From Altar Academy: 5 Models of Online Church

In Altar Academy, church leaders meet and learn from each other and from pioneers and veterans of digital ministry.  In our first session, Steve Fogg, Executive Director of Digital Ministries at City on a Hill Church in Melbourne, Australia, shared a framework to help churches identify where digital church fits with respect to their traditional church.  

The aim is not to find a model and try to fit into it. Rather, this exercise was to help question and define the assumptions about where a church is, and where it would like to go. 

For these models, Steve used the Sunday service as the basic format. Clearly, digital church will also assume other formats on other days of the week as well. 

1. Old Normal Church

This style of church is typical from pre-Covid days. The notion of streaming a live service was outside the scope your ministry. This style of church may have recorded the sermon clip portion from your service, and you popped it on your website. It was just intended for those who regularly attend your church. 

The mindset of this model is that digital provides a place to post content. We are not doing anything new. A lot of churches pre-Covid, this was their default online model -- whether they knew it was a model or not! This model worked great for catching up via a TV-like channel. 

2. Simulated Church Service

In this model of online church, you put your livestream online in parallel as it happens in the church. There are no edits or tweaks made for the online audience. There is no curation of the content or flow that addresses online viewers as a primary audience. The intended audience are those who regularly attend the in-person service who were not able to make it to the building today. 

In this model, the prevailing sentiment is that you can’t be in the building, you can catch up online. The underlying goal is to be back in the physical church. The online experience is second-rate, and explicitly or implicitly points people back to the building. 

This is the typical hybrid model, where some people are choosing for various reasons not to go back to a building, such as those who are not yet comfortable with returning until the risk of contracting infection is much lower. This model sets a pace for people back to the church building at their own speed, to choose to do so when they are comfortable. We need to allow people time. 

3. Online to In-person funnel

This is a modified service that acknowledges that the online service is a front door to the church. 

For example, it may cut out such elements as announcements, many of which are not relevant to the online audience, who may be long distances away in another part of the world -- the Philippines, Indonesia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and South America. The design of the service takes into account this far-flung audience. 

In this model, there is an assumption that many or most of the online viewers are new to your church. The goal is to eventually funnel people from online into the physical church building. For some, that may mean eventually finding a local church, and perhaps maintaining a relationship with the online community. 

The prevailing sentiment of this model is that online newcomers will someday become more fully integrated into the local church in person. The in-person experience will ultimately become the primary experience for individuals in this community. 

4. Church Plant Launcher

Similar to the funnel model, in this model, the Sunday service is a modified version that is specifically designed to accommodate and appeal to the online audience. 

With many people gathering online from various locations, there will likely be a small critical mass of attendees who are all from the same region. The church is not interested in creating a new physical campus in that region. Instead, the church will help with the formation of groups -- small groups, life groups, gospel communities. A gospel community might gather together in a house and watch the Sunday service or a weekday event as a group. 

Over time, there may be enough groups in a region to establish a church plant. This model allows a church to discover where there are areas for growth -- the church follows where the growth leads. 

This is the model followed by Elevation Church, which has many campuses in North and South Carolina, as well as a very strong online presence. They opened a campus as far away as Mississauga, Ontario, using this model. There were several ‘watch parties’ that grew somewhat organically. They came together and intentionally started an Elevation campus there. 

5. Digital Discipling Church

This is a completely bespoke online service, with staff and resources deployed exclusively for online only. The audience can be anywhere. 

The prevailing mindset for this model: disciples can be made anywhere, anytime. Everything we do is online. Wherever you are, check us out online. We are here for you. 

Moving Forward With Your Model

Much of this is still emerging. There are plenty of examples of each model, and there is also plenty of mixing and matching, where a church will take some elements from one model and some from another to create their own version. 

There is nothing magic about the formats, about the channel, about the short- or long-form content. It’s about the underlying principles. What is it your church is trying to get at with online church. The purpose and value of this set of models is to help bring shape to what may be an undefined vision.