Should I Count Online Viewers In Our Church Membership?
I want to begin this article by clearly stating that I am not an expert on the subject of online church, technology, or understanding what must be done in order to reach those who don’t know Jesus through these platforms. It’s also highly unlikely that you are an expert at these subjects as well. However, I have some really good news for you when it comes to this topic: We don’t have to be experts!
If you’re like me, you’re probably suffering from information overload in light of dealing with the issues 2020 brought. Your ministry preparation in college and seminary probably didn’t include a lot of courses on how to lead your church through a pandemic by embracing all forms of technology. It can be so overwhelming.
Honestly, the majority of churches we’ve had the privilege of working with at 95Network over the years were already lagging way behind when it comes to embracing technology. Dragging our feet in addressing these issues will result in our ministry effectiveness being left behind. And with the rate of change that is happening today, we can soon realize that we are WAY behind.
One of the other observations that has come to the surface for me is that a number of pastors and leaders that I meet give the ”appearance” of valuing technology. I see pastors who will buy some type of really good media package to implement in their churches because they are “supposed” to do it. However, their heart is not really in it.
For example, they may be using a “pre-packaged” social media plan because it’s now expected of them. But the problem is that they don’t really believe in it. They will soon discover that this is no more effective than if you preach another pastor’s message that has no personal connection to you. Again, going through the motions will result in your ministry effectiveness lagging way behind where it could be.
If that is you, then please understand that this approach will not work for your ministry in the long run. You already know that going through the motions leads to a lack of effectiveness in other areas of ministry. I believe the refusal of valuing the strategic and impactful benefits of technology will prove to be catastrophic for any ministry that simply chooses to ignore its importance.
Hybrid Church is Here to Stay!
The time has come for us to understand the importance of Hybrid Church. I have only recently begun to grasp the critical nature of embracing the Hybrid Church model. An effective Hybrid Church is one that understands the importance of making your in-person experience as engaging and fulfilling as possible while making your online experience just as engaging and fulfilling.
My observation has led me to understand that the majority of small and mid-size churches we have connected with over the years view things like websites, social media, and technology as “necessary evils” that are more inconvenient than strategic. I hope most of us now understand the strategic blessing of such platforms as we have navigated our way through the 2020 pandemic. Where would a lot of us be if not for the ability to stream our services through Facebook, embrace online giving, use Zoom, or even purchase an FM transmitter to help us “preach from the porch” to the congregants in their cars? Like it or not, technology allowed us to quickly adjust in finding ways to connect with those we shepherd.
Has it been without its challenges? Of course not. Am I saying that online gatherings are now more important than in person meetings? Certainly not. And that’s where the friction is created for most of us. We have adopted an either/or mentality when we should be approaching this opportunity with a both/and philosophy. It’s going to be detrimental to our long-term success as a ministry to have both a great in person experience and a strong online presence. Otherwise known as Hybrid Church.
"We have adopted an either/or mentality when we should be approaching this opportunity with a both/and philosophy."
There are two questions that need to be answered when approaching this subject:
1st - Should we count online attenders in our metrics moving forward?
2nd - How do we accurately measure online attenders if we are going to count them?
I remember reading an article by Thom Rainer almost ten years ago where he said that, over the next five years, the committed, financially generous, dependable families that make up our congregations are going to miss church at least one Sunday a month because of outside activities such as children’s sports. He went on to say that these same families will only attend church one Sunday a month within the next ten years.
While I initially thought there was no way this was true, I would now say that I completely concur with Rainer’s assessment. As a 58-year-old, I grew up in an era where planning any “secular” events such as sports was unacceptable on the Lord’s Day. I wasn’t even allowed to play high school football if we didn’t finish Wednesday evening practice early enough for me to make it to “prayer meeting.” But the era I grew up in is now a distant memory which has allowed our Sundays to be scheduled with anything society desires.
This creates a painful dilemma for young families of which most churches say is the primary demographic they are trying to reach. The families are now faced with having their child penalized for not participating if they choose to attend church during normal worship hours that conflict with an event. Therefore, the choice they are now facing is either to attend church on a certain set time or have their child get left out because they missed the outing.
If you’re like most pastors, you’re probably already a bit perturbed that I would even present this as a “problem.” The thought of choosing the children’s activities over church may seem like it exposes a lack of commitment from the family. You might even say, “Any spiritually mature person knows that choosing to attend church is far better than these outside activities.”
You can’t quantify the importance of church attendance. I totally get it.
Consistent engagement with the Church is crucial for anyone’s spiritual well-being. In fact, research continues to reveal that 90% of all conversions happen before someone’s 20th birthday. Which brings us to the dilemma our young families are facing at this cultural crossroads: Do I choose my church or my kids?
As your friend, I must admit that my greatest fear is that they will make the choice of activities over church partly because their church didn’t offer any other alternatives.
Could it be that we as spiritual leaders need to at least consider we have an important part to play in solving this problem moving forward? Is it possible that we must also find ways to help connect with young families, especially their children, before they assume that being connected to a church is no longer relevant?
Why don’t we find ways to help them by meeting them where they are instead of adding to the guilt of their dilemma?
I actually watched a young couple weep during one of my VisionDay Planning Retreats because they felt so torn by this exact situation. They loved their church with all of their hearts. But they also had two young sons who were highly successful wrestlers. They were in such turmoil.
And it’s not even just about young families. I also believe that the Lord has provided some wonderful ways to minister to our older generations through technology as well. Considering the possibilities of doing something different may open up an entirely new way of really caring for our senior saints, shut-ins, and those who aren’t physically able to make it to the church building at the set hour.
One of the saddest realities I have observed over the years is that we tend to treat those who are unable to attend the “in person experience” as not existing at all. Our obsession with “counting warm bodies” in the pews has inadvertently led us to forget about those who aren’t in attendance.
We must move away from the mentality of “out of sight, out of mind” when it comes to shepherding the flock we’ve been entrusted to lead.
Online Engagers ARE People Too!
How do we accurately measure online attenders? We all know that just because someone “clicked on the service” doesn’t necessarily mean they are an engaged part of our church.
Now is the time we must change how we value engagement. Church simply can’t always be about the number of people we see in attendance, whether in-person or online. Tracking the number of people in the “seats” is not the best way to assess the success of your ministry. Jesus didn’t call us to go out and make converts. He called us to make disciples. Disciple-making requires much more detailed interaction than simply tracking how many people occupied virtual or physical space during a gathering.
To close, here are three criteria I would use to determine if someone is a casual viewer or an engaged attender of your ministry.
Criteria For Determining a Casual Viewer vs. Engaged Attender:
1 - Do they consistently show up to the online service week in and week out?
2 - Do they stay engaged and participate while attending online for an extended period of time?
3 - Do they give financially on a regular basis to support your church?
If the answer to all three of these questions is yes, I believe they should be included in the attendance/membership numbers that you track.
Simply giving the appearance of valuing the importance of technology moving forward will not work. You must embrace the reality that an intentional digital presence can help you connect with your current congregation as well as allow you to reach your surrounding community in a brand new way.
I hope you will stay connected with 95Network as we continue to explore ways to help you develop a clear focus on Hybrid Church. I believe with all of my heart that Jesus is preparing us for the greatest harvest the world has ever seen!
Looking for a follow-up resource? Listen to Episode 62 of The 95 Podcast: 3 Things to Prepare for in 2021