This is a post written by Rich Birch. Rich is the founder of Unseminary and is a member of my Speaking Team. You can book Rich to consult with your team or speak at your next event here.

By Rich Birch

Recently, a report entitled The State of Virtual Events 2021 was released, which looked at the experiences of 100 leading brands that ran over 20,000 online events in the last year. This study explores these brands’ thinking around online events as they have made the “great pivot” to utilize this option more and more.

Like your church and mine, we are all trying to figure out how this new online world will impact our organizations moving forward. As I delved into the report, I found there were a number of lessons that we could pull out to apply to our own operations as we look to the future. The report examined 100 leading brands and the lessons they have learned from running online events of various kinds over the last year. The events included webinars, online summits, online conferences, and various virtual sales, marketing, and communication efforts.

The types of brands that were included are household names such as:

  • Nestlé: A producer of baby food, medical food, bottled water, breakfast cereals, coffee and tea, confectionery, dairy products, ice cream, frozen food, pet foods, and snacks. 29 of Nestlé’s brands have annual sales of over $1 billion, including Nespresso, Nescafé, Kit Kat, Smarties, Nesquik, Stouffer’s, Vittel, and Maggi. Nestlé has 447 factories, operates in 189 countries, and employs around 339,000 people.
  • Condé Nast: This company’s media brands attract more than 72 million consumers in print, 394 million in digital and 454 million across social platforms. Titles include Vogue, The New Yorker, GQ, Glamour, Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair, Pitchfork, Wired, and Bon Appetit among many others.
  • Volkswagen: Who for over 80 years have been putting more volks in wagens! Their brands include zippy cars like Golf, Jetta, Passat, Atlas, and Tiguan. The company is worth $141 billion and has a sprawling operation that includes a huge presence in its largest market: China. 

One of the things that jumped out at me in this report was that 51% of the respondents reported that they had attended their first virtual events in the last 12 months. [ref] This made me lean in, because so many churches across the country have made their pivot to church online for the very first time since the pandemic rolled out in March 2020. The entire world is figuring out how to work more online, and while some of us have been leading churches online for ten plus years, many churches are experiencing this new online reality for the first time.

58% of the people surveyed in this report believe that they will invest more in online events as they look to 2021 and beyond. [ref] That is probably due to the fact that 91% of respondents say that these experiences were successful. These two statistics together led me to conclude that we need to extract lessons from the marketplace to apply to what our churches are doing online.

We need to extract lessons from the marketplace to apply to what our churches are doing online. - @richbirch Click To Tweet

As we continue to work out what it means to be a “hybrid church”, which many of us are leaning towards in this current culture, it really does feel like we have all made the pivot to online; but now we are asking ourselves, what next?

In those few days in March 2020, we jumped in and implemented a tremendous amount of infrastructure to work out how to present church online. Many churches started by adding midweek content, communication, and connection events, but have since dropped those or have experimented with new things. However, we are now at the stage where we are looking up over the horizon and trying to assess how to navigate the world into this next reality.

In the last week alone, I have held multiple conversations with church leaders around this issue.

Recently, I was talking to a senior leader who wanted to get back to a world where they did not have to worry about church online. After serving the church for multiple decades, this leader finds the recurrent nature of preparing timely messages for a mid-week video shoot unsettling, and even after a year has been unable to settle into the rhythm of creating online content.

I have also received feedback from an executive pastor who is attempting to balance the staffing and financial resources required to successfully present both online church and in-person services. As the pastor was trying to reorganize their team and think through priorities, they found it difficult to make effective leadership decisions in this intra-COVID-19 time.

I recall speaking to a staff leader who was passionate about the early gains they have seen in their particular ministry area because of their online offerings. Although the ministry was reaching more people than ever before and seeing people take steps closer to Jesus, the staff leader was afraid that the church leadership was going to drop these learnings and new areas of ministry prematurely.

So, what can we learn from these 100 leading brands and the 20,000 events that they have hosted over the last year?

Here are three lessons taken from this report that I believe are particularly applicable to your church and mine:

1. Online Events Drive Both Engagement and Awareness

45.3% of the respondents believe that these online events create deeper engagement with their particular audience. Making up the second-largest category, 18.9% believe that these online events build stronger awareness in their market. [ref] Engagement is critically important when thinking about online events. We have all realized that the vanity metrics of Facebook likes or YouTube views do not ultimately tell us if we are creating a deepening commitment with users.

The vanity metrics of Facebook likes or YouTube views do not ultimately tell us if we are creating a deepening commitment with users. - @richbirch Click To Tweet

We are attempting to drive engagement by encouraging people to take further steps like joining in the various chat environments or downloading a free resource. We want people to move beyond participating only as a passive viewer and to actively connect and engage with our online offerings. The businesses in the study saw this as a measurable way to continue engagement.

These businesses also believe that online participation is an important tool for building awareness. Building community awareness is not something that church leaders give much thought to. But in an increasingly online world, we must think very carefully about how we ensure that people are simply aware of who we are. 

If people don’t know that we exist, they won’t take those first steps into our community.

Our online church experience has always been a great way to build community awareness in the halo of people around our church. This will continue to be the case in the coming years as our churches look to reach people who are not yet connected with us.

Over this last year, many churches have reported to me that they have connected with new people who previously would not have come through their door, whether local or on the other side of the world. Part of the reason for this is that their online experience is driving more awareness in the community at large. As we look to the future, how can your church’s online experience build more community awareness through deeply engaging experiences?

2. Evolving Tech Platforms for Church Uses

50.3% of the businesses surveyed said that Zoom was their primary tool for running an online event. [ref] Likewise, many churches across the country have used Zoom as a tool for small groups or training, or maybe even for the weekend service itself. However, a fascinating aspect of this study is that beyond Zoom, there is an incredibly diverse array of software technology platforms used for online events.

Each one of these platforms, whether it be YouTube, Microsoft Teams, Facebook Live, Instagram Live, GoToWebinar, On24, or WebEx (and the list goes on), represents opportunities for your church to reach new audiences and to engage people in fresh ways. 

One of our new realities, as we continue to deal with the online space, will be the need to consistently explore the latest platforms as they evolve so that we can expand our message to further locations. Like a tech startup, we should be consistently looking to the horizon, capturing those emerging platforms that might present opportunities for us to reach new people.

Like a tech startup, we should be consistently looking to the horizon, capturing those emerging platforms that might present opportunities for us to reach new people. - @richbirch Click To Tweet

I have been particularly impressed with the work at Sandals Church, where they have taken an omni-channel approach to church online. They use a multiplicity of online platforms for posting their church experiences, and either build channel-specific content or customize the content to resonate with each platform. Whether it is Roku, Facebook, YouTube, or a panacea of other solutions, Sandals is finding a way to connect on multiple platforms.

The future of our church online experiences will not be locked into a single environment but will reflect an omni-channel future. Sandals is already pointing the way towards this future.

The future of our church online experiences will not be locked into a single environment but will reflect an omni-channel future. - @richbirch Click To Tweet

3. Online is Here to Stay

One of the strongest findings to come from this study of 100 companies is that 85.3% of the company leaders surveyed believe that online events are here to stay. [ref]

Rather than being a blip that arose during the pandemic and that will later be dropped, these marketers, communicators, and leaders believe that online events will remain and become a part of their future.

This is astonishing when you consider that a year ago, half of these leaders were not running online events at all. This reflects the experience of many churches across the country. However, I still run into church leaders who are thinking about dropping their church online experiences as fast as they possibly can. Please don’t do that.

The future of your church and mine is a hybrid model where some people will engage with us only online and have a full-orbed experience that will help them step closer to Jesus, while others will also continue to attend our in-person experiences, much as they did prior to the pandemic.

85.3% of the company leaders surveyed believe that online events are here to stay. - @richbirch Click To Tweet

How can we take the best of one to improve the other?

What can we do to make our in-person experiences leverage some of the great benefits of our online experiences? What have we learned from our community about our online experiences that can make our in-person experiences even better? And vice versa, how do we continue to push towards an online experience that incorporates some of that human touch that comes more easily and naturally from an in-person experience?

Online experiences are here to stay, and we must continue to find ways to leverage them as we look to the future.

Looking for More Help as You Think About the Online Hybrid Future of Your Church?

Pull your team together to discuss how these lessons apply to your church. Click here to download two files to help extend the learning beyond this article.

  • The State of Virtual Events 2021: A study of 20,000 events run by 100 top brands, from which this article has drawn useful lessons. This report provides insight into what marketplace leaders think about online events.
  • 160+ Online Event Examples: A spreadsheet of actual events that have been hosted in the last year. Perfect for helping your team think outside the box!

Which of these points do you find most helpful? 

Leave a comment below and let me know!

3 Key Lessons for Your Church from a Study of 20,000 Online Events

18 Comments

  1. Bob Wiseman on May 10, 2021 at 1:30 pm

    “85.3% of the company leaders surveyed believe that online events are here to stay.”

    I also polled a bunch of recent purchasers of Dogecoin and asked. “do you think you’ll make money on your investment”, you’d never believe it, but they all said YES.

    These companies have spent millions (for some, billions) on online events and online presence. OF COURSE they will say it’s here to stay. Were you honestly expecting them to say something else? Frankly, the 15% who don’t believe it’s here to stay are more intriguing. They are willingly investing time, energy, and money into something they don’t believe is sustainable. It’s fascinating, really.

    Beyond the silliness of the source, I probably agree with the 15%. If the most recent mental health inventories ran out of Gallup and Pew Research (among others) indicate anything: it’s that there’s going to be a massive exodus and decrease from online engagement.

    Frankly, people are tired of the internet. You could do a straw poll on the street. If given the choice, after a year-plus of this pandemic, between continuing their relationships online or in-person, I’d wager the overwhelming majority (80%+) would say in-person.

    Online presence now is like investing in Plexiglass. You probably missed your window (no pun intended). Move forward towards a plan that considers the mental health of your congregation. I’ll offer a hint: that doesn’t involve an online presence.

  2. Elvin Foong on May 5, 2021 at 6:00 am

    Hi Carey, these are excellent and important insights. However, I find that many churches are not data-driven when it comes to engagement – they rely more on how they “feel”. And the fact of the matter is, pastors and leaders “feel better” when they get it interact in person with actual people, rather than over a screen. This has been my own experience doing ministry in Singapore, where most churches I know seem to be fixated on going back to the “old normal” of physical gatherings.

    How do you think we can, without sounding disrespectful, teach an old song new tricks?

  3. Rev. Dr. Kimberly Warner on April 26, 2021 at 11:22 pm

    I despise online church. It teaches laziness and keeps people from having face-to-face relationships. The church is to be meeting in one place in one accord, not sitting in living rooms, offices or what have you.

    • Jordan on April 27, 2021 at 8:31 am

      Do you mean the only valid version of a church gathering is everyone in one building? “One place in one accord” … wouldn’t that line of thinking mean that we have to gather as only one global church, for one massive meeting? How far does ‘one place’ actually go?

  4. Donna Miller on April 26, 2021 at 4:35 pm

    A surprise to me… our church liked online, but upon return, they hate the camera and the tech desk. Some have quit coming to in-person because they don’t want that stuff messing up their worship vibe. I was taken aback and shocked. The camera and tech desk are at the very back of a 400 seat auditorium. Our tech and pastors are hitting it out of the park but our congregation is grinding their teeth on sour grapes.

  5. Claudia Francis on April 22, 2021 at 7:47 pm

    Thanks, Carey. Hoping to be able to find new ways to implement new learning.

  6. Rev Steve Wilson on April 22, 2021 at 10:24 am

    I’m 1/2 pastor to a remote community which means I’m only present 10-12 days a month. While we are still working at improving our on-presence which currently involves 2 services a week we have been heartened by the response. “We see and connect with Rev Steve way more often on-line than we ever could in person” is a typical kind of response. Our givings have increased especially from that fringe group we seldom see present. We here to stay because it brings us a connection we rejoice in and celebrate as a covid gift. Thank you Carey. Your posts have been a real lifeline to a small church of about 30 regular attenders

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 22, 2021 at 4:15 pm

      So glad to hear this Steve!

  7. Anthony on April 22, 2021 at 9:46 am

    So a pastor of an average size church (125 or less) is somehow supposed to create engaging online content, explore new digital platforms as well as shepherd and care for the church and preach? I think most churches are going to struggle to maintain online if their communities are anywhere close to pre-COVID. Maybe your intended audience for this article is bigger churches that have the people and resources to accomplish an engaging online ministry. So I would understand if a pastor is ready to ditch online ministry if his in person ministry is consuming his time.

    • Gay on April 22, 2021 at 1:10 pm

      We are a 300-400 church. Pre-pandemic we had three main platforms; our website, Facebook page, & YouTube channel. We had mostly focused on our website as an online “hub” for our in person church family with an element of promotion & invitation to “whosoever would” be looking for us online. No deliberate promotion of our online “persona”. We did not offer “online church” services at all. Pre-pandemic, our Facebook page was a “mirror” of our website; we had no groups, posted things we wanted to promote, that’s about it. Our YouTube channel was the home for any promotional videos we may create, providing an easily accessible link for any video content we’d like to share and they were also almost exclusively promotional in nature.

      As Anthony expresses, our resources are limited. Everyone needs to work within a budget for financial, human & time resources, right? Pre-pandemic, our two Admins handled our three platforms as part of their regular responsibilities. During the pandemic we had to adjust. In the beginning, when completely on “lock down”, we started by pulling a video camera that we already had (youth group) and our dedicated & passionate tech volunteers figured out how to incorporate it into our sound system. With three of us in the building, we began using Facebook Live to deliver sermons. With our Admins working from home, we linked the recorded services to our website sermons page. Then, our our dedicated & passionate worship team recorded songs in the manner we had recorded the Facebook Live sermons. Soon we figured out how to put them together for our Facebook Live Sunday sermons. Church family began watching regularly & even creating Facebook watch parties. Our sound, video & the stability of the Facebook Live platform left much to be desired but, it was helping us to connect. Instead of a weekly bulletin we began sending a weekly update via email. We were making the best of what we had while figuring out how we could open safely within the guidelines of our state & local governments. We were ready to go when they gave the okay to open the doors.

      Getting the Sunday sermon online for our church family was not all that we had going on. We worked and applied for benefits through the PPA. We became acutely aware of our church family who had no internet connection or email. We identified our church family most vulnerable to becoming disconnected and worked to match them with at least one person from the church family who would call them regularly. We had a tremendous response to a call for any interested in helping with this effort. We also needed to consider our vital children’s & youth ministries. Out of those efforts ministry teams began implementing changes & entirely new ministry teams developed. One of them is staff & volunteers whose focus is how to develop our online platforms. We learned all this was called “pivoting” and it required huge efforts in areas unknown or underdeveloped within our overall church ministry.

      We also learned we were not alone in this. We sought help and insight and found much through ministries like Church Marketing University, Text In Church, Social Church, Church Online, Facebook’s Nona Jones, Barna Group, Vanderbloemen, CVent, and many more. Carey Nieuwhof helped by providing insights & linking to resources. We were on lock down so, we read, participated in webinars (so much free stuff with value is available) and incorporated what made sense for us. Mostly, we allowed ourselves to begin thinking more of Church as people & relationships then buildings, activities, and programming. I’m almost embarrassed to admit how entrenched we were in structure at the expense of relationship even when connecting with God & others in relationship through Jesus Christ is our aim.

      I would encourage any church leader to do these things:
      Remember your Savior
      Remember your calling
      Remember His purpose for His Church
      Start where you are now
      Examine what you/your church is doing now that might be able to move into this new digital world we live in
      Reach out to those who are sharing what is working for them
      Spend some time (daily, weekly) learning about this digital pivot
      Reach out to your church for help (God’s given them gifts to serve with and your gift is not designed to do everything)
      Don’t add a new “platform” until you can manage what you already have.
      For instance, start with your church website (your online front door). If you don’t have one, get one & start there. We have our three and want to add Instagram because our church family under 50 years old are using it but, we will wait until we are up to speed with our Facebook & YouTube platforms. We have targets and goals and it took some time & human resources to identify and set them.

      • Claudia Francis on April 22, 2021 at 7:45 pm

        Thank you so much for sharing your steps and experience! This is really helpful in conjunction with the article. Wishing you continued success!

        • Gay on April 23, 2021 at 12:38 pm

          Glory to God – He has been faithful to lead one step at a time. The past year has been humbling and faith building. He has not left us alone in the “great commission” – He supplies all the grace & peace we need like He supplied manna in the wilderness, one day at a time.

    • Kenn Eglauer on April 22, 2021 at 1:47 pm

      Hi Anthony, I share your sentiment about the pastor “needing to do”. It is a terrible attitude of the church (as a whole). I am a church chairman of a small church (less than 100 people) and we would not expect that the pastor is the only “pastor”. Even the pastor needs a pastor some days.

      I would encourage you to explore others abilities in the church. Who’s available for tech resources and support? Maybe there is a younger person in the church who is skilled at online. It could be a way to engage with them and seek their advice on the future of your online presence. Perhaps they will be able to help with the online presence and content. A church is a body of believers and not just one part of it should make the rest work (ie If the pastor quit tomorrow would the church quit too. I hope not). It will mean a change in culture but on the other end of it, it will be valuable. Online engagement is a real thing and I would add my voice to those already in this post that say leaving it behind would be a mistake.

      As Carey says, I am cheering for you! (Like that one Carey…thanks)

  8. Kyle on April 22, 2021 at 8:27 am

    I have questions about #2. Should we continue to multi-platform our media when it isn’t really creating engagement with people? Or should we utilize multi-platform for some areas of digital ministries but be careful when it build consumer over connection?

    • Jordan on April 22, 2021 at 3:28 pm

      If you check out popular Youtuber’s/Tiktok’ers etc. you can find entire engaged communities that they’ve created, revolving around their niche. People change what they wear, where they go, and what they buy based on these online content creators and their communities. They engage in the comments and act according to the ways of their favourite online personality. It sounds to me a lot like what a church would desire (life change revolving around the ideologies of Jesus instead of a Youtuber). Businesses and content creators are using multi-platform media to create meaningful engagement, to create life change within their following. If churches aren’t seeing engagement – then they need to rework what they are doing and learn from people who are doing it well. The consumer over connection problem (in my experience) isn’t an online vs. in person problem, it’s a culture problem that this pandemic has only highlighted.

  9. Gary Grogan on April 22, 2021 at 8:20 am

    Thank you for clarity among all the confusion.

  10. Gary Grogan on April 22, 2021 at 8:19 am

    Thank you for always bringing sense in the midst of confusion

  11. Dave on April 22, 2021 at 6:49 am

    Excellent Carey. Thanks for providing this article.

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