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5 Confessions of a Pastor About Online Church Attendance

So for months now, your church has been offering online services either for the first time or in a much more intentional way.

Ever wonder what it’s like on the other side of the screen?

I’ve been in church leadership for 25 years, and beyond that, until March 2020, attended church in person almost every Sunday morning of my life with the exception of a few years in undergrad where I mostly slept or traipsed in late once a month.

For several months now, though (with the exception of a half dozen Sundays I preached) I’ve been home like the rest of the world. My role as Founding Pastor these days means (for good reason) I shouldn’t be one of the 5-10 essential people that are legally allowed to be in our broadcast facility during the pandemic. Which means I’ve been watching from home. For months.

It’s a completely different pace of life for me, and after getting over feeling guilty, restless and out of sorts, I thought I’d write a (hopefully) helpful post about what it’s like to be on the other side of the screen.

The goal? If you understand the thinking of your online viewers, you can better engage them.

As a friend who loves fishing once told me, if you want to catch a fish, you need to think like a fish, asking yourself questions like what a largemouth bass would be thinking at 4:00 on a sunny afternoon (as in, hey, underneath that log by those rocks looks like a great place for shelter from the sun).

Thinking like a fish helps you catch more fish.

Although I’ve always tried to study, learn from and think like an unchurched person, not being able to be in church for months has helped me explore that mindset a little more deeply.

So, if like me, you’re committed to making your church a place where people who don’t know Jesus come to know Jesus, here are some candid and honest observations about church online.

1. 45 Minutes is Way More Convenient Than 5 Hours

It was completely weird at first to go from a life-time of Sunday morning being a minimum 5-hour commitment (more with prep) to a 45-minute experience.

Like most churches, ours quickly figured out that a 65-minute service using the same format we used for in-person services didn’t translate well online. So we trimmed things down to about 45 minutes.

At first, I felt guilty, incomplete, and even strange about church being so short.

Then I really came to love it.

For the record, I do not believe that church is about consumption. Yes, we live in a consumer culture, but I believe Christianity is as much about what you bring to the mission as it is about what you gain from the mission.

That said, we live in a consumer culture.

To disagree with behaviour is one thing. To reverse it is another.

As much as you may not love online church attendance, it’s probably here to stay.

I’ve been quietly telling church leaders over the last few months that one of the hardest flips back to in-person gathering will be the switch from a 45-minute online investment to 3-5 hours (or longer for some volunteers) for in-person church attendance.

It’s one that, of course, I’ll make. And so will many others.  But not everyone will.

For years now, we’ve already seen infrequent church attendance among even committed Christians (here are 10 reasons why).

This will only accelerate that.

2. Unchurched People Aren’t Lying. Sunday Really Is Awesome.

For years, I’ve heard people talk about how awesome Sunday is. That it’s their only family day. The only free day. That it’s different than all the other days.

And although I was polite on the outside, I pushed back and kept thinking “Well, it would be way more awesome if you were here Sundays.”

I even secretly resented the line from Easy by The Commodore’s—easy like Sunday morning—because NO preacher has ever found Sunday morning easy. Amazing perhaps. Challenging maybe. Tiring for sure. But easy? Give me a break.

Having been at home almost every Sunday for months, I finally understand what people have been telling me for decades.

Sunday is a different kind of day.

My neighborhood, which is about 95% unchurched, is much quieter on Sunday morning than it is on a Saturday or any other day. There is something wonderful about enjoying a two day weekend when most other people aren’t working that is different than taking a Friday or Monday off.

So what’s the point?

I guess it gives me a fresh perspective on the cultural challenge church leaders face when I’m asking someone to give up a Sunday morning to get to know God better.

As Scott Sauls, disappointed by a low initial return-to church attendance at his church in Nashville, rightly says, worship should be a sacrifice. Going to church is not just something to do if you have nothing else to do.  (You can listen to Scott’s full conversation here.) He’s right.

And yet that’s a tough sell to someone who has never gone to church or only attended half-heartedly in the past.

Moving forward, this will give me a fresh motivation to ensure Sunday gatherings are meaningful, powerful, and significant. Of course, they’ve always been all that and more, but sometimes we miss the mark.

People are deeply disappointed when they show up at church hoping to find God but get us instead.

3. Streaming Isn’t Enough

Having led a church for over two decades, I know how much work Sunday is. I get how much time, energy, prayer and planning go into Sunday mornings.

But having sat at home for weeks on end, I can now see how streaming Sundays isn’t nearly enough.

In the early moments of the shutdown and pandemic, almost every church experimented with live streams beyond Sunday, online prayer meetings, different gatherings, and content drops and encouragements throughout the week.

Judging by what I see on my social media feed, it looks like the innovation curve has slowed way down or stopped.

Most churches have stopped experimenting and instead focused most, if not all, their resources on the Sunday morning service and programming with it. Their online footprint has been reduced to Sunday morning and everything on social leads into it or out of it.

I’m a huge supporter of Sundays done well, but just so you know, that’s a really narrow online footprint.

Engaging people for 45 minutes a week through an online stream of your Sunday service misses the opportunity latent in the other 10,035 minutes a week.

If you want to go beyond social media to social ministry, Nona Jones has a great perspective and practical ideas on how to do that here.

4. I Really Want You To Equip Me For Life in the World (Not Just the Church)

Another thing I’ve been thinking about (a lot) over the last few months is how facility-centric ministry is. Again, this is self-reflection and self-criticism, having built several facilities which, of course, I’m not against in the least. We need gathering spaces.

That said, COVID has exposed for me how deep the assumption runs that the primary way people can find faith or live out their faith is in a building.

Not being able to access the building reminds me how most of us spent over 160 hours a week outside the building, or in some cases, 168 hours each week away from the building.

Pastors, meanwhile, seem to focus all their effort and attention on getting people to come to the building.

In the future, I think the successful churches will figure out how to equip people where they’re at, in their homes, apartments, neighbourhoods and workplaces to live out their faith.

I sit on my front porch and write, and every day dozens of people walk, run and cycle by. I don’t know most of them.

The question I’m asking is can you equip me?

Listen, I went to seminary. I’ve taught this church leadership for years. And I’m well aware I can google this in a heartbeat. And I have.

But as I sit here 167 hours a week like everybody else has done for years, I’m longing for more regular resources to help me do that better without becoming ‘that guy’ every neighbor avoids.  If that’s how a seminary grad feels, imagine how people who haven’t been to seminary must long for daily help.

It also takes me back to the year I worked in law, where I had a similar question: who’s going to help me live this faith out in an office tower?

Again, I know there are a million books and resources. I just want a companion.

Still worried about Sunday? Leaders who figure out how to equip their people to live out their faith every day will have more to celebrate on Sundays.

5. Mindless or Troll Chat is Disengaging

A final note.

The chat on your online streams or social media will, without any effort on your part, default to two categories: mindless or troll-level. Both are disengaging (at least for me). This is a massive problem on the internet that will quickly become a significant problem for your church or organization, if it isn’t already.

As far as chat goes, I don’t really want to weigh in what my favorite pizza is, nor am I ever going to engage the troll who says the moon landing was a conspiracy or the haters who trash everything being said.

The key is to get some thoughtful people running the chat. Sure, a few ice-breaker questions are a good way to welcome people, but then to really engage the life-questions and faith questions people have will get more people to engage.

I have a love-hate relationship with comments. Unlike most websites, we’ve left the comments on for this site. And over 31,000 comments in, I’ve learned it is possible to have rich and meaningful dialogue online.

I’ve found the same thing on social. Sure, you have to delete some comments and block a handful of people every now and then, but most people are good people who have real questions. If you set a thoughtful tone, offer real content that stimulates both the heart and the mind, and engage in a way you would if you were talking in real life, some great conversations can happen online.

Because of the sheer volume of comments on my channels, I haven’t read every single comment. But I’ve read tens of thousands and engaged back thousands of times. I’ve learned so much from my readers and listeners.

Here are two simple metaphors that can help you in the comments and chat:

First, try to set the tone you would want at a dinner party. It’s okay not to agree, but at a dinner party, most guests would disagree without being disagreeable. And if one of the guests tries to sucker punch another, you’d either call the police or ask him to leave. Do the same on your channels and sites. Blocking exists for a reason.

Second, by the content you offer and tone you set as a leader, try to make your presence on the internet a place where good gathers.

Those two things will go a long way in improving the tone and tenor of the conversation on your channels. Remember, unchurched and spiritually curious people are watching and reading. Don’t play into the stereotypes or settle for the lowest common denominator.

So…What Do You Do? 

In light of all this, what do you do?

Obviously, this is part of a much bigger conversation we have every week on this blog (if you’re not a subscriber, subscribe here to get my latest emails), but here’s the one thing I would do.

I would plan your future strategy, budget and staffing around two scenarios:

  1. Static or reduced in-person attendance.
  2. An expanded online presence.

If you bet the future on things going back to normal, you won’t have much of a future.

Crisis is an accelerator, and for better or worse, the convenience of online church just got accelerated for millions of people.

So plan, budget, staff and prepare accordingly.

What Are You Learning About Church Online?

Anything you’d add to the conversation. How else is church online changing everything?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

5 Confessions of a Pastor About Online Church Attendance

23 Comments

  1. Coni maes on August 20, 2020 at 7:15 pm

    We were a church community and my family misses the in person contact so much. We always stayed after for a pot luck and came in to host flea markets bell practice Halloween for all and Easter.we live in a poor neighbor hood so we also helped atthe lords pantry and collected clothing and blankets firthe dispossessed. We also have a pre school their. We feela loss of community because that was our church family which doesn’t translate well on line for us as parishioners.

  2. Cathy on August 4, 2020 at 12:28 pm

    Sooooo very thankful for you, Carey, and for how you share your wisdom with us! Your insight has provided such comfort AND motivation for me personally as Children’s Ministry Director, and I cannot recommend your writings enough for everyone trying to survive and thrive in our culture! During the initial shock wave, you seemed to know exactly how we were all thinking and feeling. You directed us with excellence! Now as we navigate NEW new waters (although perhaps even MORE complicated!) you are blazing a trail again! THANK YOU!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on August 5, 2020 at 3:48 pm

      Glad to help!

  3. Catherine Kennelly on August 3, 2020 at 2:11 pm

    Our church serves a First Nations community in Ontario Canada. The reserve is on the border, so the internet service is terrible and many are too poor to have a computer and internet. However, the mostly First Nations pastoral leadership was able to get air time at the local radio station. Those living on the reserve just went back to in person worship (with masks and distancing), but we are holding on to the air time to maintain our new and greater reach. The schedule is you preach one week in house and the next week you preach on the radio. Even without internet, the Lord has provided opportunities for those who are willing to look for them and think outside the box. Two of our leaders also do a daily worship and devotional time on the radio.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on August 3, 2020 at 2:30 pm

      Love your ministry and your heart Catherine. Thank you!

  4. Tom Lathen on August 3, 2020 at 1:04 pm

    I am a bi-vocational pastor. Meaning I have a part time appointment to a very small, aging, United Methodist Congregation. Then I have a M-F job that pays the bills.
    So, I feel great challenge at our piece of the Great Commission. We are seeing more on line views than in person attendance. Yesterday I told the in person congregation that we need to welcome our on line worshipers and consider them part of our greater congregation.
    One question I have from y’all is this. When do we invite the on line community to support the church? I don’t mean that to sound greedy, I really don’t. I have told the on line congregation they are part of our church. I have invited them to come to live service. (Yes, we are open – with masks & distancing.) In the credits they are invited to support the church and our mailing address is listed.
    Should we be adding paypal? Should we just not worry about it? The average age of our active membership is probably 65 and some don’t even own computers. So, I don’t think paypal would be used by our face to face church.
    I do believe God is calling us to grow our little congregation, and I want to be open to his leading. I would appreciate your prayers and advice.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on August 3, 2020 at 2:34 pm

      Hey Tom, great to hear from you and wow, that’s commitment on your part. 🙂

      Digital giving is a long road, but a rich one. Almost everything we do is digital now, and I think some of your seniors might realize much of their life has gone digital, including their banking.

      I do think with people it’s important to do something FOR them financially before as you ask for anything FROM them. If you want more on that, I wrote this post on boosting digital giving and reaching new people: https://careynieuwhof.com/if-you-want-to-get-over-your-fear-of-talking-about-money-heres-how/

  5. Jeff Courter on August 3, 2020 at 12:17 pm

    As a pastor of a small urban church (yes, they exist!), I have watched online services from other churches, just to compare it to our own (I want to learn from others!). I have also had an opportunity to watch our own worship service online as a guest pastor preached (that was unusual!).

    What I have felt is that online, size does not matter. Yes, you may notice how many people are watching, but most are “watching” as if it were a TV show. So no one really knows if you are a big church, a small church, or if your church is nearby, in the same city, or even in the same country – online, geographic separations don’t matter, because the Internet brings us together.

    So changing your game plan becomes that much more important. Online, we all “feel” the same – 45 minutes feels the same, regardless of the music or special effects, especially online.

    Our church building is still closed (our board voted against reopening), and we are unsure when we will open our building for worship. But one day, we will reopen. And many church members will stay at home and watch online, just like they are doing now.

    The challenge will be how to put both online and in person together, so both groups can experience being the “Body of Christ” wherever they are, both in the building and at home. It seems this may require some combination of big-screen display to show pictures of folks worshiping at home (like Zoom gives us now), while also streaming pictures of folks worshiping in person. I don’t know what that combination will look like, but IMHO, that’s what the future will need to look like to engage everyone.

    Thanks, Carey, for this post. You have posted a lot about the future of the church and what it might look like, and we need to be thinking and planning for that now.

    • Rob Worthington on August 3, 2020 at 12:48 pm

      Jeff,
      One of the things we did when we resumed in person worship was to delay the posting of our video. This has helped boost in person attendance for us. We are small as well but currently have about a 65% return of our members. It has helped us and also encourages visitors to join for services.

      Rob

  6. Ross on August 3, 2020 at 10:11 am

    Pastor Carey you are truly one of the most curious and courageous minds working on the challenges facing the Church today. Keep going, brother! The more I immerse myself in this topic of “how do we equip our fellow Christians for today’s world?” the more I get the sense that we’re circling around the main challenge ever more closely but we’re not quite there.

    For instance, it appears one of our big challenges is how do we inspire the average Christian to purposefully engage in their own personal journey to be more Christ-like instead of standing still?

    Perhaps we could chew on the following question as a pragmatic starting point?

    If a non-Christian acquaintance of ours asked some version of “Why should I be a Christian?” how would we answer in words they would 1) understand and 2) be genuinely curious about?
    It’s easy but hard!

    I think in the West we have become quite complacent in our faith; bored even. The evidence of this has been well documented (i.e., our inward focus). In order to reverse our Western cultural trend of moving away from Christianity, we probably need either one of the following to happen:

    1. Extreme threat to the average Christian’s life because of their faith, or

    2. A re-articulation of the reason why Christianity is vital to our life/society expressed in such a way that is inspiring to the average citizen.

    And yes, it needs to touch the human heart. That’s how we all start to move forward to do anything new. It’s what gets us moving in a crisis.

    There more I read of the Gospels the more I see how Christ touched the average person’s heart with His words and presence when he interacted with them. They got excited about moving toward a better way of being after experiencing Him. (Think Samaritan at the well.)

    We appear to be doing a good job of articulating “what” we need to do and are getting a little better at “how” to do it, but lack the inspirational message of “why” anyone should care to engage.

    But my sense is we are getting soooo close! We should not stop thinking.

    • Frank on August 11, 2020 at 1:27 am

      Yes! This!

  7. Marilyn Carlson on August 3, 2020 at 9:29 am

    “People are deeply disappointed when they show up at church hoping to find God but get us instead.“

    This.

    Experiencing God’s presence in a church service is the most powerful and affirming motivator for attendees to return to worship at church.

    When the heart of God touches our hearts, it is awesome and can carry us for quite some time. (However, finding God at church can be a rare experience. And for
    sure, God makes His presence and leading known to us in the Word, prayer, and in many aspects and times of life.). But, connecting with God during a church service makes me want to attend again so I can experience His love for me again and again. Finding God at church is just that powerful.

  8. Lester Love on August 3, 2020 at 9:21 am

    EXCELLENT! (as always)

  9. Jon on August 3, 2020 at 8:55 am

    You ain’t lying about Sunday morning!

  10. Heather Dawn on August 3, 2020 at 8:27 am

    Absolutely agree. Thank you for this.

    Only comment I would offer is for #5: while definitely the majority of livestream commentary for services falls under “mindless” (e.g. greetings, encouragements, re-posting “sound bites” etc) for someone who would otherwise watch alone, this still provides a sense of shared experience in the moment, and even community (after 5 months, you “recognize” the frequent participants on YouTube!)… especially during those early days of quarantine. It truly is hard to lead (I’m sure) or even respond to interesting and insightful commentary on livestream, but the social value of the livestream for many still remains, in my opinion.

  11. Chuck Hasty on August 3, 2020 at 7:05 am

    BINGO! You have written what I have been thinking. I appreciate your candor and perspective. “Crisis is an accelerator, for better or worse…” is so true. Your wise counsel has inspired and motivated me to use this “crisis” for being a better church body. Thank you!

    • Rob Worthington on August 3, 2020 at 8:17 am

      I suppose I live in an alternate universe. The last 5 months have been busier and more focused than I have ever experienced before. We returned to in person worship on June 15 but even prior to that Sundays were very busy recording messages, editing video, and all the other tasks related to producing quality projects.

      As the sole sstaff member of a small church there is no down time! Thankfully I have a very supportive family that works beside me in all phases of ministry.

      I keep hearing from other pastors of their free time and it just does not exist for me. Most days are 10 to 12 hours. I wish I had another person on staff but our church simply does not have those resources. For now I will push on doing my best for my flock and drawing on the strength of my Lord to get through these times.

      • Carey Nieuwhof on August 3, 2020 at 8:46 am

        Hey Rob. Totally hear that. I suppose I didn’t stress enough that I’m Founding, not Lead Pastor. So I spend most of my time helping leaders, which makes for a different experience.

        I hear from pastors that it’s the busiest time in their lives too. I think the question is the activity moving us forward in the mission?

      • Chris R on August 3, 2020 at 10:14 am

        Rob, you’re not alone man. I’m on staff at a large church and oversee communications and digital presence. These recent months have been like none other i’ve known in my church staff experience. I feel for you, praying for you. You gotta find some rest or you’ll collapse in a frustrated heap at some point. One way to find it is found in Mr Nieuwhof’s last question of his response. Do what’s working and effective, cut what’s not. The cuts should give you some chance to breath, think, discern and strategize. It’s all so fluid, so extend and ask for grace in these matters from your church family.

        • Rob Worthington on August 3, 2020 at 12:53 pm

          Thanks Chris. Working on the downtime area. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do and can’t imagine doing anything else.

      • Tom Reusch on August 3, 2020 at 11:16 am

        Thanks, great stuff as always. One thing we’ve tried to keep in the forefront of our minds is that, for many people, online services might be their only genuine interaction with a church ever. Since it’s easier than ever to invite someone to church by sharing a link or sending an email… lots of first time guests online are first time church-goers as well.

        In terms of #5, the chat, we like to keep in mind that if someone walked into your physical lobby, how would you interact with them? Do that. Greet them, ‘show them around’ etc… BUT also, we can do things in the chat that you wouldn’t do in person during service. Sharing a song link by shouting during the live worship set would be weird… but doing so in the chat is acceptable and often welcomed, especially if someone asks.

        One thing we’re trying out is that we’re trying to post more ‘affirming statements’ than asking questions in the chat. It feels more accessible for someone to ‘agree’ with an affirming statement about a message point or song than it is for them to respond to a question about themselves or what God is doing in their lives currently. There’s def a place for good deeper convo/questions, but the chat is an interesting mix of “Lobby + Worship Center” so we try to keep it accessible as best as we can to as many as we can.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on August 3, 2020 at 8:47 am

      Thanks Chuck! Crisis sure is an accelerator.

    • Amanda Sims on August 3, 2020 at 10:19 am

      I love this! Lots of great insights here, especially on creating a good chat culture. It’s not easy but it’s worth it. One thing I’ve said a lot over my years on our Church Online staff is that we don’t “watch” Church Online, we “attend “ Church Online. Maybe it’s semantics, but we don’t say we watch at our physics locations, and it’s a bit of a mindset shift that begins to lead people to a different perspective. This is especially helpful when we start talking about serving in the online space. You don’t volunteer for Netflix, but you do for church—and you can volunteer with Church Online (at least You can with ours).

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