The pandemic changed the trajectory of online ministry and the digital church. A word like “phygital” was applied to church for the first time to my knowledge. Phygital (combining physical and digital) is a marketing term that describes blending digital experiences with physical ones. Others referred to it as the “hybrid model,” meaning churches offer worship services both in-person and online. The closures forced some churches to rethink their online ministry strategy and other churches to create an online ministry strategy for the first time.
A 2020 Pew Research Center study found that one in five American adults (20 percent) started watching religious services remotely for the first time during the pandemic. Of the four in five (80 percent) of evangelicals worshipping remotely, 42 percent watched services offered by their own church, 24 percent watched some other church’s service, and 34 percent watched services from both their own church and other churches. Only 2 percent of evangelical churchgoers in America anticipated watching more services remotely and attending church in-person less frequently once the outbreak is over.
How Churches Count Online Attendance
In conducting our annual survey (see the May/June issue), the most frequently asked question from church leaders was, “How should we count our online attendance?” Forty-one percent of the churches we surveyed said they “count the total number of views on all media platforms regardless of how long someone watches.” Since there is still no universally accepted method for counting and reporting online attendance, many churches choose not to count or track online attendance at all.
My advice to churches is to pick a counting method and then stick with it. By establishing a tracking method, your church can monitor and note changing online attendance trends. Knowing the process other churches use to track online attendance might help your church settle on a counting strategy.
Minutes Watched = Attendance. Just under half of the churches (48 percent) reported they “only count worship attendees after they [viewers] watch a specific amount of time,” while 7 percent of the churches we surveyed said they only count worship attendees who finish watching the entire worship service.
So, what is the magic amount of time someone must watch online before a church counts them as part of their attendance?
Thirteen minutes was the average minimum amount of time churches required someone to watch before counting them in their attendance. Megachurches (which average 2,000 or more in weekly worship attendance) and emerging megachurches (1,000 to 1,999) averaged a minimum of 15 minutes to officially count a viewer—the longest time requirement among all church sizes—and very small churches (averaging 99 or fewer) required the least amount of time (8 minutes).
Forty-five churches (11 percent of the total) in our survey reported they count everyone who watches with no minimum viewing time required. Twenty-eight churches (7 percent) required participants to watch only one minute to be counted in the attendance. Eight churches (2 percent) required participants to watch 45 to 60 minutes before counting them in their attendance.
Number of Devices Multiplied by Pairs of Eyes = Attendance. Another key online worship question asked by church leaders was, “How many sets of eyes are watching on a given device?” Almost half of the churches in our survey (49 percent) said they “use a multiplier to estimate the total number of attendees watching per device.” Megachurches were the most likely to use a multiplier (76 percent) while very small churches were the least likely (14 percent). One church told me they adjusted their multiplier during the closures last year based on the assumption that more people were watching than pre- or post-closures.
Surveyed churches said they used an average multiplier of 2.03 when calculating their online attendance. Thus, the average church multiplies the number of devices watching by 2.03 to determine total online attendance. Large churches (averaging 500 to 999 in attendance) reported the largest average multiplier, 2.17, and very small churches had the smallest average multiplier, 1.88. One megachurch reported using a multiplier of 3.3, which was the largest overall.
Location of Online Views = Attendance. Where do online worship attendees live? A majority of surveyed churches (78 percent) said they count online viewers from any location—people who live locally to those who live internationally. Only 4 percent of the churches reported counting only those viewers who live near their church.
Digital Strategy Details
Our 2020 church survey also incorporated eight markers to delve deeper into the digital strategies of churches. (These digital strategy markers came from the Unstuck Group, theunstuckgroup.com, and Blackbaud, www.blackbaud.com.)
Overall, 72 percent of the 421 churches we surveyed said they agreed or strongly agreed that (marker 1) “Our church has clarity and focus about who we are trying to reach in our mission field” with regard to the church’s digital ministry strategy. By comparison, only 60 percent of the 261 evangelical churches surveyed by the Unstuck Group in late 2020 said the same.
Less than half of the churches surveyed (42 percent) said, (2) “We have a well-defined digital ministry strategy to engage with people outside the church and outside the faith.” This was still twice as good as the results from the Unstuck Group survey.
Almost 4 out of 10 of the churches surveyed (38 percent) said, (3) “We have an intentional strategy to create digital content and online experiences designed specifically to engage people who are not interested in faith and/or [are] spiritually curious.” Again, this exceeded the 26 percent of churches who agreed with this statement from the Unstuck Group survey.
More than one-third of the churches (35 percent) reported (4) they have “defined a clear path of ‘small steps’ we want people to take online before they take ‘big steps’ in their faith journey like believing and being baptized and attending or watching an online service.” This again bested the 23 percent of churches from the Unstuck Group survey that said the same.
Almost one-third of the churches (32 percent) surveyed said, (5) “We monitor what people in our congregation are sharing through their social media networks to help shape our content strategy to reach their friends.” Only one in five churches (20 percent) from the Unstuck Group survey did this.
Just over one-fourth of the churches (26 percent) in our survey said, (6) “Our digital ministry strategy encourages people to become subscribers before we encourage them to become attenders.” This was slightly better than the 21 percent of churches from the Unstuck Group survey that said the same.
More than one-fourth of the churches (26 percent) said, (7) “We have an online solution or database that we use to monitor the steps people are taking before they connect with the church for the first time through a service or other ministry environment.” Once again, respondents in our survey showed a stronger digital focus in this regard than the 22 percent of churches surveyed by the Unstuck Group.
Finally, more than one-fifth of the churches in our survey (22 percent) said, (8) “We have metrics in place to measure how our digital ministry strategy is helping people move from not interested in faith to spiritually curious to becoming a disciple of Christ.” This was more than double the less than 10 percent of churches from the Unstuck Group survey that agreed with this statement.
It is encouraging to see that our churches are more advanced in their digital strategies than the group of 261 evangelical churches surveyed by Unstuck Group. This bodes well for the future of online worship services and other ministries that our churches will continue to develop and deploy to reach more people for Christ around the world.