New Research and Insights on the Online Church

I see a pattern developing in online churches. Perhaps it is a trend. The overall pattern is that online ministries of churches are becoming a strategic part of the overall church ministry. They are not viewed today as much as a separate congregation than as an entry point for people ultimately to connect to the physically-gathered church.

The new research is from Vanderbloemen, Pushpay, and Jay Kranda. All of the 176 churches participating in the study have an online church, so we are hearing from those who are presently very active in this ministry.

Definitions for the online church are evolving. Among those surveyed, the definition included an intentional effort to identify and minister to a group of people who are regularly viewing streaming services. The most common name for these digital gatherings were “online campuses” (36%) and “church online” (28%).

These churches typically had a person designated to lead these digital ministries, but the title of that person varied significantly. Only 16 percent of the churches surveyed had a full-time online ministry leader.

What are some of the key findings of this study? Here are nine insights:

  1. The plurality of churches have a volunteer lead the online ministry. This ministry is led by a volunteer in about four of ten churches. Another 35 percent give the leadership to a full-time staff person who has other responsibilities.
  2. The dominant broadcast method is live streaming. Among these churches, nine of ten congregations broadcast through live streaming. But over half also have the full service on demand.
  3. The opportunity to reach local community members is significant. Over four of ten of those attending online are people within a reasonable driving distance of the church. Most of the churches view the online community as a first step to move them toward the in-person gathering.
  4. Most of these churches do count online attendance. Of the churches surveyed, 72 percent report online attendance, but keep it separate from in-person attendance. Fewer than 10 percent include online attendance as part of the overall total weekly attendance.
  5. There is little consistency on how churches count online attendance. The most frequent response, but only by 26 percent of the churches, is “concurrent streamers at a given time.”
  6. There is anecdotal evidence that indicates the online church is actually a growth source for the in-person church. Some of the church leaders see the online church as part of a process that may progress from social media to online church to community groups to in-person worship services.
  7. Over half of the churches are considering using the online church to launch future churches and sites. Already, 17 percent of the churches are embracing this strategy. In total, over 60 percent are considering this strategy, or they are already doing it.
  8. More older churches are using an online church strategy than younger churches. For example, churches over 50 years old accounted for nearly 30 percent of the total, while churches under five years old accounted for less than 15 percent of the total.
  9. Five ministries are offered online by a majority of the churches. They are: prayer (81%); giving opportunities (72%); pastoral care (58%); serving opportunities (54%); and online groups (52%).

I am thankful to Vanderbloemen, Pushpay, and Jay Kranda for providing this information. You can get the full study here.

We will continue to watch the changes and development of the online church. This study is fascinating. But we know there is more yet to come.

Posted on March 11, 2019

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
More from Thom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  • Very well explained! I have learned many great things from your articles. I have been checking out all of your blogs as well, thanks for sharing this.

  • It is interesting that few dispute that Christian music on the radio & youtube videos has great influence. And, when the music is Scripture based, ministry occurs. Romans 10:17 – “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” I don’t see a qualifier in that Scripture.

    The Church is not a building. Preaching and teaching can be accomplished over the internet. Agreed, it seems less personal and more difficult to build relationships, but is it? If people ‘come to Jesus’ by way of internet preaching and teaching, wouldn’t Christ in those who know Jesus become apparent? We do believe that when the Holy Spirit moves in a believer’s life there is a wonderful change, don’t we?

    Unfortunately, even in this modern culture, we hold on to traditions. Our universities and high schools require online courses. Online learning has become a huge business and it works. The brick and mortar mega-church era is likely fading away. Like online church, very large churches had difficulty establishing personal relationships. Plus, multi-tasking continues to plague our society and gobble away at free time. Online church facilitates busy schedules. And, I suppose if believers are built up in the body of Christ and actually respond by “going,” then maybe online church should be embraced.

    It scares me, but I’m old!

  • Christopher says on

    You can’t live stream church because the church is the body of christ. All you can do is live stream an event. Granted most physical Sunday services are just events people attend and then go about their week but online “church ” confirms it.

  • Radio has been my on line streaming for 35 five years as well as my church. I see this as a new form of radio or t.v. but I all so think it will hurt the church. I still think if we can we need to be doing it.

  • You also have to realize that sometimes people watching online belong to other faiths or denominations but want to hear the music or the sermon. There was the radio/television ministry a number of years ago which was superseded by online. I remember in the 80s and 90s watching the televised service from a large Methodist church late at night with the volume very low and making sure not to discuss having seen it. This was before the internet and what you did if you weren’t allowed to go in person. Today, online is the way you can do the same thing.

  • I watch live streams of church services. I also watch a lot of old sermons on YouTube, and I financially give to ministries through the internet. There were definitely times when I used a video/podcast to “audition” a local church before driving there.

    Some may insist it’s not the same as being there in person, but I promise you, to a great extent it is. You can get a LOT of information this way. It isn’t only the disabled/shut ins who use this service; it’s also people with social anxiety, or those who sit in the back and don’t make friends — for these folks, interpersonal contact wasn’t going to happen anyway, so they don’t miss the awkward hand shakes.

    I listen/watch sermons on YouTube while I’m driving, exercising, and doing household chores. It’s much more edifying than radio! I’d love to hear some of the pastors who regularly comment here.

  • Jerry Watts says on

    With respect, I’d probably be one who pushes back a bit on this being termed ‘research.’ God knows my heart and that I mean no offense in my push back. First, it is true that you and I are close to the same age (I say this so people know that I’m an old man – GRIN). It is equally true that I have invested much time in understanding & developing some IT skills (I manage several web sites & a phone app) – so I have no argument for the use of technology in the 21st Century American church.
    My push back comes in us (that is, you or me) saying ‘This is a New Trend based on Research’. When I look at the ‘players’ doing the research and likely, the ‘subjects’ from whom the information came, this would not be a fair sampling. The 3 ‘information gatherers’ are connected, in large measure, only to churches who have a strong IT ministry and presence. I have no argument that the virtual church is a way to increase numbers (people and money) without the personal touch. While several of your bullets are truly salient points to take away, it seems to me, that more is lost than gained with a totally virtual church. Okay, admittedly, this is only my opinion but: Technology should be tool not a replacement.
    Number 8 – is one that would require a little ‘drilling down into the data’ to make a meaningful assessment.
    I have purposefully avoided the discussion of how discipleship plays into the process of totally online church since true discipleship is relationship driven.
    My goal with this response is simply to say this; while the internet affords us many opportunities to expand the hearing of the gospel, it seems very problematic to the advancement of the Kingdom to relegate the church to a ‘virtual’ status. Be Blessed today.

  • William Alan Secrest says on

    The church that I serve is considering this ministry. I have read in the past where a church stopped this ministry because people chose the convenience of staying home instead of going to the campus to worship with other believers. I also realize that this type of ministry is a way for people to check out our church without actually being on campus. When I think of this ministry I think of people who are “shut-ins” who cannot get out for many different reasons. I guess my question is “what do we need to avoid and communicate so that this endeavor is successful?

    • William –

      Great question. The issue is one of proactivity. Churches that are serious about reaching these people need a strategic plan in place to move them from digital passive to digital active to physical groups to worship services. I think the best approach to physical groups is creating a new small group for the internet audience, perhaps meeting for a six-week study at the onset.