I remember clearly that first conversation with a pastor whose church started offering streaming worship services for the first time. The quarantine had just begun. With a bit of trepidation, he decided to lead his church into the digital world.
The pastor was amazed. “Our attendance went from 140 to 650!” he exclaimed in his email. Of course, he was referring to the shift in attendance from in-person to digital. He was wondering if a strategy of “digital first” or even “digital only” would be his church’s future.
Six months later, he wrote me another email. His excitement was obviously missing this time. “Help me to understand what happened,” he wrote. “We had 650 viewing our first online service. Now we typically have 10 to 15. What are we doing wrong?”
His situation was not an anomaly. We’ve heard from hundreds of church leaders. Most of them have similar stories. The burst of online attendance is waning, usually significantly. Our team at Church Answers has been researching this phenomenon. Though our work is far from complete, we see at least seven key reasons most churches are experiencing a dramatic decline in online viewing of worship services.
- The curiosity factor has ended. When churches began offering streaming services, a lot of people viewed them out of curiosity. We found that a number of viewers were unchurched or nominally churched. They had no plans to stick around long-term. Of course, because so many churches began offering streaming services, the event moved from a phenomenon to just another item on the internet.
- Church leaders have begun to focus their energies on regathering in-person. As churches have reopened for in-person services, the focus and energy have been invested back into these services. Church leaders simply can’t do everything, so the early efforts to improve and promote quality digital services have waned. This reality leads to our third point.
- Many churches don’t have the resources to do both digital and in-person services well. During the quarantine, church leaders were able to focus much of their attention on streaming worship services. It was, after all, the only option. Now that a number of churchgoers have ended their quarantine and started attending in-person services, church leaders are putting their efforts into those gathered services.
- Church leaders are struggling to find stickiness in the digital church. It’s a new world for most of us. How do you get a digital viewer to return? Can sticky relationships be developed outside of in-person gatherings of small groups, ministries, and worship services? How do you get to know someone who may or not identify himself or herself in the digital crowd.
- Many streaming worship services lack in quality. I was recently getting my hairs cut and was able to begin a conversation about church with my stylist. She was unchurched but told me she tried to view a couple of streaming worship services. Her question was telling: “Is the music always that bad in churches?” It took me a while to understand clearly her consternation, but I finally got it. She was referring to the audio mix of voices and instruments. Unless a church knows what it’s doing, the music can really sound bad via the internet.
- There is a lack of clarity of leadership for streaming worship services. Does the pastor take the lead in promoting and producing the services? Or is it the worship leader? Or is it the person responsible for sound and lighting? For many churches, no one has come forward to be the person of primary responsibility for the streaming services. Without clear leadership, this ministry flounders.
- There is simply an overall weariness. The pandemic is a real struggle for many people, including church leaders and members. As Jess Rainer recently said, “Church leaders have to make decisions they have never made before.” Now church leaders feel the pressure to have a clear digital strategy added to their seemingly unending to-do list.
For these reasons and others, many church leaders simply don’t have the capacity to give attention to streaming services. Such neglect is reflected in waning digital attendance. Yet the digital world is still a mission field that should not be neglected.
In the weeks ahead, we will be sharing with you how a few churches are reaching this mission field while doing all of the other ministries expected of them.
Stay tuned . . .
Posted on December 7, 2020
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.
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