Who could have imagined six weeks ago that on this Easter Sunday churches would not meet in their usual gatherings? Similarly, who could have imagined that on this Easter Sunday many of those same churches would be trying out their still fledgling wings on Facebook and YouTube and encouraging people to watch from their living room?
I have been fascinated recently by the way the churches have suddenly (albeit reluctantly in some cases) turned a corner on the use of digital broadcasting over the last 4 Sundays, including Easter. I know for many it has been overwhelming to yield, even temporarily, the Sunday morning gathering to a digital alternative --- especially in the press of the day-to-day uncertainty and troubles of the Covid-19 upheaval --- all the while having to figure out the nuts and bolts of doing a broadcast effectively, maybe the very first time.
So, let me say to each of you, as one who has watched the broadcast of multiples of churches over the last several weeks, thank you! You have made the ministry and message of Good News accessible to your people in a fear-riddled stretch --- one unlike any period I have seen in my lifetime. You have offered guidance with the Word, encouragement with familiar faces, life beyond four walls, assistance with hands-on ministry, and much needed hope.
With a few weeks of this new Sunday venture now under our belts, it is beginning to be clear that one of the likely long term shifts emerging from this virus pandemic is an increase in the utilization of various digital means for communicating outside what goes on inside the church. In short, churches are learning that there is value in their efforts to broadcast their Sunday morning service (and more) online.
Allow me a few personal anecdotes: I watched the online service of Woodmen Valley Chapel here in Colorado Springs on March 15, the first Sunday the church dismissed services in its 5 campuses because of Covid-19. A group of the church’s worship leaders sang familiar songs with timely lyrics in a casual (living room type) environment; the pastor then continued his sermon series in Acts all the while sharing relevant words of encouragement for these crazy times. I was moved by the experience and decided I would share the link with a friend of mine. I don’t consider myself especially good at inviting people to church. But in this case, I knew my friend, recuperating at home after open heart surgery, would be unable to attend his own church and just might welcome the info. When my friend received the link, he responded back with appreciation. I then shared the link with several others.
Since that Sunday, I have myself received similar invitations to online church services. (Hmm! That has never happened.) For example, on Sunday morning, April 5, I received a “Watch Party” invitation to join a family group scattered across multiple states to watch a worship service in Texas. I watched the service from beginning to end and then, to my amazement, saw an invited family member located in England (!), join in with others watching the same Texas church service.
This past week I was scanning through the Facebook analytics provided for one church’s Online Service and observed that as many as 3 to 4 times as many people viewed the livestream as might typically be in their Sunday morning services. Hmm!
I began to wonder, “is this the new front door to the church?” Will regular church attenders find it easier to invite friends to check out a service digitally before inviting to attend physically? Will invited online guests find that their fears about attending church --- e.g., will it be weird, will I feel odd because I don’t know what to expect, will I be dressed inappropriately, will I even be able to understand what is going on --- be allayed by their online experience? Will they find that there is an unexpected benefit in hearing God’s Word taught? Will they find the music is surprisingly appealing? Will they find the online invitation is warm and welcoming? Will they conclude, “I am going to go to the church (physically) and check them out (once this Covid-19 thing is behind us)?”
Another anecdote is noteworthy: my 86-year-old father-in-law, Cliff, received his very first iPhone this week. Up to this week, he had access to a dated and slow desktop computer; he would follow his grandkids and great-grandkids on Facebook and check an occasional email. On Easter morning, my daughter looked up from her phone and said out loud in amazement, “Grandpa just sent an invitation to a Watch Party at his church.” What???
Think of it: the door can swing open! Any generation, any location, any size audience, any time.
With that in mind, we should be careful not to think of the Online Sunday Service option as only a short-term solution to the Covid-19 restrictions. As I write this, there is news that some states are showing signs, thankfully, that the curve is flattening out. We can all hope that this all will soon pass and some sense of normalcy will return to lives, in general, and to church, in particular.
Hopefully, normalcy, when it does return, will not close the door on this guest entryway. (Consider this: some viewer comments I have observed posted during online church services over the last few weeks indicate “new to town” and “looking for a church to attend.”) Clearly, there is much more that these digital services offer for your church and community going forward.
I hope you will find a way to prop that door open for the long haul. Here are some suggestions to secure and enhance that option:
1) Secure a streaming license and podcast license (available from CCLI: This is different from the CCLI license available for in-church use; this license pertains to applications such as streaming and podcasts. To learn more, click HERE.
2) Choose “live” or pre-record. Livestream isn’t the only or best alternative for all churches, e.g., Facebook Premiere allows you to pre-record the service to your satisfaction, add in other content (e.g., welcome), edit it to suit your needs and preferences, and present it at a scheduled time. The same is true of YouTube.
3) Provide single click access to the Sunday Service. Don’t make a wanna-be-viewer have to dig the streamed or recorded service out of the church website. Don’t’ hide it in small print; don’t bury it under the Media or Sermons tab; don’t lose it in a myriad of sermon series icons. (I have seen each of these on church websites … making it difficult to find the Online Service link I know is there. Remember, if it takes more than 8 seconds to find, the wanna-be-viewer will probably drop the search). Especially in the context of this current crisis, put the cue information front and center on your Home Page so that with one click, the Service is ready to watch.
4) Utilize the free Analytics provided to you. Analytics can help you know how many people are watching, for how long, and what part of the service; it can inform you about their engagement (clicks, shares, comments) and position you with the info to do more of what is working and less of what isn’t working. Click HERE and HERE to learn more about Facebook Analytics. Click HERE for information about YouTube Analytics.
5) Provide scrolling pre-service slides and/or recorded video for introductions, announcements, encouragement, support, and greetings. A blank screen for 5 minutes before the official start time is uninviting and a wasted opportunity. During these pre-service minutes you could introduce CTAs --- Calls to Action, e.g., you might provide web links, etc., to encourage viewers to a) Give, b) Connect (register), c) Request Assistance, d) Request prayer, e) Share the online service, etc.
6) Read and respond to viewer comments. Realtime comments on Facebook and Chat comments on YouTube offer important clues about the viewers. Many are friendly greetings but others indicate requests for assistance, interest in locating a church to attend, etc.
7) Expand your viewership. a) Train and encourage your viewers to share; you might set a goal for X number of Shares in a month, reporting each Sunday on progress toward the goal. b) Invite to Facebook “Watch Parties.” Click HERE to learn how. c) Encourage Subscribers to the YouTube channel.
8) Do quality checks. Audio quality on some streamed services I have observed has been less than favorable. During several services I have watched, there have been transmission glitches. I have also noticed that pre-service slides and video (used in the minutes before a service is scheduled to begin) can go on for 10-12 minutes unnecessarily when a person is playing back a previously recorded service. Taking a look at your presentation with a critical and creative eye will allow week to week improvements (lighting, sound, set, etc.) that will lead to a better result in the long term.
9) Utilize online programming in an expanded way, e.g., to support student ministry, discipleship, children at home with parents, pastor 3-minute devotionals, etc. Have Home Groups meet on Zoom! Click HERE to learn more.
10) Review other churches’ posts. See how other churches are handling this transition. Learn what you can. Build on your current success!
The old proverb says, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Covid-19 has forced us into some new frontiers. THAT’S NOT ALL BAD! I hope you will find success in keeping the new front door open. Let me know, if I can help. I welcome your comments and additional suggestions.