Facebook Killed the Watch Party. Will Churches Resurrect Them?

On April 16, Facebook will discontinue its watch party feature. In a Facebook watch party,  a group of people watch a scheduled live or pre-precorded video together in real-time, and share comments and reactions. The general idea behind it is that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts, where peer reaction and chatter add to or even multiply the value of the experience.

Watch Parties a la Facebook never really caught on with churches much in the first place. Since Sunday church services start at a prescribed hour anyway, the gathered faithful already have ample space within the chat pane to add their “good morning, everyone!” and “amen’s” and various short responses to the worship and the message. 

Each church’s mileage differs, but a casual estimate says some 10-15% of viewers contribute something to a typical church service chat in Facebook. In churches where call and response is the norm, chat entries are more numerous. 

"Engagement" in the comment section is usually 10-15% of viewership

Why Even Bother Trying to Engage?

Watch Parties, and chat participation in general, have been at the center of what everyone acknowledges, and churches in particular, as a lack of deep engagement in the online world.

If 1% of the online world create content, and some 10% of the online world create comments, that leaves the large majority as passive consumers. In church, we sing together, pray together, respond together, receive communion together. There is participation. 

In almost every online church event I’ve attended, the staff and volunteer leaders are always doing their best to drive engagement. Sometimes it is just ice-breakers used among the early arrivals. 

  • What is your favorite pizza topping?  
  • Who are you rooting for in the Super Bowl today?  
  • What is the first place you will visit once the pandemic is over? 

There are a few good reasons for these ice-breakers. 

  • It helps break the inertia of the one-way flow of the livestream. 
  • It helps give newcomers a chance to make themselves visible when otherwise it would have taken some courage on their part to volunteer in the chat to say, “hey I am new here.”
  • Pastoral staff want to know who is out there. Who has remained attached to the church during this year of disconnect?  And, even more important, who is not there? Is there a sheep among the flock who has gone missing? 

Then, there are some deeper engagement questions that are part of the message. 

  • Name a time you found dryness in your prayer life. How long did it last? How did you come through it? 
  • Think of a relationship where there is brokenness. What one thing might you do to make the first step towards reconciliation? 

Everyone appreciates the deep questions over the shallow ice-breakers. But, the public chat is not usually the space to delve into the responses -- not in front of the entire gathered church.  The result is usually online silence, or some occasional -- and unfortunate! -- oversharing.

It is this moment where a Facebook Watch Party, with limited attendance and visibility, would have been just right. Just a handful of family and friends, most of whom are already familiar with each others’ back stories and context, where a meaningful and interactive response is not only possible and appropriate, but which can be powerful, challenging, and deepening.  A longstanding small group or youth group might have found a Watch Party the ideal vehicle for rich peer-to-peer discussion, or intergenerational discipling. 

However, that Facebook feature went largely unnoticed, and soon it will die on the vine. 

What Does Meaningful Engagement Look Like?

In Altar Live, of course, face-to-face small group interaction within the context of a church service is not a vine, but rather the root of the experience.  From the outset, the value of Altar Live is the vital side-by-side presence of fellow believers in an environment that invites real conversation.

Furthermore, in Altar Live, the roster of who is watching is already visible, without the awkward “favorite pizza topping” question. It is possible for staff -- and all attendees -- to see each others’ names. That alone is a large step towards feeling more a part of a community. It also invites people to chat directly with each other, rather than only through the big visible-to-everyone group chat.  

The roster also includes pseudonyms for anonymous guests who have not logged in.  They appear as Blue Raccoon or Coffee Jackal or some other whimsical name generated by an algorithm. Those visitors can remain anonymous, but they are also accessible via chat to the Greeters, so that someone from the church can initiate conversation with a newcomer or wallflower, rather than putting the onus on the visitor to make the first move. 

Yes, it is too bad that Facebook Watch Parties never really caught on.  But, the real question is, how can we engage each other more meaningfully in an online setting? What are the means for doing so? And what are the ends we seek from that engagement?