Churches who understand their online church offering will fare better than those who offer nothing post-Covid.

Online Church has been the name of the game for the past year while church has wrestled through masks, how and when to open, and how to best serve their audience while keeping them safe. While online church will not simply go away once churches are able to fully reopen, they will change and go through growing pains. So for now, let’s talk about how they can become like Home Depot, Walmart, and Target: Agnostic as to where people get what they need, but able to serve them when they walk through their “doors”.

Description not Prescription for 3 Kinds of People who Listen Online

One of your priorities is finding a contextual system that filters your audience, in order to separate the suspects from the prospects. This is largely dependent upon your discipleship ecosystem.

Content Consumers: Low Engage (Friend)

Your church will always have an audience who likes to watch from afar. They are good for watch times and user clicks, but as far as discipleship within your church’s ecosystem, they are a none. There’s nothing wrong with them per-se, but there also is nothing you can do to turn them into a follower or fan. Like your old high school buddies, they just want to be friends.

Connected: Listen/ Watch with Regularity (Fan)

Your church will also have an audience who subscribes to your content. This can be weekly blogs or the ringing of that weekly YouTube bell that lets us know a new video has dropped on a subscribed channel. Fans are great, as they are consistent and engaged users who help our analytics inform our decision. While they are more engaged than a friend, they are surface level fans who are most likely to say they’re committed to your church but rarely attend in-person or join a group. Not good or bad; just is.

Committed: Attenders and Givers (Follower)

Your church already has followers. These are the people who you have already reached, but who also should be developed and your church’s persona: the audience you hope to reach more of. In marketing speak: your best audience is your current audience. These people are into you, soaking up whatever you do, enjoying the ecosystem of discipleship you have developed, and bring others along for the ride.

Principles for Online Church

Again, a lot of this is description, not prescriptive. Here is what I am learning and observing while working with dozens of churches who are running online options for services. These online options run the gamut from friend to fan, and followers too. There are churches with online services that simply show a replay “live” or simulcasted after the live in-person option. These services are recorded live but shown after the fact, with the hope that people will show up live online to engage. There are also churches who run a fully online service, complete with announcements, calls to action, message and worship. Somewhere in the middle here is where most churches live, so let’s pull out some principles from all of them, so we can learn the most and adapt to a moving church context.

  • Define what your online service is: Is it on-demand, a service option, venue, or campus? Have you clearly communicated this to your audience and have they acknowledged your intent? One of the key principles for scaling here is an audience that owns and accepts your definition.
  • Are your expectations aligned with those of your audience? While you may want an online service that is full spectrum, what would you do if your audience just simply wanted to watch the message? What if they didn’t care if it was live? What if they loathe online worship music, but like the preaching? Can you pivot and adapt to their liking, or are you set in this specific lane?
  • Do you need an online architect (lead) or an online pastor (care)? There were a lot of churches who quickly spun up an online campus or church for their audience as soon as Covid hit hard and safety measures were implemented. If you were one of these churches, good on you. But here’s the thing: as the year has gone on an online church has lost its luster, is it still the right call? It very well could be, but you need to understand whether that is a feeling or informed decision. Look through your online chats on online church, check your engagement rates and watch times, and see how many are users make the move from solely online to becoming a part of the overall discipleship structure.
  • How you structure your service matters for engagement. People will give you max 55% of time of overall video length and your first five minutes are the most critical (first major analytics drop here). So if you have a full service that lasts 60 minutes, do not expect your average user to stay past minute 33. That means if you have 20 minutes of worship and an intro into your message, you are looking at less than 12 minutes of watch time for a sermon. Not saying this is good or bad, but it is a fact that you need to wrestle with. Could be why most of my clients are pivoting to recording a sub 30 minute message only.

What are your engagement measurements?

What are your engagement measurements? Let’s define your funnel systems and processes, and how they relate to one another as on-ramps: email, online, courses, live services, groups, socials; your ecosystem. The church that understands their metrics is the one that can make informed decisions on what to do next, and not make a rush to judgement or feel pulled one way or the other.

Here are three areas to be aware of as you consider the validity and usefulness of online church.

  1. Church Online Platform Moments: <2% will "engage" with your service. Most of the time this is because your church has too many moments for people to click through. If you have a service and you ask people to engage with it, great. But if that engagement takes them away from the core of the message or participation, then your UX (user experience) will suffer greatly.
  2. Giving Participation: Do you know how many people call your online church “home”, and if so, how many are actively giving to your church? While your online attendance may be reasonable, if they are not contributing to the overall health of the church, they are out of alignment with your discipleship ecosystem.
  3. Overall Watch Time and Concurrent Viewers: How many users are watching at the same time and for how long? If the average user watches 25 minutes of your service and if there are only 17 concurrent users per every 100 users, then can you say you offered a full online church option, or only that you provided an option for people to possibly engage with? Hard question, but you need to have an answer here.

Let’s ask the question again: if your church has an online church offering, is it working by offering people what they need, on their terms, as soon as they walk through your “doors”? If you can understand the principles within this post, then you can better move forward in your journey to provide an excellent online offering or church.