“Church online is no longer a ‘fad’ or something reserved for mega-churches. At the present time, it is the ‘only door’ to every single church, no matter the size. Every church now has the opportunity to make a strategic shift that will long outlast the end of COVID-19.”
- Jason Hamrock, CEO at Missional Marketing.
I don't think any of us could have imagined a time that virtually every church in America would be forced to close its doors at the same time.
Undoubtedly the United States is moving faster and faster towards a post-Christian culture with many laws, rules and regulations working more against the local church than for it. Maybe someday, in some far distant post-constitutional future, we might be forced to close our doors and go underground. But now? In 2020? In America?
Well, it happened; maybe not the underground part, but certainly the closing of our doors. And it wasn’t technically the government that did it. It was a tiny, little microscopic bug that apparently packs a pretty good wallop when it invades the human body. For the sake of humanity, we’ve all closed our doors, and church as we know it has been taken away from us.
So, what now? What do we do? How do we worship? How do we disciple? How do we be what we’re supposed to be when we can’t even be together?
These questions, and many like them, have been furiously asked over the past few weeks as we have all settled into our new (temporary) normal. Public gatherings are essentially banned. No one is certain how long this will last. But for now, it’s time for the local church to embrace the change – something we’re not well known for – and figure out how to be the church in a digital age.
While the idea of online worship services is not new, it’s not exactly normal. Video live-streaming of worship services through the internet is a common practice for many mid-sized and large churches across the country. But the average church size in the U.S. is under 100 people. That represents more than 150,000 churches, most of whom would have never contemplated a need to take their church service to the internet. In some cases, those smaller (normal-size) churches may record the pastor’s sermon and post it publicly for on-demand listening or viewing. Yet, rarely would the production be deemed “broadcast quality.” Add to that the logistics and equipment required for a “live” feed to the internet, and it would hardly seem worth the hassle or investment for a small church.
And then came COVID-19. All of a sudden there came an urgent need to provide some type of expression of the weekend worship service for the congregation. And the Googling began: “how to livestream church.”
Pastors across the country began pulling out all stops to find fast, efficient and affordable means for conducting their services online. On one hand, most normal-size churches in urban centers have a megachurch in their neighborhood to look to for ideas or inspiration. But those large churches, already livestreaming their services, are equipped with expensive equipment, qualified technical personnel and the fastest internet service that money can buy. Not to mention they already hold a copyright license to broadcast the music online without fear of penalty or having their video feed shut down.
Bobby Gruenewald, pastor at LifeChurch.tv has often said that the “best ideas happen when we face real problems with constraints.” The lack of resources often sparks the best innovation. And so, with limited time and limited resources providing significant constraints, pastors and church leaders got creative, finding ways to take their church services online without breaking the budget. iPhones, webcams and a host of affordable digital gadgets were repurposed for online streaming of worship and sermons to Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo.
Two things are notable about the first experience of church online that many people had in March 2020. (1) Watching church online is not the same is being present and in-person. And (2) Conducting a service online, whether leading worship or preaching, is not the same when the room is empty. Nonetheless, many churches have embraced that this is the way things will be for the foreseeable future and will continue to tinker and innovate to deliver the best, helpful content possible.
While pastors quickly strategized to get their services streamed to their congregation, the next issue that had to be addressed was how to be the church and not just do church. Small groups, Bible studies, children’s ministry and care ministries took the next round of creativity. The function of the church is not merely to deliver a Sunday worship service. There are an additional 167 hours in the week that are vital to the life of every growing believer. In addition to public worship services being shut down, most churches realized that they would not be able to hold smaller gatherings either.
For many people church relationships, their spiritual family, provide a great deal of their relational engagement from week to week. Scripture teaches us that iron sharpens iron. Discipleship requires life on life. But how do we do life on life when we're stuck in our homes and can't spend time together? Once again, technology plays a significant role.
Platforms such as Face Time, Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting provide ways for groups of people to maintain contact with one another, to pray together, do Bible studies together or just to encourage one another.
Jeff Reed, Stadia’s Director of Digital Church Planting observed, “The biggest question today is not how we get our services broadcast but how do we get people on mission during Coronavirus season? And what does on mission mean today in the context of church online?”
Says the challenge with this method is that the technology has to be grandma proof. Meaning not everyone is tech savvy, has the ability to figure out how to use their smart phone or tablet or computer to connect in an online way.
Many churches have initiated efforts to supplement their Sunday online broadcast with additional teaching and engagement throughout the week. Compass Christian Church in Texas offers a live video called Compass Daily each morning at 8am on their Facebook page. They broadcast a devotional and encouragement from one of their pastors. Pastor Neil Tomba at Northwest Bible Church goes live on Facebook each day at 12pmCT to lead a devotional and time of prayer for his congregation, another opportunity for the church family to stay connected while sequestered in their homes.
While no one is eager to talk about the financial implications for churches during COVID-19, there have been, and will be, challenges for many churches. Though online giving transactions have become more commonplace, most churches are still dependent on an offering during the service for a significant percentage of their donations.
One pastor of a large church in North Texas stated that about 60% of the church’s offerings are given online. At any other time, that might be seen as a positive figure. Yet, it highlights that 40% of the church’s donors are dependent on an opportunity to give when gathered at the church building. If those donors do not give, or are unable to do so, during the public gathering ban, this could lead to some pretty lean times for this church and many others like it. Most smaller churches receive a much higher percentage of their donations in the form of Sunday offerings rather than online giving, creating an even greater challenge for those churches during COVID-19.
A recent study reported as many as 74% of all churches have some form of online giving available for their congregants. Again, that sounds pretty positive except when the math is reversed to reveal that 26% of American churches, more than 75,000 congregations, ceased their public gatherings without any practical way to continue receiving offerings from their members. Fortunately, the marketplace is packed with companies that aid churches in this service and are easy to find with a Google search.
And while it might be simple to find companies that can help a church set up online giving, it isn’t always as easy to decide which one to use.
Boyd Pelley, co-founder of ChurchTeams advises, “Start with the company that provides your church database solution. See if they have a giving platform that integrates with your current system. Otherwise, the first thing you should look for in an online giving service is its ease of use. You want your donors to be able to look at it and say, ‘I can do this.’”
While there are certainly other considerations in choosing an online giving platform, the motivation for the moment is speed. How quickly can it be up and running? Clearly having an option integrated with the current database will streamline the accounting and recording process. Nonetheless, if it’s not easy to use, people likely won’t use it.
The reality is that we don't know how long this public gathering ban is going to last.
Will we be meeting online for a few more weeks or a few more months, or longer?
No one is really certain. One thing that we can be certain of is that, for most churches, this foray into digital church is likely to permanently change the way they do ministry, in some ways. For some churches that had never done a live broadcast, they'll probably continue doing so.
For churches that had never recorded videos of their sermons and posted them online they now have a system in place for providing their content online and on demand.
For churches that have never offered virtual small groups or daily teaching and discipleship content, they now know they can do so, and may probably continue to offer those things.
For the thousands of churches that did not have a form of online or digital giving, that problem has been tackled and will likely be a permanent process.
Here’s the interesting thing. When thousands upon thousands of churches faced an obstacle to their ministry operations, notwithstanding their commitment to prayer and guidance from the Holy Spirit, most of them turned to the internet to solve their problem.
How do we record a sermon? Google it.
How do we livestream? Google it.
How do we set up online giving? Google it.
If Google and YouTube have done nothing else to our modern world, they have created a DIY culture. And fortunately for the Church, companies that offer solutions to the problems faced by churches and other organizations have figured out how to position themselves online to be found when searched. Through effective content marketing, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and digital marketing strategies, they have positioned themselves to show up in search results when people are asking questions that they can answer.
The lesson for the Church is that church websites and digital outreach strategies ought to reflect the methodology used by those businesses that are serving the church. Great content, SEO and effective digital marketing ensure that church websites show up in search results when people are using the internet to solve their real-life problems. Remember, it’s a DIY culture out there:
How can I have a better marriage? Google it.
How can I overcome my grief? Google it.
How can I know that prayer works? Google it.
Those questions, and thousands of others like them, are being asked every single day. Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant are providing the answers. But rarely will those search results point the seeker to the website of a church. Churches typically have never thought about how to do that. There’s never seemed to be a need.
Amidst all the local church’s shift towards delivering content online and building online community, there has never been a better time to develop a strategy for having a holistic digital presence and meeting people amidst their challenges, answering their questions.
The question is how far churches will take this newfound experience of church online. Will we do our time until we can reopen our doors and go back to business as usual or will we embrace the fact that we are merely catching up with the rest of the world in its use of technology? Amazon’s Twitch platform for online gaming community has more than 15 million daily active users and has raised more than $75 million dollars towards charitable causes in the past eight years. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the Church could track with statistics like that?
We can, if we’re serious about it and intentional with our strategy for being online and reaching people for Jesus in a space where they live every day.
Bart Blair is the founder of Make More Discisples. He has more than 20 years in corporate, church and non-profit leadership experience. Bart lives in Frisco, Texas with his family where he serves as a Church Growth Consultant and Strategist.
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