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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As a Pastor of a small church, it has been tough here in the UK with mandatory church closures for a long periods. But our online presence seems to be increasing.
We had previously struggled with musicians over the past few years so we moved to click tracks with our vocalists which the church was still open, so moving to total online church was not such a huge step for us.
Getting good quality music has been the hardest, one church in the UK (Soul Survivor Watford) has made their high quality music videos available for churches to use license free. This has been a huge boost for us.
My advice is to pre-record the worship team if you have one and play them as a music video in your service, that way you can attain the best possible quality which is suitable for live streaming.
Livestreaming has also has been a journey for us, starting from scratch. I agree a good digital strategy is essential and will not work without someone owning it.
I enjoyed your article, especially point #5. As a worship leader and church consultant, I agree that many churches need help improving their music and and sound. Here are my top three:
-A free-for-all-band. If the band members don’t know how to divy up parts and leave space for one another, no sound engineer can make it sound like an orchestra.
-Untrained Techs. Many techs are asked to run multiple systems without a full understanding of the tools.
-Bone dry live streams. The signal that comes straight from the soundboard is unnatural and jarring. It takes extra consideration to put the “space” back into the audio. Again, the tools are available, but the techs need training.
To read my full blog post in response to the #5 reason, you can click here.
It does appear that most churches feel the need (pressured) to be online even though they do not have the resources to deliver excellence unto the Lord. Is it simply to be visible with the hope of remaining viable (an out of sight out of mind mentality)? Have the concert type on line services that many have become used to impairing their present realities? The question is why are churches and their leaders experiencing this additional pressure during this time. Perhaps Thom and your team can supply us with a response.
Excellent information I appreciate this. I belong to a small Pentecostal church in Louisville Kentucky and we are seeing the same thing in our small churches. But interesting as I look at some of the Mega churches they are having consistent numbers. I am sure it is because of the creative ideas they are utilizing to maintain interest. Thank you for sharing
I agree with your seven points dealing with the failure to deliver the word by way of the digital world. This requires a great deal of skill hard work and change and tradition. All of which are very difficult to achieve. Which leads me to my purpose in replying. For some time I have been under strong conviction that we need to have a much greater focus on teaching training our young people from cradle through high school. These are the most formative years and the best opportunity to establish live long spirit lead living principles. Also there needs to be a parallel parent training program so they can understand the critical developmental stages that are going on with their young people during the formative years. To this point I have written a paper using your research along with other resources that support the dire need to change the trend of our young people leaving the church this information has been presented to denomination and church leader ship with no success here again is the factor of tradition and false assumption by leader ship that if finances and attendance are OK don’t rock the boat. We are not doing a good job of preparing our youth for the evils of this world.
I’d add for smaller churches like the one I serve it is impossible to have the quality of online program as the larger ministries. Therefore, online worshippers will choose those programs instead. The attraction of personal touch a smaller ministry offers is hard to transfer via internet. When the pandemic is over, it will be interesting to see if people will want to attend larger ministries due to crowd sizes. Regardless, I thank God for every size of ministry seeking to reach people with the gospel.
Thom, you have neglected to mention the key factor. That factor may be too unspiritual or independent of leadership to seem relevant.
You and I are social animals. We are members of a social species. Not every individual has the social instinct in the same measure, but individuals with a strong herd (social or crowd) instinct are suffering under Covid-19 restrictions especially.
No football or soccer crowds. No rock concert crowds. No dance club crowds. No movie or theatre crowds.
And no church crowds.
Watching a football game on TV isn’t the same experience as sitting and cheering with thousands of other primates in a stadium, no matter the broadcasters’ technical expertise.
Watching a concert on a TV screen isn’t the same as physically sitting and dancing with thousands of other mammals in a huge venue..
Physically dancing in a club with hundreds of other creatures is not the same as watching even a hundred creatures dancing on a screen.
Watching, on a screen in a living room, talking heads speaking to an empty sanctuary is likewise not the same as experience as being surrounded by hundreds of noisy moving creatures on a Sunday morning.
I agree with Mr. Goetz 100 % with one addition. I miss the singing when watching at home on the computer. I need to worship my Lord with singing songs of worship. I get edified by some preaching but I always get edified with worship by singing. I joined the choir in the Southern Baptist church my 1st year after receiving the Lord Jesus as my saviour at age 28. This year I was my 50th “Born Again” year. Most churches I have attended in recent years have Worship Teams instead of choirs. The joy that floods my soul through worship in song cannot be equalled.
My question– Because In-person attendance has been limited by the government and online worship has waned for many churches, will giving follow suit? I’m concerned as folks are more and more disconnected they will no longer financially support their church or will substantially reduce their giving…in 2021.
During economic downturns it is common for struggling enterprises to fail or go bankrupt. In good times they were barely making it, in bad times they go under. It is painful to lose a local merchant or a workplace, but it is normal and expected.