So many leaders get nervous or triggered when church online comes up.
You can hear the objections, either out loud or in a pastor’s head:
- But doesn’t church online reduce the number of people attending in-person?
- I don’t want to give people an easy option out of church.
- I like it when people show up in person, and I can preach to those I’m seeing.
- Isn’t it important for everyone to be together?
I get it.
It’s almost axiomatic to believe or think that online church is killing in-person church attendance.
But what if that’s wrong?
Are you ready for another way of thinking about the relationship between in-person and online church?
What if church online doesn’t shrink your in-person gathering but instead stands to grow it long term?
Or, to put it another way, what if church online is actually the way forward for in-person church?
To be sure, many factors are creating stagnant or declining church attendance these days (I outline seven here).
If you think carefully, though, church online isn’t why people aren’t coming back. In fact, it’s one of the key reasons people might continue to show up at all.What if church online doesn't shrink your in-person gathering but instead stands to grow it long term? Click To Tweet
To understand why this is the case, think of church online as serving three functions: a front door, a side door, and a back door.
3 Reasons Church Online Isn’t Actually Killing In-Person Church Attendance
Let’s tackle each to make the case that church online creates the greatest growth potential your church faces.
In the same way smart companies recognize that e-commerce and in-person business aren’t incompatible, wise church leaders embrace the reality that everyone you want to reach is online. And even those who show up in person have explored your online presence first.
Here are three reasons why church online isn’t actually killing in-person attendance.
1. Church Online Is The Biggest Front Door in History
Years ago (even long before COVID), the physical front door to your church was no longer your real front door.
And no, as true as it is that the sermon starts in the parking lot, the parking lot isn’t your new front door either.
At some point early in the 2010s, the internet became the new front door to your church.
As I shared here, for years now, almost everyone who attends your church for the first time has already been to your church…online.
That’s the case whether you have a completely amazing online experience, a killer website, and an on-point social media presence or whether you have a website from 2008.
Trust me, people who are interested in Christianity or your church have already checked you out long before they stepped through the front doors.
And if you stream your online service, they’ve been with you for at least a week and sometimes months or longer. Even if you don’t have a streaming service, curious prospective attendees have checked out your website, visited your social and seen your Google reviews.
All of which means…your church’s front door moved. It’s now online.For years now, almost everyone who attends your church for the first time has already been to your church…online. Your church's front door moved. It's now online. Click To Tweet
Ignoring your church’s online presence is like slamming shut your front door to new people.
And if you close it, you’re basically opening an invite-only club for insiders every weekend.
But here’s the good news: there’s never been a bigger front door for your church than there is now. The internet is the largest front door the church has ever known because everyone you want to reach is online.
And everyone who will one day join you in person has checked you out online first.
Treat the internet as though it matters because it does.The internet is the largest front door the church has ever known because everyone you want to reach is online. Click To Tweet
2. Church Online Is a Powerful Side Door
In addition to being a fantastic front door, your church’s digital presence is a powerful side door.
By side door, I mean a place where your attendees and members can engage during the week or when they’re not in the building on Sunday.
Before the onset of the internet, if you missed a week, well, you missed a week. Or two. Or a month. There was no real way to engage in a church’s ministry if you weren’t in a building (or perhaps with your small group).
Church online changes everything in that regard.
Your church’s digital presence makes it possible for people who aren’t there to engage not only on Sunday but any time they want. This means people affiliated with your church can engage not just one day, but any day and every day.Your church's digital presence makes it possible for people who aren't there to engage not only on Sunday but any time they want. This means people affiliated with your church can engage not just one day but any day and every day. Click To Tweet
All of this does two things: It has the potential to deepen people’s faith by making it an everyday thing, and it deepens peoples’ engagement with your mission.
The result? A more engaged congregation.
And guess who’s likely to attend church more often in the future? People who are engaged with the mission, that’s who.
3. Church Online Hasn’t Been A Back Door For a While Now
Pastors’ biggest fear of a better online presence is that people will stop attending in person.
You’ve heard the argument. And maybe you’ve recited it yourself: “the better our stream, the better our social presence, the more dynamic our YouTube presence is, the more likely people are to drop out of in-person attendance.”
That’s just not true. Not anymore, anyway.
That ship has already sailed. It left the harbor a long time ago.
Given all the disruption that’s taken place, the rise of deconstruction, and the myriad of digital options that have been available for years, anyone who saw church online as an easy out is already gone.Given all the disruption that's taken place, the rise of deconstruction, and the myriad of digital options that have been available for years, anyone who saw church online as an easy out is already gone. Click To Tweet
And even if your church doesn’t offer an online service, hundreds of thousands of other churches do. People who really want to do church online and skip the building are already doing it.
This means the back door potential to your online presence is minuscule compared to the huge front door and side door potential it packs.
And even if a few people leave as you enhance your online presence, were they really in in the first place?
Just to complete the loop, think about it a little longer. And even for someone who exits now for digital options, you have the front door and side door potential of your ministry available to get them re-engaged.And even if your church doesn't offer an online service, hundreds of thousands of other churches do. People who really want to do church online and skip the building are already doing it. Click To Tweet
Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain
If you really think about church online and its impact on in-person attendance, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by going all-in online.
Ironically, for years pastors dreamed of sharing their message with a wider audience, but when the technology to do that actually showed up, fear became the dominant reaction.
If you really want to reach people, it’s never been easier. And it’s never been more needed.
What if digital church isn’t the enemy of in-person attendance but its greatest ally?Digital church isn't the enemy of in-person attendance, but its greatest ally. Click To Tweet