Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/twinsterphoto
Whether you are still “closed” in regard to large, indoor gatherings or have officially “opened” to socially distanced indoor services, most churches are finding the following two dynamics to be true: 1) safety protocols severely limit indoor attendance capacity; 2) most people are voting with their feet and choosing to stay home.
Whether one or both are true for your church’s situation, the result is the same: you have to keep people who are largely online engaged. But how do you do that?
Here are the three keys:
1. Have Your Online Service Be Engaging
The first and most obvious key to keeping people engaged is to offer online services that are engaging. This isn’t merely about quality, but content and creativity. The welcome, music/worship, sacraments, announcements and message should be as compelling as possible. People talk of “online fatigue,” and it’s real. But only for content that is fatiguing! So work on variety in terms of presentation, and strive to have messages that bring biblical truth to deeply felt needs.
Besides having engaging content, make the online service itself easier to engage by shortening its length. It’s harder to watch a screen for 60-70 minutes than to experience the same length in person. Also, make it a true online service, staffed and hosted just like you would an in-person event.
Finally, try to end each and every online service with specific steps those in attendance can take, such as taking an online class, joining an in-person event, or participating in a book discussion group—all related to the theme and challenge of that day’s service.
2. Offer More Online than Just Services
I’m sensing either a resistance or an inability to becoming a fully online church. Yes, most churches are offering an online service and some offer additional resources for children, but it often ends there.
Student ministry? Nothing.
Adult education/discipleship classes? Nothing.
Online book discussion groups? Zoom gatherings? Virtual small groups? Livestream events?
If you are sensing that people are drifting away, it’s because you are not offering enough opportunities for them to participate and be engaged. An online service alone is simply not enough.
3. Have the Physical Serve the Digital
Finally, you must embrace the revolution that has taken place as a result of the pandemic. A revolution that, in truth, started long before we ever heard of COVID-19. That revolution is the digital revolution. And the one aspect of that revolution that is most important to embrace is this: before, the digital existed to serve the physical. Now, the physical exists to serve the digital.
You might want to read that again.
Before the pandemic, online offerings and social media were embraced largely as ways to serve and grow on-campus, in-person events. Now we must think creatively about how acres and parking lots, buildings and fields, can serve the online efforts. In other words, how can the physical come alongside the digital and help with the engagement process?
For example, following all safety protocols, you can still offer drive-thru parking lot experiences, immersive walking-trail experiences, outdoor worship concerts and more. We just offered a “Meck Fall Trail Experience” that served thousands. We have been working since September on a Christmas experience that will involve a socially distanced, immersive, indoor walking journey of sight, sound and even smell that presents the story of Christmas, ending with an outdoor experience in a recreated Bethlehem.
The point is simple: engagement is a verb. It doesn’t just happen. You have to make it happen, work for it to happen and brainstorm for it to happen.
The good news is that when you do,
… it can happen.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.