When it comes to the millions of people engaging online church services, it might be helpful to realize there are only four categories of viewers.
The first and most obvious is the committed attender. They were attending your church in person before the pandemic and are attending it online now. They consider your church their home, and they are faithful to that relationship in every way.
The second, but only slightly less obvious, is the wandering attender. They were not attending your church in person before, but they are seizing the opportunity to safely and secretly visit your church and perhaps many others from the privacy and anonymity of their home.
A third category is the open, honest exploring attender. At Meck, we’ve always had a great deal of such people in attendance due to the nature of our mission to reach those who would not already consider themselves Christ followers. And we’ve seen this number increase significantly in terms of those “surfacing” in chat rooms and other online platforms. They will happily tell you that they are not a Christian, were invited by a friend to check your church out online, and are very willing to engage about their experience and the questions it raises.
The final category is the secret attender. The only reason you have this person in attendance is because they can hide under the cover of the internet. They may enter a chat room to “listen in,” but they will not engage the conversation or “surface.” The vast majority of these attenders are not Christ followers and likely quite suspect of all things church. So why are they secretly attending? Again, they were probably encouraged by a friend or family member to visit, but until they could experience the church without their knowledge, they were resolute in their refusal. But throw in a pandemic and a few other unsettling dynamics in our world, and here they are.
With these categories in mind, here are a few suggestions for how to respond to them:
1. Thank God for the committed attender.
Really. Right now. They are saints, the core of your church, the heartbeat of your ministry and the backbone of your mission.
2. Do not make the wandering attender the mission of your church.
I am one who firmly believes that transfer growth is not a Kingdom win. It is simply “sheep swapping” and when happening in large numbers, deludes a church into thinking it is truly “alive” in terms of the mission. It’s not. What makes a church “win” in terms of mission is reaching those far from God, reaching those who are not in a relationship with Jesus, much less involved in a church.
If someone is truly served by attending Meck’s Online Campus instead of or along with their own church’s offerings, I am glad that it is serving. And if their church is unhealthy, dysfunctional or not biblical, then by all means, we would welcome them to Meck. But we are not in the “Hey, all you happily churched people, take advantage of the pandemic and check us out online and think about making US your home!” business. We weren’t in that line of work before the pandemic, and we aren’t in it now.
3. Prioritize the exploring attender and secret attender in terms of outreach strategy.
With more people simultaneously attending and feeling safe to open up about not being a Christian, this is a time when the church can serve those exploring the Christian faith as never before.
So how do you do that? Here are four simple ideas:
First, design whatever outreach or marketing tools you use to reach these categories of attenders. Churches of all sizes are finding that if you want to reach people online, you have to reach them… well, online. That means efforts involving pay-per-click campaigns, retargeting display efforts, advertising on digital radio and digital video, harnessing social media and using email marketing.
Second, craft your online service with these people in mind. I am not saying you make the entire service for them, but you make the entire service sensitive to them. Meaning, consider what they need explained, what natural questions they might have, what it might be like for them to be seeing/experiencing what you’re offering.
Third, create spaces and times for them to surface, engage and be engaged. If you don’t have an active chat room as part of your online service, populated with hosts and pastors, you are missing low-hanging fruit. You can also offer online classes or seminars designed for those exploring the Christian faith. We give every surfacing first-time guest a free copy of Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, and we routinely make the book known to them so that if they don’t want to surface to get it from us for free, they at least know about it and can get it on Amazon.
Fourth, if you are the person writing and delivering the message, write and deliver it with the full understanding and intent of having exploring and secret attenders listen in and served by it. Or even address them directly at appropriate junctures in helpful and sensitive ways.
Finally, give opportunities to cross the line of faith online as part of your service. We don’t do this every week, but we have periodic “decision weekends” where the steps to becoming a Christian are clearly spelled out, and the invitation to take those steps is clearly extended.
Obviously, these ideas are not meant to be exhaustive, just suggestive. The big idea is that you have four types of online viewers: one you are to thank God for and continue to serve, two you are to reach,
… and one you are not to be seduced into trying to reach at all.
James Emery White
About the Author
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.