Ten Ways Online Church Will Change In-Person Church, Forever

Visit the website of any church that has re-opened or is planning to re-open, and you will see lots of changes in place: hand sanitizer, masks, social distancing, online seating reservations, which doors to use for entering and exiting.

What you won’t see until you actually come back inside and attend service or Mass are new adaptations — behaviors learned from doing church online for three or four months.

Some will be short-lived, and others may have staying power at least for as long as there are still some people participating from home.

1. People are present even in their absence

There is a beautiful trend among closed churches to populate the pews with photos and cardboard cutouts of parishioners. This has been particularly meaningful for leaders who spend time in the church building, some of whom record or conduct live service from the front of the church. The photos help create a visual connection between the leader and the flock. As churches open their doors and look for ways to keep people appropriately social distanced, the cardboard cutouts and photos can serve as personalized buffers.

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Source: Matthews (North Carolina) United Methodist Church personalizes its pews. Source: Jeff Siner; Charlotte Observer

On the flip side, once some people return to the church building, they want to see and be aware of their church community members who are watching online. Just because they are absent from the building, they are still present in the service.

It will become commonplace to have a large screen where one or more at-home attendees are visible to those in church. This may be used sparingly, including just those who are part of the service itself (worship, reading, announcements), or may include random or curated cameo appearances of individuals, families, and roommates.

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Source: Cindy Voorhees, Vicar, Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles

2. Words on screens

It is common in many Protestant churches to have a screen on which to project lyrics, prayer readings, scripture, and sermon illustrations. Projector screens are less common in Catholic churches and in those buildings where they feel like a distraction. For churches not yet using screens, this change is coming. After months of livestream Sundays where the lyrics and prayers are usually provided electronically — as a .pdf, or shown on the computer screen — this will become an expected format. Also, as churches remove hymnals and missals in the pews due to health recommendations, the screens will be needed.

For anyone new to screens in the sanctuary, it can at first be jarring to see modern tech equipment in a traditional, sacred space. But, once worshipers experience the sound of a congregation singing and praying with heads up and eyes forward, instead of looking down at a book in their hands, the change will be almost universally welcome.

If a church declines to use screens, and is still live-streaming its services, be prepared for all those heads to be looking down again — at their mobile phone screens where everyone — those at home, and those in the building — can read the lyrics and prayers. One way or another, the screens are there to stay.

3. Please keep your phones turned on and nearby

We are all used to being asked to put phones on silent and away. Some churches encourage attendees to use their Bible app on their phone to follow along as scripture is read aloud. But, other than that, phones should be off and quiet.

However, ask any youth pastor, and they will tell you that for years teens and young adults have had their phones out the entire time, texting and using social media to connect with one another — even from just a few seats away. Sometimes the interaction is relevant to the service, and sometimes not.

During livestreams on YouTube and Facebook, and for sure on Zoom-based church services, everyone is now used to greeting each other electronically. As churches move to a hybrid model, they are embracing this sort of interactivity, going so far as to explicitly reminding in-person attendees to to take their phones out and greet those who are online at home.

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Turramurra Uniting Church, New South Wales, instructs returning users to keep their phones handy

Expect the online interaction to continue long after the service has begun. We are all becoming more like the youth of our congregation.

4. It’s okay to talk in church

Many preachers have adapted to the new mode of online delivery by building in pauses during their sermons. They ask questions, and give people at home time to reflect on them, perhaps discussing among themselves as a family or with friends gathered in a house for a church watch party, or publicly online in the chat, or individually.

This new dimension to the sermon adds punch to the teaching, and the impact on discipleship has been noticeable. Some preachers will incorporate it into a hybrid model, where there is a pause. But rather than asking people to turn to their neighbor in a pew bench, the pastor directs everyone to interact online, or to reflect or jot notes on their own.

Chris Ridgeway, co-host of the Device & Virtue podcast, was charmed by the online version of passing of the peace. “In traditional churches, you have the passing of the peace, where you stop the service and ask people to greet those around you or ‘pass the peace.’ We did this using randomly assigned pairs in a Zoom breakout room. Everyone was put into a breakout room with someone they didn’t know, and we talked for two minutes. I got jumped into a room with the mom of one of the people in my church. She’s at our church sometimes, she’s loved and supported our church, but I have never talked to her. In this way, Zoom created a more personal connection for me — I probably would have seen her and waved across the room, but probably would never have approached her for conversation.” Pastors have tried to foster this kind of interaction and fellowship for ages, and many will look for ways to adapt it to hybrid church services.

5. More amen!-ing

Even in highly traditional, liturgical churches, there has been a growing choir of public affirmations and agreement online during worship and the message. Churchgoers who in their entire lives have never even given a thought to raising up an amen! or a mmmm-hmmm are now regularly joining in online with exclamations, comments and emojis.

They may still be inaudible while in the building, but will be following along with the online attendees, and adding their own online contributions. And, some of them may actually open their mouths. Preach it!

6. Sermons are shorter

After a few months of delivering sermons exclusively online, the feedback is clear: thirty minutes is too long for a broadcast. Preachers who are used to going on for thirty or forty minutes have had to adjust and trim their messages — perhaps to twenty minutes or shorter.

It may be tempting to return to long-form sermons once people are back in the building. Most preachers are aware, though, that some portion of the congregation is still online at home, where 20 minutes is still 20 minutes. “Maybe 40 minutes isn’t the best option for online,” says Jeff Reed, Director of Digital Planting, Stadia Church Planting.

“Maybe it’s 10 four-minute messages, or 4 ten-minute messages spread out over a week… Frequency is more important than duration, particularly when it comes to engagement.”

7. Devotionals are more frequent

In that case, if the length of sermons is shorter, then the frequency of sharing a message has increased. With so many people sheltered at home, there has been more appetite for daily devotions, instead of just waiting for Sunday to come around again. Church leaders have augmented their Sunday online offerings to include broadcast or videoconference-based daily devotions and prayer groups. This has been one of the unexpected bright spots in a season of change and challenge.

Even after some or most people return to the church building on Sundays, the new habit of an online devotion or prayer group has taken root as a vibrant part of church life.

8. The tech team gets some love

Where would we all be without the tech team? Most of them had never livestreamed a service before, and now they are experts at it. This cohort, says Justin Firesheets, are “first ones there, last ones to leave; constantly expected to be perfect and not make mistakes; only get noticed or recognized (from the stage or by the audience) when something goes wrong; supposed to be able to pull rabbits out of hats — oftentimes do this week-in and week-out.”

Churchgoers desperate for connection, and church leaders with nowhere to go but online, have been heaping public praise and thanks on tech teams who have worked longer hours than ever during the crisis.

The tech team’s work will not bounce back to pre-Covid style when churches re-open their doors. They will be responsible for two congregations in a service at the same time. They will not just have two sets of requirements — one for inside the building and one for online — but will inherit new responsibilities to bring those congregations together as a single body of worshipers.

In fact, the tech team — which used to be most successful when it was invisible — will become more integral and noticeable in a hybrid church model.

9. Introverts get their time in the sun

Introverts may not love hanging around after church. They are not shy, but coffee time after church just takes a lot of energy. Many prefer to head out with a small group of friends, or spend some time alone or with family. But, online, it’s a different story. “It was easy to maintain my introversion in my own room,” one churchgoer told me. All of a sudden, she and other quieter members of the congregation were cheerily greeting and affirming.

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Source: Twitter

Her name (and sometimes face) appeared next to each of her online comments, so she was more visible to the community than ever before. In fact, her profile had increased so much during the shutdown, she was nominated and selected to fill an open seat on the board of elders.

That would likely have never happened prior to moving online. As churches move to a hybrid model, introverts may at last find a more natural way to let their light shine that was not easy in a building full of people.

10. There will be dancing

Over in the kids Sunday school, there’s dancing every week, or at least a lot of hand motions. Maybe the kids are just high-energy and need to move around, but movement is also a powerful means of worship and of learning. In online service, there is often a “kids’ portion” where those same songs are sung, and the kids (and some adults) are dancing at home.

When the adults return to the church, there may be some dancing in the rows and aisles.

First of all, in the early going, it is almost certain that kids will not go to a separate space. They will be sitting alongside their parents. If the worship service doesn’t already include some kid songs that include dancing and hand motions, it probably will now.

What’s more, health guidelines strongly discourage singing out loud. If we can’t sing, then people will do something to express their worship — wave their hands, sway their bodies, or just go for it and dance. At St. Martin in-the-Fields Church in Twentynine Palms worshippers, ranging in age from 3 to 87, “‘no music’ meant we sang with our bodies,” according to the Rev. Peg Ventris, vicar. “We got up and danced, clapped and next week I’m giving out tambourines.”

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Source: Altar

Will This Be Your Church?

Change always involves effort— either to drive the change within a culture, or to adapt to change that has been unavoidably thrust upon it. For the most part, the changes that online worship will bring to hybrid in-person worship are somewhat natural, and won’t require massive effort or meet with cultural resistance.

What changes do you anticipate at your church? Are they temporary, or do you think they will be more permanent? Are they easy to adapt to, or do you think they will be more disruptive and resented?