12 May, 2022

Online Attendance: The Exception or the Rule?

by | 1 May, 2022 | 0 comments

You may notice changes in our 2021_Church_Report. We’ll blame COVID-19—at least partially. It’s the fashionable thing to do these days . . . and the pandemic has had a huge impact.

Before 2020 and coronavirus, online streaming of worship services was the exception rather than the rule for many churches. A 2019 Lifeway Research study showed that 22 percent of churches were streaming their services at that time. But within months of the start of the pandemic in early 2020, 97 percent of churches were providing some form of online services.

The exception became the rule and vice versa.

Before COVID, churches used the streaming of their services primarily as an outreach tool; church visitors often said they checked out the church online for several weeks before showing up in person. During the pandemic, the streaming of services became the main way—and for many weeks, the only way—people attended services.

Our churches moved from using online ministry as a strategy to a necessity. And when churches began to regather, some people chose to stay home and continue streaming. Months of sitting on the couch in pajamas and watching church services on a big-screen TV or computer monitor had become a habit for many; it was convenient, comfortable, and safe.

“Substituting digital for in-person gatherings during a pandemic is smart,” says Benjamin Windle in his book Digital Church in a Lonely World, published by Barna. “It is not a full expression of church community, but it is something.”

An introduction to our annual church report explains why, now that the pandemic is waning, we are reporting in-person only attendance in our charts. I’ll further expound on those reasons here.

Churches use a variety of methods to report their online numbers. It’s like the days of the Old Testament judges when “everyone did as they saw fit” (Judges 17:6; 21:25).

For instance, one megachurch in our movement counts a person attending online after they’ve viewed for 40 minutes; another counts the person after just 1 minute (and I’ve heard of churches that count a view on Facebook after only 3 seconds!). Also, churches use a variety of multipliers, that is, how many people per device are counted as attending. The multipliers range from 1 to 3. That’s a wide margin! Most churches (according to Kent Fillinger’s 2020 church survey) said they count online viewers of church services from any location, yet a small percentage count only viewers who live near their church.

With all the differences in how churches count online attendance, how can we be sure the numbers for each church are comparable to other churches and that the overall figures are accurate?

Also, we believe the physical gathering of the local church is a vital part of being a New Testament church. The early church met together in the temple courts and in homes, and they were encouraged not to give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:24-25).

As part of a movement that desires to restore New Testament Christianity, we are obliged to report on biblical practices. We consider gathering in side-by-side and face-to-face fellowship—where we devote ourselves to Bible study, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer—as an essential of the church. The Scriptures are not silent on this fundamental. 

That’s not to say we are anti-technology or against advancements that are part of our modern culture. We should use technology wisely and strategically to carry out Christ’s mission. For more than 2,000 years, the church has utilized new technologies to go and make disciples of all nations (using sailing ships, trains, automobiles, and planes), baptizing them (using baptism tanks, which the early church didn’t have), and teaching them to obey everything Jesus taught us (using scrolls, printed Bibles, overhead projectors, Flannelgraph, large video screens, digital media, etc.).

“The point is this: We are not immune to the digital era. If we fight it, we will lose,” says Windle. “At the same time, if we act like a leaf tossed into a stream and simply abandon biblical convictions, we will drift from our central purpose.” We can embrace digital without capitulating to it. Windle continues,

If we resist digital, we will continue to lose our two youngest generations (and the next generation of church leadership).

If we capitulate, we will give into consumer-driven, preference-based Christianity and lose our effectiveness.

But if we first map out our biblical convictions and clearly define biblical community, and then innovate radically with digital tools to support that, we will get the benefits of both.

Is your life better with a smartphone? If you use it wisely, it can be helpful. But people face unintended consequences from irresponsible smartphone use.

Is the church better with online services? Yes, if used wisely and strategically to carry out Christ’s mission. Could there be unintended consequences? Perhaps, if leaders do not ask the right questions.

“Online ministry should support, not substitute,” says Windle.

How does online ministry support the health of our church? How is it helping us reach younger generations? For whom is online ministry intended? How can we use this technology to reach and serve them better?

These are good questions for church leaders to consider for any technology.

Here’s another great question: How will we as Christ’s church love one another, be devoted to one another, build up one another, care for one another, bear one another’s burdens, exhort one another, pray for one another, confess our sins to one another, show hospitality to one another, teach one another, and speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in real (not virtual), in-person biblical community?

That, my friend, is the “full expression of church community.”

Michael C. Mack

Michael C. Mack is editor of Christian Standard. He has served in churches in Ohio, Indiana, Idaho, and Kentucky. He has written more than 25 books and discussion guides as well as hundreds of magazine, newspaper, and web-based articles.


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