members? Was it a member of a sister church in town that is flirting with the idea of leaving their church? What if that person is one of the new serial worship service viewers birthed by the buffet of worship services on Facebook? I know of several people who are committed to their own church but still watch three or four worship services every Sunday just because they like them.

While you may see someone who found your church online once you begin regathering in person, someone merely viewing your very-easy-to-click-with-no-effort video does not mean you’re going to see them at the new visitor table.

Michael Frost recently spoke to this very important point, reminding everyone of the adage, “What you win them with, you win them to.” Frost’s article trends toward overstatement concerning established church practice over the last 30-40 years, but on this point he is exactly right. When we use attractional missions methods, the thing that draws a person is really what they came to get. It sounds so simple, because it’s true, and you can take that truth to the bank.

Of course, some people may come for one thing (a professional worship experience, a fancy visitor giveaway, some over-the-top event) and find something more important, but remember that is the exception not the norm. The thing that attracts a person is usually the thing for which they come and the thing for which they will stay. If they come for the professional worship experience, they will likely leave as soon as they find a church with a better band than your church’s.

This truth has serious ramifications for church mission and ministry. If you use consumerist tactics to hook a visitor, then you’ve most likely gained a consumer, not a member. Translate this into our wholesale shift toward online worship services, and the point is still true. If easy viewership is the thing you won them with, it’s most likely the thing you have won them for.

Embodied Engagement is Essential

I believe many pastors and church leaders realize the previous point intuitively. These increased numbers may leave as quickly as they appeared, once we’re back in our buildings. I’ve heard concern about that from some pastors who are now excited about the additional reach. In fact, I’ve even heard some talk of “digital membership” options to cater to those who would watch but not participate in corporate worship services.

Let me be blunt on this point: there is no such animal as digital church membership. We’re talking about the called and gathered assembly of Christ’s redeemed people, not Netflix. Any form of “membership” in the church that allows one to completely avoid the biblically-mandated responsibility of embodied, interpersonal care and fellowship is no membership at all. Furthermore, it will more likely create consumers of spiritual services than disciples of the Lord Jesus.

There’s a difference between choosing to forego in person gatherings for a temporary period of time in order to love our congregations and neighbors in a health crisis and thinking that people who only engage with our church through their Facebook newsfeed are somehow really involved. Church, at its core, is embodied community. That’s not my opinion, it’s biblical revelation. Excitement at our increase in online reach cannot allow us to waver from this basic understanding of church. Embodied interaction is a non-negotiable aspect of church ministry.

So what do we do with all of these new viewers? We must move them toward embodied engagement.

I noted above that I, too, am excited about this additional reach through social media and online worship services. I believe there really is much to be gained through these actions, and I am confident that this presents a lane for the church to serve as a faithful witness to the gospel in front of those who are far from God. However, if making real disciples rests at the center of our mission, then we cannot settle for a mere increase in sermon views.

The future of the church is online, but it will never be just online.

In fact, it won’t even be primarily online. For the many who started streaming services for the first time out of necessity, let me suggest that practice should continue even as your church family gathers again for in-person worship services. If you’ve gained a new avenue for witness, it would be a shame to forego this gift. However, online services, worship, devotionals, and all the other practices you’ve developed for this time should be considered a supplement, not a replacement, for the gathered practices or your local church.

Appreciate new viewers for what they are.

Of course, a portion of your online viewers this past two months have been your own congregation. We should expect to see them back in gathered worship when the time comes. For those of you who’ve experienced additional viewers, these new viewers are a thing to celebrate. God may have provided an increase in your witness as a congregation. He may have extended your reach into homes you would not enter otherwise.

Praise God for this. Let us celebrate these viewers for what they are; however, and not place more burden on those numbers than they will bear. Consider them onlookers who may be curious. They may not mean your church has grown (at least not yet), but they certainly mean you have increased opportunities for gospel ministry. If you appreciate them for what they are, it will allow your church to consider the ways you can effectively minister to new onlookers.

When we understand online viewers for what they are, then we realize we are not serving them well by leaving them as viewers only. I’m reminded here of James’s exhortation to the Jewish Christian’s to not only be hearers of the word but doers also (James 1:22). Of course, James is not referring specifically to church attendance—far from it. However, I believe the principle speaks well to our responsibility to these new viewers. James is clear, the Christian life is not one of mere consumption.

James continues,

“But if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like someone looking at his own face in a mirror. For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of person he was. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer who works—this person will be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:23-25)

Hearing the word (or in this case viewing the word preached) and not following through in obedience to the biblical instructions concerning how we relate to Christ’s church is like looking into a mirror, seeing our need for real biblical community, and walking away and forgetting that essential need. Pastors and church leaders have a responsibility to guide these viewers toward real, embodied discipleship when possible. That is the gospel opportunity we’ve been given coming out of the pandemic.

Find ways to transition viewers into doers.

We may not know the identity of these extra viewers, but we need to provide clear ways for them to transition from viewing to doing in gathered church fellowship, accountability, worship, and mission.

There are multiple ways to do this, and I would suggest you use more than one. Provide opportunities for interpersonal connection, and regularly call those viewing to take advantage of these opportunities. For instance, one effective approach is providing an online discussion and prayer meeting immediately after the worship service airs. This can be done through Zoom or any of the dozens of web tools available. The link can be shared in the comments of the video worship service. Opportunities like this provide a path from being a one-way viewer to a two-way talker, and it means their identity is positively known to the church. That is a big first move.

Once someone is a talker, you can make decisions about how (or whether) to engage them on a path to becoming a doer with your local church. Those who will dialogue with your church online can be ministered to based on their unique needs. If they are an unbeliever, meeting them with the truth of the gospel is your first priority. If they live across the country, help them find real biblical community locally. If they are disconnected from an in-person church community, encourage them to plug into yours.

Years from now, books will be written that critique our ministry during the pandemic. In the clarity of hindsight, people will be able to grade our missteps and celebrate our successes. However, I earnestly pray now that one thing will be said of us during this time: that we were faithful to engage the harvest in a way that made new disciples through the disruption. Celebrate your new viewers pastor, but see them as gospel opportunity, not merely another vanity metric that allows you to feel successful in whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish.

Further Reading