Is Church Online a Front Door—Or a Back Door—for Your Church?

It wasn’t that long ago you actually had to work hard to access anything you missed at the church you attended.

You had to show up in person to pick up a CD (or cassette…remember those??) or ask someone to mail you a copy. Or you simply missed out.

Fast forward to now, and almost every church has their messages available online.

Many also have podcasts and even apps. At Connexus, where I serve, we have all three.

And like a growing number of other churches, next year we’ll launch on online campus—a full broadcast of our morning services like North Point Online or Cross Point’s Internet Campus.

It’s always good to ask some questions when things are changing quickly.

What are the rapid rise of messages online and experiences online doing to the church and to people’s faith?

Are they acting as a front door to ministry and attracting people, or are they acting as a back door for people slowly leaving the church?

In other words, is the option of church online moving people closer to Christ, or further away?

It’s a great question every church leader should think through.

 

So What’s Happening, Exactly?

When the option of churches podcasting and launching online campuses became real 6-8 years ago, it looked like it was all upside for the local church

A chance to reach more people.

An opportunity to get the Word out.

A chance to reach people who are scared of walking through a church door.

More exposure.

And, in many ways, all that upside is still there and amazing.

But another trend has emerged that no one really saw coming. Or at least I didn’t.

A growing number of Christians seem to be watching the local church rather than being engaged in the local church.

It’s not usually a huge number, but talk to even the mega-church people behind the scenes and they’ll tell you that as many as several thousand who used to attend in person aren’t any more. They’re watching from the comfort of a bed or beach instead.

While this hasn’t killed attendance by any stretch, it has dented it. The churches that offer numerous online gateways are still growing, but they are also seeing a smaller exodus of Christians no one is sure what to do with.

And it’s alarming for many more reasons than it being downward pressure on a growth curve.

 

4 Questions About Church Online For Christians

If you’re a Christian and your primary experience of church is online, my question is “why”?

Here are 4 questions I would ask:

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1. When did faith become something to be consumed or watched rather than lived?

In many ways, the explosion of online ministry is simply a new extension of the TV and radio ministries pioneered in the 20th century.

But authentic Christianity was never intended to be consumed or watched.

Following Jesus is something to be lived. And not just as an individualized experience.

Being the church is something we are and something we do together.

We’re a community on mission together for a cause far greater than ourselves and for a Saviour who is reconciling the word to Himself.

 

2. Are you going to invite your friends into your living room (or bedroom)?

If you’re watching church in bed because you don’t want to get up, I mean I get that…from time to time we all get tired.

But we come from a tradition in which first century Christians would rise before the sun came up to gather in prayer. They got up early because their work started first thing in the morning and often lasted until the sun went down…or later.

But Jesus had so radically transformed their lives that it revolutionized their time, their finances and their priorities.

I think online church has the potential to creates new communities where people gather in homes as a starting point (see below). But the movement of these gatherings, like the church at its best, should be outward, not inward.

I can see inviting friends to your living room to watch and discuss together, but with a view to becoming part of something bigger than just you or what your living room can contain (even if that means it has to spread to multiple homes).

But if church online or the latest podcast is about staying in bed because you just don’t want to get up week after week…well, I’m not sure I get that.

 

3. How do you serve?

If church is entirely experienced online—and you’re a Christian—how will you serve?

Sure, you can serve in the community, and many do.

But there’s something radical when Christians come together and serve in the name of a Saviour and reshape the world through outrageous generosity.

If it’s all about you and your convenience…well, how is that really about being transformed?

I believe our spiritual gifts have maximum impact when used in pursuit of a common mission and strategy.

Together, we are far greater than we ever would be doing random, individualized acts of insular kindness (not that we should stop living out our faith personally, but you get the point).

I think it has something to do with being the body of Christ.

 

4. What about your kids?

I’ve said this before, but I think the kids are the biggest losers when the parents stay home.

Most kids have their greatest relational connections when the church gathers together.

Plus they have teaching and groups tailored to bring the message of Christianity to their exact age and stage.

And every kid needs a wider circle of influence than just mom and dad.

When the parents stay home, the kids lose most.

My own view is that church online makes an amazing supplement to the mission of the local church, but not a replacement for it.

 

3 Opportunities for Every Church in the Online World.

All that said, should churches vacate the online world?

Absolutely not.

These are the early days and we’re still figuring things out. No one has cracked the code and experimenting is fun.

I believe the online world is the biggest front door the church has ever seen. Suddenly, we’re all connected.

I would encourage every church to get online as quickly as you can. Here’s why:

1. Almost everyone you want to reach is online

That person you’re praying for?

They may have never been to church, but they’re almost certainly on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or online.

The dream about reaching your neighbours should stop being a dream and start being a strategy.

And no, you don’t want to spam them constantly. But you can reach them with authenticity.

 

2. Sharing is easy…and authentic

There’s your church social media account, which is awesome. But then there’s your personal account. And the personal accounts of dozens, hundreds or thousands of people who attend your church.

If you make your ministry and faith shareable and people start to share messages, quotes and helpful articles you post, sharing your faith becomes something natural and integrated into the lives of all your attenders.

Which also means it shows up in the feeds of all their friends.

Which also means it makes conversation easier.

Which also means the front door is bigger than it’s ever been.

That’s no excuse to be a goof or socially inept person online. I wrote this post about 6 ways people lose influence online, and this post about 7 ways to become a person people like and respect online.

But it does mean if you authentically live out your faith, you will inspire people, some of whom will in turn want to follow the One you follow.

 

3. Small can be big

A few months ago I spoke to the staff at the Cove Church in North Carolina, a great church of about 5000.

They’re unveiling a plan to reach 40,000 people and add micro-campuses—basically home gatherings with a view to outreach. Because you can share the messages and experiences on a flatscreen or tablet, they want to reach people in neighbourhoods who might not drive or come to church, but would go to a friend’s house.

But notice the motive in this is outward, not inward. I love that.

There’s a world of difference between not wanting to get out of bed and doing church online and waking up the neighbourhood to authentically share Christ.

Even the kids can be drawn together and grow in their faith in this scenario.

 

Overall, the front door potential of the church online is far greater than the back door reality.

I just wish the people who see it as a back door would get passionate enough about faith to invite their friends through the front door.

What are you learning about church online?

Leave a comment!

13 Comments

  1. Geoff Bynum on June 17, 2018 at 7:29 am

    I think as long we are intentional about communicating what the invitation of the gospel is, the use of technology is awesome. The challenge is our hyper-independent, consumer-saturated, significantly-isolated culture. Both churched and unchurched people are prone to make the gospel fit into their already distorted paradigm of living. Just my opinion.

    The gospel is not inviting people into a private experience of salvation. It’s inviting people to become part of the people of God. The community of Christ that is being transformed through Holy Spirit inspired faith, hope and love. It’s an invitation to the Church – actually gathered – as people who know each other, love each other and care for each other. People who are experiencing a measure of heaven on earth today and inviting others into that experience. Heaven, is not a private experience. It’s hugely communal. That’s what the gospel is inviting people into. It’s what people desperately need in fact. Celebrate and promote that and we’ll be OK with wherever technology takes us.

  2. Patricia Wilson on March 13, 2018 at 10:10 pm

    I like that you mentioned how churches that have podcasts and online campuses can reach out to a wider audience and can create a better opportunity for themselves to share the Gospel. When this trend was at its peak, I was simply amazed by it because it allowed us to penetrate areas that proved geographically challenging to get to. Physical boundaries and restrictions are almost non-existent because of the advent of technology. When I miss church because of exigent reasons, I can always catch up online through the church’s website. Thanks for the good read!

  3. […] for an electronic newsletter, a way anyone can join a parish smartphone app, etc. As Carey Nieuwhof writes, “the online world is the biggest front door the church has ever seen, suddenly we’re […]

  4. Diane on November 26, 2015 at 9:26 am

    I am very fond of online church. I may be biased because I work at a blended learning school (where the curriculum is mostly delivered to students online.) I see many benefits. I think online church is great as an option. I definitely don’t think it can replace fellowship. However, it’s better than missing church all together. I love how I can print the sermon notes and rewind the sermon for points I missed. Online church is especially helpful when the Pastor is doing a sermon series and I want to catch up. I also give my tithe online. The only thing I would add to online church is an online commmunity for a threaded discussion throughout the week about the sermon.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 26, 2015 at 9:45 am

      Thanks for sharing Diane. I know some churches have a discussion forum too. Helpful feedback!

  5. A@work on March 6, 2015 at 6:10 pm

    Is there any hard numbers or studies you can site that directly show a correlation between the increase in a webcast audience and the decrease in the physical audience? Studies of trade conferences that have added an online presence in recent years show that the conference attendance has increased as their online attendance has increased despite initial concerns about cannibalizing their audience.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 7, 2015 at 6:38 am

      Great question. I don’t have data and I’m not sure there’s any that’s been made public. But conversations with leaders have indicated an increase in online has corresponded with a decrease in the growth rate for physical attendance. I anticipate that will level out and likely go the way of the data you’re sharing about trade conferences. Interesting data!

  6. Stephen Grcevich MD on August 6, 2014 at 8:17 pm

    Carey…glad to see that you guys are progressing down this road.

    Consider this…your team at Connexus, as is the case with other North Point partner churches places great emphasis on creating ministry environments that unchurched people will want to attend. But you can’t possibly create ministry environments that will be inviting to everybody. As you create your online presence, it offers Connexus the opportunity to introduce itself to unchurched people in the environments in which they are most comfortable. Some people may find the sensory environment (lighting, music, proximity of other people) overwhelming. Some people who struggle with social communication may be overwhelmed by the number of new people they meet on an initial visit. Some might avoid visiting because of fear of the unknown or unfamiliar. You’re eliminating resistance by offering an environment that encourages unchurched people to take the first step without having to leave their comfort zone.

    An effective online church presence will be relational. Lifechurch.tv and onlinechurch.com do this well. Technology can be a tool for promoting connection and relationship between worship hosts and people in your community (Greater Toronto) who don’t know Jesus and don’t know anyone from Connexus to invite them to church. Imagine your people serving as online hosts with the ability to invite friends and neighbors to a shared, interactive worship experience!

    I’d recommend this free site created by the online pastors of Community Bible Church and Saddleback Church to you and other leaders interested in exploring the use of technology to reach people no one else is reaching:

    http://onlinechurchleaders.com

  7. Lawrence W. Wilson on August 6, 2014 at 7:22 am

    Carey, it seems most of us are doing with church what we did with just about everything on the Internet 10-15 years ago: Just put it out there and see what happens.

    Everybody has the idea now that you need an intentional strategy for using the Internet to–do whatever you’re trying to do. Well, almost everybody …

  8. Steve Fogg on August 5, 2014 at 10:53 pm

    Great post Carey. We are starting our own online campus next year too! It’s true, there are many pros/cons to weigh up. My take is what happens if we don’t do it? People can still watch our on demand content already anyway.

    The excitement and vision for is is reaching people that currently don’t attend a church. The opportunity locally in our city that social networks now provide for everyone to invite someone is an idea that really intrigues me.

    More broadly, we also live in the Asia century and for us here in Australia we are uniquely placed with a country of over 250 million mostly non-Christians directly north in Indonesia, then there is Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Thailand. Many speak the English language very well. I haven’t even mentioned the elephant in the room – China. If/once that opens up digitally then we will see a movement I believe we have never witnessed since the Roman empire was changed from within. Of course it already is, but the more influences the better.

    One tip I would give Connexus is to ensure that you apply get the Google Adwords Grant. $10,000 of free ad words per month. Those who are using church online well have exploited this and are reaching many people that are in tough places through clever and random ad placements in Asian countries.

  9. John Stuart on August 5, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    Isaac Asimov wrote a story in the 1950s about people becoming personally isolated via technology. In the end, no one went anywhere and even seeing other people on screens became nauseating. Prophetic words for the church?

    • adamkingYM on August 5, 2014 at 8:12 pm

      You see some of that same concern in the images of the overweight, miserable, and completely disconnected humans in Wall-E. I love technology. I love social media. I love being able to listen to sermons online and stream worship music. But it will never be a substitute for the exciting, messy, and sometimes obnoxious relationships that can only be experienced through regular meetings of the saints. Hebrews 10 is incredibly prescient this topic.

      “and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”

      Carey, as you say very well, online presence is vital for churches. But when it becomes a substitution instead of a supplement, it destroys the very purposes of the church. I’m glad you are keeping that balance in mind and I pray for the best as Connexus moves in this exciting direction!

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