We’ve talked to nearly a thousand church leaders and members of their congregations. After a year of watching church services on social media, online churchgoers have come to expect the basics of doing church online. A video of acceptable quality sound and image plays at an appointed hour, and is available for watching on demand.
The question many have been asking in 2021: How can we deepen engagement. Livestream and on-demand video is a necessary but insufficient means of developing and maintaining community, discipleship, prayer, accountability and other spiritual disciplines.
Based on what we have heard from pastors and tech teams and everyday churchgoers, here are the top ten online capabilities that foster true engagement.
1. Who is here today?
When you go to church in a building, you see everyone else who is present. There is something meaningful in simply knowing you are sitting among your community. There is comfort in being in close proximity to them. This doesn’t mean actual direct contact. Just sitting in the back row or along the side is enough to feel connected.
We see pale shades of this online. There is a view count in the corner of a Facebook or YouTube page that shows how many are watching right now. The only interesting aspect of that number is that it occasionally ticks up ("oh, I see some people have arrived late"), and occasionally it ticks down ("oh, I see some people have left early"). There is zero sense of community to it.
Leaders do their best to encourage attendees to make their presence known by speaking up in the chat. Sometimes it’s just a call to shout out “the Mahon family is here!” Other times, chat leaders ask playful questions to lure people into the chat, such as “what’s your favorite pizza topping?” or “who do you think will win the big game tonight?”
A list of everyone who is currently viewing would be an answer to prayer for these chat leaders, who no longer have to plead with wallflowers to make themselves visible. Such a list will recapture a sense of walking into a church building where plenty of people are already seated.
2. Private chat
Sometimes the person sitting next to me in church will make a brief comment to me -- about the worship, the message, or just something that he’d like to share. At other times, I will make eye contact with someone sitting a few rows away from me, and we will subtly wave or wink at each other. Online, such casual connections are elusive -- in part because I don’t even “see” them in the event, and even if I do, there is no quick mechanism to initiate a private chat connection.
A place for easily occurring sidebar conversations -- some of which will simply be ‘good morning, nice to see you’ -- goes a long way to fostering engagement.
3. Group chat
We have heard from quite a few churchgoers who not only take notes during a sermon, but who like to compare notes a bit with their friends. They make comments and ask questions -- yes, even during the service! -- among a group of them. These interactions tend to be more substantial than just simple greetings. These are people whose church experience is made more meaningful by peer interaction.
The ability to select a group of 2 or 3 or even a half dozen people and conduct a private conversation where they edify and encourage one another is actually one of those online-only things that many have come to enjoy. You can’t really do that in an in-person gathering during the service itself.
4. Watch party
A lot of churches conduct their livestream on social media, and then offer a different venue for face-to-face meeting afterwards. Why? Because people crave an effortless way to see and hear (and be seen and heard). Doing that in social media chat is either laborious (text-based chat only) or impossible (there's no videoconferencing).
On the other hand, gathering everyone in a Zoom large group face-to-face altogether is too much video. While it is appealing in a similar way to being able to ‘see who is here today’ as described above, it is almost always too unwieldy for any sort of quiet, private time together.
One of the most highly requested feature we have heard is for 'watch parties' -- the ability to view a seating chart, see who is sitting where, and to join them in a face-to-face videoconference where it is just the two of them, or just a small group.
5. Wallflower seating
Sitting together should not be mandatory. Many people have joined a Zoom conference call only to immediately turn off their camera and their microphone. They like being able to see who is there, but they don’t intend to interact or be talkative.
A platform for engagement needs to accommodate the legitimate desire to simply sit over on the side -- visible, but not expected to actively participate in a social way on this particular day.
6. Visible greeters
The greeter function at a church building is a well-known dynamic. Socially adept greeters recognize regular churchgoers, identify newcomers who may appreciate being noticed and shown around, and help introduce people to each other who may have potential for fruitful relationship.
In the online world, Greeters sort of make themselves visible by identifying their role in the chat in social media. The onus is on the Greeters to continue to overtly join the chat and help stimulate engagement.
So much of the in-person world depends on peripheral vision, the ability to see people out of the corner of our eyes. In the online world, what is on (or just beyond) the periphery remains largely invisible. You have to still look for it (“where in the chat was that person who said ‘ask me anything if you are new here?’”)
Churches with sophisticated understanding of the differences between the physical and virtual worlds have pointed this out to us. They would like to re-create a sense of peripheral vision online. In this case, they want to visibly identify Greeters as people who are a simple click away, who are available for questions. And, likewise, that the people online are also somewhat visible to the Greeters -- who is here who has not shared their name yet? Who is sitting alone? Where is so-and-so sitting so I can introduce a new person to them?
7. Host a friend
The great potential for virtual church is the ease with which a new person can discover spiritual communities without all the pre-Covid barriers of location and time. The person who would never think of stepping into a church more easily checks out an online presence of a church without risking much.
In the same way, churchgoers are sometimes reluctant -- or have tried and failed -- to invite a friend or neighbor. Crossing the threshold of a church for a worship service with unfamiliar songs and a lot of eyeballs looking back at them is can be a difficult invitation to offer, and to accept.
The anonymity of the Internet dissolves a lot of that reluctance. However, that anonymity also makes it impossible for the inviter to know if the invitee has actually shown up online and is also watching right now. If you invite a friend to visit your church's Facebook stream, you have no idea if they are watching alongside you right now, if they watched it later on-demand, or if they even clicked on the link at all.
According to the churches we’ve spoken with, an effective invitation is more than just sending a link to consume content. It works best when that content is consumed relationally, together. The online world can offer the best of anonymity (remain invisible or inaccessible to the pastor and the large crowd) and also the best of intimacy (private, face-to-face interaction).
Once churches have established the baseline of doing church in community online, their next requirement is that it supports a new model of outreach that overcomes the limits of in-person, in-the-church-building model.
8. Easy mingling
For most churchgoers -- and pastors -- the time after church is an essential part of being in a church family. Some find a corner with another individual or a couple and spend a good 40 minutes together. Other folks will drift from small circle to small circle, quickly catching up here and there.
Social media doesn’t support this well at all. And Zoom gets part of the way there with breakout rooms, but they tend to be somewhat rigid.
Churches who highly value that fellowship time have told us they are looking for the chance to use some of that ‘peripheral vision' during fellowship time. They want to be able to see who is around, and to be able to join in on a conversation. Pastors in particular find this an effective means of keeping in touch with the families and individuals in their congregation.
9. Private prayer
Ah, here’s a big one. One of the wonderful surprises from this long season of disruption is that all sorts of people who never used to make prayer a big part of their spiritual life -- all of a sudden they are praying online, or at least they are open to praying online.
Recent research from Barna suggests that 68% of occasional churchgoers are open to the idea of praying in a community online. And 32% of people of non-Christian faiths, and 23% of people of no faith at all, are also open to attending a Christian online community for prayer. That is, they may not come to the Sunday morning livestream, but they might come for personalized prayer, where someone will specifically pray for them.
Online prayer in social media can be… how should we say it? Shallow. Not many people will bear their souls in a public forum. Nor is it necessarily powerful to simply see a counter that shows “I prayed for you”, the online prayer equivalent of Likes. And, even in the best of circumstances, all this online prayer all takes place inside a text field. Good for those who are comfortable with speed typing as a medium of communication. Not so good for the rest of us.
Perhaps the most ardently felt requirement we hear from churches is a way to create a space -- before, during or after church -- where someone can enter, find a prayer partner, and have a private, face-to-face encounter, or at least where an audible voice can be heard. The intimacy of such a setting far exceeds the constraints of typed text.
As churches move beyond Sunday services for their online ministries, we have heard prayer as the number one initiative. They want to deepen a culture of prayer within their community, and use it as a powerful means of outreach to those outside the church.
10. Meet the Pastor
Sometimes the Pastor makes their way around the room, mingling to meet and greet people. Other times, it is better for the Pastor to make themselves available to anyone who wants to come up to them -- for a social hello, a question about the sermon, or a chance for an even more serious conversation.
The churches we have met have all said it is important to carve out a special place where people know they can have a direct and largely uninterrupted connection with the pastor.