Successful online ministry requires a new mindset and different metrics. Carey Nieuwhof outlines five signs indicating that your online ministry is connecting with people and helping them grow in faith, rather than just advertising what happens in your building.
For most leaders, online church is something they’re still getting used to, trying to figure out, and attempting to master with staffing, strategy, and energy. With a million different options, opinions, and viewpoints about the online world (not to mention hyperconfusing metrics), how do you know you’re doing online ministry right? Here are five signs you’re doing it right.
1. You’ve stopped using your digital channels as announcements and “free” advertising.
The way most of us got started on social media and online ministry was to see digital channels as announcements, billboards, and free advertising that pointed the way to the “real thing” or, in this case, in-person church. While that was a fun way to use social for a moment way back in 2013, it won’t even remotely stand up to the challenges of the hybrid life (digital, distributed, and in-person) that all of us live these days.
You’ve moved way beyond that now and realized (as Meta’s Nona Jones has so helpfully argued) that social media is social ministry. This means you see it the same way you would see any in-person ministry — as a vehicle for deep life change in people. Sure, you’re not going to avoid talking about Sunday services or inviting people, but you’ve realized that you get 167 other hours in a week to minister to people.
So, you use your digital channels to ask questions, pray for people, connect with them, engage in the comments, help them take the next step, connect with other Christians, and do what they need to do to either begin a relationship with Jesus or grow in discipleship. And you’ve staffed your digital channels accordingly, either with volunteers or staff members.
Wise church leaders realize that social media is social ministry, not just a digital billboard. Currently, most pastors are using church online to get people into the building. In the future, most pastors will use the building to reach people online.
2. You prioritize connection over clicks.
Clicks are addicting. Whether it’s the number of downloads/views/visits/impressions, it’s easy to assume that just because the numbers are going up, you’re making an impact. But ministry is about a lot more than just who clicked on your content. It’s also more than just who connected with your content. Connecting with content produces fans of a preacher, not followers of Jesus. What you really want to do is connect with people and point them to Jesus. That means you’ve figured out how to start conersations with people who are accessing your content. It means you realize that relationship matters more than anything. It means you’re using lead magnets and other connection tools to establish meaningful dialogue and connection with the people accessing your content.
In the same way that you were never satisfied with the size of the crowd in a physical building your mission is too important to go unheard. Engaging an audience and inspiring change is an essential part of any mission. If you’re finding it difficult to do that online, then it’s time to start using strategies that get people engaged and excited to follow you. Your mission will become far more effective when you have a proven digital strategy and can produce meaningful content that people love to receive.
3. You actually know how people online are doing and how they’re growing.
If you’re doing online ministry well, you’ve moved beyond finding out who is watching you (thank you, Google Analytics) and you actually know how many of them are doing and how they’re growing. And your knowledge goes beyond anecdotes, baptisms, and stories (as great as those are). You have quantitative and qualitative data that shows you how people are doing spiritually, relationally, and even vocationally (here’s a post on how to start measuring that). In fact, your passion for the quality of spiritual and personal growth your ministry is producing has eclipsed your passion for the quantity of growth your ministry is producing. Ironically, you also know that better quality almost always leads to higher quantities. In other words, if you’re really helping people through profound change, growth has a way of taking care of itself.
4. You’re okay that people are gathering in homes, not in your building.
This one’s going to be hard for many pastors, but the church can gather outside the building. Legitimately gather outside the building. Somewhere along the way, many pastors got focused on one thing: Getting the greatest number of people in the room at the same time. Sometimes that’s about ministry. Sometimes (honestly) it’s about ego. I’ll confess to both. But church leaders who have figured out online ministry are okay with the fact that many people are now gathering in homes, not a church building. The church facilities of the future will be places where people assemble to be equipped to do ministry during the week. I realize that, theoretically, we’ve always believed that, but we often haven’t behaved that way. The difference is that most of the people you’re equipping won’t be in the room. You may be speaking to them from the room, but they’ll be in their homes, in their cars, at work, and in the community. You’ve also realized that all the people who keep saying the church needs to keep meeting together are wrong: Not wrong in the principle, but wrong in the application.
Yes, people need to keep meeting together. No, it does not have to be in a building owned by the church. People are just fine to meet in their homes, at work, and in the community. And yes, they can be under your leadership and a guided church structure (in the same way small groups who meet in homes are still guided by church leadership). You realize that people who gather as the church in their homes aren’t lazy, they’re committed. And you treat them that way. In fact, you’re innovating to engage them by offering more gathering opportunities, ministries, and options for people who gather outside the building. And because of that, they’re growing spiritually and so is your church.
5. You’ve accepted that many people will never set foot in your building.
People might set foot in a church building. It just might not be yours. They’ll gather with other Christians and friends who don’t know Jesus, it just may not happen on your turf. And that no longer matters to you anymore. It’s not about growing a crowd — it’s about growing the mission. Pastors who are focused on growing an in-person crowd may fill a room, but in the process, they might lose the mission. And as a leader who understands online ministry, you’ve realized that digital ministry scales in a way in-person ministry doesn’t. If that means someone who lives 400 miles away attends your church online and is involved in another local church or hosts a distributed gathering in their home, you’re great with that.
Throttling digital channels to fill a room might make you feel good for a moment, but it will feel terrible over the long haul. In the future church, to throttle back online ministry so you can pack a room with 1,000 people means you’ll miss your chance to reach the 2,000 or 10,000 you might have reached if you weren’t so worried about the fullness of your sanctuary.
Pastors who have accepted that many people they’ll reach will never set foot in their building will reach more people than pastors who can’t accept that. They can meet in decentralized gatherings with other Christians. They can start their own groups and studies where they live with their church and unchurched friends. And your team can lead them in how to do that. But you might never meet them, and they might never come to your church. And that’s okay. Because, as you’ve learned, it was never about you in the first place.
One of the hardest journeys for any leader is to realize that, despite your best intentions, a lot of your leadership was about you. But online has forced you to look in the mirror and realize that fewer people in the building does not equal fewer people reached, not when you take online ministry seriously.
And you now have the maturity to realize that a full room doesn’t mean a fulfilled mission. Reaching more people — much of which happens online — equals a fulfilled mission. Putting yourself and your message online can feel like you’re taking a shot in the dark, but your mission is too important to go unheard. But here’s the truth: engaging an audience and inspiring change is an essential part of any mission. If you’re finding it difficult to do that online, just know that inspiring change online doesn’t have to be complicated, gimmicky, or ruin your integrity. Your mission will become far more effective when you use a proven digital strategy and can produce content people love to receive to get people engaged and excited to join you on your mission.
This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com. Used by permission.