How can congregations better engage people who worship online? Jim Keat, Digital Minister at The Riverside Church, offers 10 tips for congregations to strengthen engagement and build relationships with online worshippers.
During the worship broadcast, church leaders often overlook or do not give enough intentional thought to the people who are worshipping online. Here are 10 ways to engage congregants who worship online:
1. Greet online congregants in the chat.
This might seem simple, and it is. When people show up, greet them by name and welcome them to worship using the live chat. Engage people in the opening moments of online worship like a greeter who stands at the door in the physical space to welcome people to in-person worship so that people are warmly welcomed to the digital space. Create a culture of digital greeters who invite people to share where they are joining from and engage with one another in the chat.
2. Give online congregants a bulletin.
Make the bulletin available online or share the bulletin contents on screen using ProPresenter or another presentation app, program, or platform. In the digital bulletin, be sure to include all the information that would typically be available in the printed bulletin like hymn lyrics and responsive readings so that all those who are in the online space can engage what is happening in worship whether they want to sing, reflect on the lyrics to the hymns, or participate in the call to worship.
3. Ask online congregants questions.
At Riverside during the opening announcements and welcome time, the person leading worship from the room looks into the camera and says something like “for those of you worshipping with us online, let us know where you are joining us from. And we have this question we would love to ask you. Please leave your response in the chat.” The question is created so that it connects to the themes of the day or the sermon, and online worshippers are invited to share their answers in the chat. Then at the end of the worship service, those responses are shared.
4. Share their responses with the whole group.
Sharing the online congregants’ answers to the question with those who are in person and those who are worshipping online centers them in the worship space and allows their voices to be heard. It is very easy for the online worshipper to feel like they are pushed to the edges, peeping in through the windows to watch church happen. So how do you center them when they so naturally end up being on the edge? Share their answers to the question shared in the chat with the whole group so that they are part of the worship experience. Capture the answers to the question in the chat and share them (via text) with the person offering the benediction or leading the closing part of worship. At Riverside, the person offering the benediction will say something like “this morning we had this many people joining us in worship online from these states and here’s what they had to say to this question.”
5. Celebrate their numbers.
Those who are gathered for worship in person can get a sense of how many people are in attendance because they can look around and count, but those who are worshipping online do not always have a sense of who else is watching with them. At Riverside, at the conclusion of worship we share how many people were worshipping online. We pay attention to when online attendance usually plateaus (typically around the sermon) and we share this with the person leading the closing part of worship so that it can be celebrated. In doing so, those seemingly disembodied congregants are once again made whole and restored as human.
6. Read the call and response.
This is too often overlooked, but it is a little thing that can make a big difference. If your worship includes calls and responses or responsive readings, the person leading worship must also read the response because unless you have good ambient microphones, the leader is also the voice for the online congregant to follow. If the worship leader doesn’t say the response, the people who are worshipping online will not hear that portion of the service clearly. For example, the person leading the Lord’s Prayer should be mindful that those worshipping online are primarily hearing their voice, so speak up so that you can direct and guide those worshipping online who may not be hearing the congregation pray as clearly as those who are in the room.
7. Use language that includes everyone.
This is important because it is so easy to replicate the liturgies of our past rather than reimagine what is needed for the present and the future. The language we use in worship is often contextual to those who are gathered in the physical space. For example, who are you centering in your instructions for communion or the offering? It’s not that the people in the room do not need instructions, but so do the people online and they should not be an afterthought. At Riverside, we start the communion instructions focused on the online congregant and then we move to those in the room. Then we end our communion liturgy by saying something like “Now we celebrate communion as one church all together.” Similarly, it is important to craft the invitation to give to the offering in a way that truly invites everyone to participate regardless of their location or time (be mindful of those who watch the recording). Be intentional about using language that includes everyone.
8. Invite online worshippers to lead.
Invite online worshippers to lead, to be the cook in the kitchen stirring the batter and cracking eggs. There are a lot of different ways this could happen. If you use Zoom, consider how you can have the Zoom participants broadcast in the sanctuary to lead a portion of the service. At Riverside, prerecorded portions are included in our worship every week so that at least one portion of the worship service is led by someone who is not in the room. Sometimes that is led by the digital minister, other times that is led by congregants who are dispersed across the country. Be intentional about inviting online congregants to be scripture readers or lead a portion of the liturgy. This allows the people who are worshipping online to see themselves in the centralized space and it allows the people who are in the room to realize once again there are people worshipping who are not in the same physical space.
9. Make eye contact.
We were spoiled when churches were closed for in-person worship and only gathered online because we could have eye contact all the time. The room was just our studio, and the experience was entirely online, so worship leaders could focus on looking into the camera. Now with hybrid worship, there are people in the room and on screen and we tend to look at the people who are in person instead of the camera (that may even represent more people than those who are gathered in the room). The worship leader needs to know where the camera is, give space to look at the camera, and acknowledge those who are gathered online. The camera should be set up in a way that it can be accessed with the leader’s eyes and viewed as a participant in worship. Looking at the camera reminds the congregants in the room that you are looking at congregants who are gathered beyond the walls of the room. Train yourself to broaden and diversify when you look at the camera, so you don’t just look at the camera when you are talking about the online congregation.
10. Give online worshippers something unique and exclusive.
Keep in mind that even if you find ways to engage online worshippers in leading the worship service, the worship service itself is largely designed for those who attend in person, and you are making it more accessible and engaging for online participants. Create something unique and specifically designed for those gathering online. At Riverside, every Sunday after worship we have virtual coffee hour on Zoom. The preacher and a host (like the digital minister) have a conversation with online congregants for about half an hour. This is exclusively designed and created for the online congregant to engage with the preacher.
This content was originally shared in the video Ten Ways to Engage People Who Worship Online. Used with permission.
- Improving Worship Attendance in a Post-Pandemic World, a Lewis Center webinar recording
- Strengthening Online Worship Beyond the Pandemic by Lovett H. Weems Jr.
- Moving Forward With Hybrid Worship by Olu Brown