The Mainstreaming of Online Church
The Mainstreaming of Online Church

By Kent Fillinger

If Paul were still preaching, would he have an online church live-streaming from Jerusalem? It’s entirely possible. After all, Paul said, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:22, 23).

All that to say, Internet worship services are becoming more mainstream.

In July, I provided an overview of how Christian churches and churches of Christ are using various social media platforms to communicate. I want to go a step further this month, share more detailed statistics, and identify possible advantages and challenges faced by churches with online campuses, as identified in our 2018 survey.

Online Campuses in Independent Christian Churches

Overall, less than one-fourth (24 percent) of the 426 churches in our most recent annual survey reported having an Internet campus or online church. Among megachurches (2,000 or more in weekly worship attendance), 56 percent had an online campus in 2018. Of the rest, 22 percent of emerging megachurches (averaging 1,000 to 1,999), 19 percent of large (500-999) and medium (250-499) churches, and 13 percent of small (100-249) and very small (99 or fewer) churches offered online church last year.

Of the remaining churches, only 5 percent said they plan to launch an Internet campus, while 70 percent said they have no such plan.

Online Attendance Tracking

To count or not to count? That is often the primary question asked with regard to online church. And a follow-up question is, If we’re going to include online viewers in our total attendance, how should we count them?

Some churches have developed elaborate methods for how they track and count online worshippers. Other churches simply count anyone who watches the online worship service, and some count only viewers who watch a service for a set length of time. Some churches track the number of people who log in during a service and identify themselves or count those who interact with an online worship host or online minister during the service.

As a researcher, I’d much prefer a universal standard for how to count online worship participants in the overall attendance totals. But for now, our survey is at the mercy of the method each church chooses to use. With that said, about half—52 percent—of the churches that offer online worship services included online viewers in their worship attendance figures.

Megachurches were the most likely (77 percent) to include online attendance in their total attendance number. Large churches were the least likely (31 percent).

Churches that include online attendees as part of their total attendance derive, on average, 15 percent of their total average worship attendance from their online campus. This percentage ranged from a high of 50 percent (two churches) to a low of 1 percent (two churches).

Growth Rates and Attendance

Our survey found that churches with an Internet campus grew much faster than those without (a 9 percent growth rate vs. 2 percent, respectively).

It’s interesting, and perhaps counterintuitive, that churches with online worship averaged fewer attendees than churches without an Internet campus in three of the six church categories.

My guess is that the faster growth rates for the churches with an online campus were the byproduct of a bigger vision and commitment to reach more people and the willingness to use new strategies and tools to do so.

Baptism Ratios

In addition to faster growth rates, the churches with an online campus also had higher overall baptism ratios (number of baptisms per 100 people in average attendance) than churches without online services; the ratios were 6.9 and 5.4, respectively.

This was surprising to me. Baptism ratios have declined over the last two years, and I had wondered whether this was due, in part, to increasing online worship. But this does not appear to be the case.

Age of Lead Minister

Not so surprising was that lead ministers of churches with an Internet campus tended to be younger. Among the five largest size categories, the average age of ministers was 49.8, or 1.4 years younger than the lead ministers of churches in those same categories that don’t offer online services. (By the way, ministers of very small churches with an Internet campus bucked that trend by being older than their non-Internet counterparts.)

Average Total Giving

Total annual giving was stronger at churches without an Internet campus in four of the six church categories. Only emerging megachurches and small churches with an online campus had better average total giving than those churches without it.

The churches without an Internet campus gave 24 percent more in total offerings on average in 2018 than churches with an online campus. The average worship attendee of a church with no Internet worship gave $38.63 weekly, vs. $35.96 in giving for persons at churches with an online campus.

This giving gap leads me to conclude many online worshippers are consuming but not necessarily contributing to the church.

Why Do Churches Have an Online Campus?

For the first time this year, our annual survey asked churches to identify their most important reason for offering an Internet campus. Here were the choices (and respondents could also provide an open-ended answer): (1) evangelism/outreach; (2) discipleship; (3) connectivity (help church family stay connected when working, sick, or traveling); (4) multisite strategy; (5) increase our revenue/giving stream.

The predominant response among all church sizes was “connectivity” (54 percent). Churches saw their online campus as a tool to help existing members stay connected to the life of the church, even when they couldn’t physically be present.

The second most commonly cited reason was “evangelism/outreach” (35 percent). Of the remaining choices, 5 percent of the churches said “discipleship” was the primary motivating factor for having an Internet campus, while 3 percent said it was part of their multisite strategy. (No church listed increasing revenue as the primary reason.)

What’s Next?

What’s next? . . . I wish I knew! As technology continues to improve, and as more online platforms become available, the accessibility and opportunity to broadcast worship services online increases for churches of all sizes. Some churches are exploring how to design online small group Bible studies to create a “next step” for their online worshippers. Some churches are hiring ministers to care for online attendees as they interact with them and pray for them through online posts. Some churches are trying to encourage online viewers to find a local church to attend. The range of possibilities continues to grow as churches look for new and creative ways to communicate the gospel to reach the lost.

Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and regional vice president (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan) with Christian Financial Resources.

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