By Kent E. Fillinger
Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Since the pandemic started two years ago, there have been an endless number of “experts” making countless predictions about the future of everything—including the church.
Plenty of churches offered an online campus or church online on various platforms before COVID-19. Broadcast methods varied by church; the main options were livestreaming, on-demand full service (worship and message), on-demand message only, and rebroadcast (simulated live). A 2018 survey by Vanderbloeman and Jay Kranda revealed the top three broadcast platforms were Churchonlineplatform.com, Facebook Live, and YouTube.
This article is not really a prediction about the future of online church, but rather a plea for how leaders should view it.
Is Online Church a Substitute, Replacement, or Supplement?
Closures during the pandemic pushed many churches of all sizes into offering their services online for the first time. The intent was for these online services to serve as a temporary “substitute” for in-person worship until the pandemic ended and churches could regather in-person. When churches closed, 98 percent of evangelicals looked for another avenue for worship, according to “The Ripple Effect: Congregations, COVID, and the Future of Church Life,” a report produced last fall by Grey Matter Research and Infinity Concepts.
Viewing online church services was the most common substitute for in-person services for 78 percent of churchgoers, but it was one of many alternatives people tried during the pandemic, according to “The Ripple Effect.” Almost half (48 percent) read their Bible or worshipped at home, 39 percent reported watching church services on TV, 28 percent substituted listening to Christian radio for church, and 18 percent said they went online to search for biblical teaching other than church services.
Watchingonline church cannot “replace” the total experience or benefits of participating in-person.
John Harlan, CEO and cofounder of a digital products company said, “If churches don’t make a hard shift back to people physically being present for church, we will see communities drift further and further apart.” He said extended reliance on “virtual relationships” contributes to loneliness, anxiety, and depression.
A Christianity Today article entitled “Empty Pews Are an American Public Health Crisis” from October 2021 shared the multitude of health benefits of in-person worship.
“The Ripple Effect” study asked survey participants to gauge whether online worship or in-person worship was better in eight respects. Two-thirds (67 percent) said it was easier to “give their full attention” in-person compared to only 7 percent who said they paid better attention online.
Likewise, 81 percent said they felt more “connection or engagement” with worship in-person compared with only 4 percent who said the online experience was better for this. Almost 4 in 10 (39 percent) said they “learned more from the teaching” in-person compared with the 10 percent who preferred learning online. Interestingly, 63 percent said they had more “comfort inviting others” to in-person worship than the 8 percent who said it was easier to invite people to attend online.
Only slightly more than 1 in 10 evangelicals surveyed said they intended to replace in-person worship with online church as their primary source of engagement.
When online church is seen as a “supplement” to your in-person gatherings or as a starting point for people to find your church, the question is not, “Will online ministry compete with our physical ministry?” but rather, “How can digital media and ministry reach people who wouldn’t otherwise be reached?” or “How can an online ministry collaborate with and support the local church in moving the hope of the gospel further and faster out into the world?”
Jay Kranda noted, “In practice, online ministry amplifies the local church’s God-given vision. Instead of taking away attendance or members, it adds value and depth to the work the physical church is already doing.”
Nathan Artt, founder of Ministry Solutions, encourages churches to differentiate their in-person and online services. “Our digital and physical experiences both have to be tailored to the audiences they are designed to engage.”
Artt said church leadership teams should explore these relevant questions: “What can we do online that we cannot do in person? What can we do in person that we cannot do online?”
Why It’s Important to Track Attendance
The discussion of in-person vs. online worship leads quite naturally to questions over counting the number of people being reached. The pandemic interrupted in-person worship services, and though most churches welcomed their flock back into their buildings quite some time ago, many have yet to see in-person attendance return to pre-pandemic levels.
The question is not, Should a church count the number of people who are in worship?
“Numbers matter because people matter,” Carey Nieuwhof said. “If you care about people, you’ll care about numbers. . . . As a leader, it’s your job to track progress. If you refuse to benchmark and count things like attendance or giving, you won’t lead nearly as well.”
The questions that church leaders need to ask are: What is our motivation for reporting worship attendance? Is it to compete with another church or boost egos, or is it to celebrate what God is doing in our church?
And in our present situation, the more basic question is this: How do we count the number of people who are worshipping online?
Your Church Should Be Better than Netflix
Netflix commonly reports on viewership of its hit shows. For example, the super popular Korean show Squid Game had a reported 111 million viewers globally in its first month last fall, making it Netflix’s largest-ever series launch. But it’s important to note that Netflix counts as a viewer anyone who watches a show for more than 2 minutes.
If someone watched the first 2 minutes of your online worship service, would you count them as a viewer? Our churches should be better than Netflix when it comes to our methodology for counting online engagement.
Multiple Old Testament verses condemn the use of dishonest scales or measurements. Consider Leviticus 19:36 (“Use honest scales and honest weights”) and Proverbs 11:1 (“The Lord detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favor with him”).
So, we can see the importance of using accurate measurements and honest numbers to track and report our worship attendance.
How to Count Online Attendance (A Suggested Method)
Last year during our annual church survey, a handful of churches contacted me to ask if there was a standard way churches tracked and counted online attendance. These churches had launched online worship services during COVID-19, and I appreciated that they wanted to report their attendance accurately.
Since there is no universally accepted method for counting and reporting online attendance, I encouraged them to decide on a method for counting and then to stick with it so they could better gauge their online growth.
But I will suggest this method for counting online attendance in the simplest and most honest way possible moving forward.
First, stop using a multiplier to bump up your number of online viewers. (I reported in my July/August 2021 Metrics article, “Deconstructing the Digital Church,” that the average church multiplies the number of devices tuned in to a service by 2.03 to determine their online attendance . . . but that multiplier can vary widely by church.) Manipulating a multiplier is a perfect example of using “dishonest scales.” The truth is you have no evidence or idea how many pairs of eyes are watching a particular electronic device, so why would you try to guess or why would you invent a mythical multiplier that assumes more than one person is watching?
Count one device as one worship viewer. If your church uses an online connection card that includes people reporting the number of people watching online, then you can easily include them in your overall online attendance count (with no need for a multiplier). Carey Nieuwhof said this of church leaders who use a multiplier to determine online attendance: “The more a leader exaggerates or distorts the truth, the harder it is to trust them.”
Second, count only those online viewers who watch the entire worship service. If someone drives by your church building on Sunday morning, I doubt you count them as part of your in-person worship attendance. Likewise, when someone scrolls past your live feed for a few seconds on Facebook, you shouldn’t count them as part of your online attendance.
Keep in mind, someone can hit play online and walk away and you will never know it. Likewise, those watching church online may very well be multitasking.
Third, report your weekly online attendance separately from your in-person physical attendance. It might even be a good idea to report your “live” online attendees separate from those who watch later in the week to better gauge the reach and engagement of your online services.
Fourth, track your online-to-offline conversion rate. Try to determine how many people shift from watching your services online to engaging with in-person services to measure how effective you are at helping people make that transition.
It would also be good to track how many viewers engage in a chat session with the online host or pastor, give an offering, participate in a poll, share a prayer request, or participate in other forms of engagement.
It’s OK if They Don’t Regather
As mentioned, most churches have yet to see their in-person worship attendance return to pre-pandemic numbers. An August 2021 Lifeway Research study reported 52 percent of churches had seen anywhere from 70 percent to more than 100 percent of their January 2020 attendance return to in-person worship.
My hunch is the pandemic served as a “pruning period” in the life of the church. The branches that were barely hanging on or that were unhealthy and not bearing fruit broke away during the pandemic. These were the folks who were along for the ride and “eating for free” for the most part. It is probably why church offerings remained the same or grew at most churches during the pandemic, despite the obvious challenges.
Pruning is vital to the long-range health of any plant.
The church of Jesus Christ is still alive and well—it survived the pandemic, and it will survive online church, as well.
Those who want to practice the “one another’s” commanded in the Bible, those who want to experience the beauty and challenges of living in Christian community, and those who understand they are called to function as part of the body of Christ will gather for worship to learn, serve, and give just like they have for more than 2,000 years.
I encourage church leaders not to fret about those who were pruned during the pandemic, but rather to focus on equipping those who remain. Fix your attention on trying to graft as many new branches onto the tree as possible.