Kay Kotan says many churches embraced online worship out of necessity during the pandemic without deliberate plans for engaging new people through online ministry. Now is the time to consider how to engage new digital worshipers more fully through intentional welcome, relational connections, and opportunities for Christian formation.
When the pandemic hit, local churches had to make a fast and hard pivot to online worship. Without any intentionality or perhaps even realization, many churches launched a second site. The church became multi-site overnight. Granted, many churches did this out of desperation to provide “something” for those already gathered rather than following a strategic plan. Nonetheless, a second site was launched. And again, without intention, some churches actually attracted new people to view the online worship experience. Great!
How are you relating to online guests?
For these newly gathered people, how do we intentionally relate? How do we offer extravagant hospitality? How do we intentionally try to connect relationally and authentically?
If we record a worship experience and upload it for viewing, but have no intentional opportunities to connect, we miss a tremendous opportunity. We forget we are in the relationship business. We forget we moved out of the building and launched a second site. If this were an in-person worship service, the experience would be like a first-time guest showing up, no one speaking to her/him, no one making eye contact, and no one engaging to show any desire to connect in any way. We would never consider treating an in-person worship guest in this manner, but some churches do just this by the method in which they offer online worship. It’s as if we are delivering a “service,” rather than offering a desired and intentional opportunity to relate to God and others.
The digital world is the new mission field.
Another way to think about this is to consider that the church has entered into a ripe mission field full of unchurched people. The mission field is the digital world, with an estimated 70% population of unchurched people of all ages and stages of life. Yet, with this ripe harvest before us, we are missing the opportunity to harvest because we focus on those already gathered, rather than the yet to be gathered.
Does your church offer online worship or online ministry?
Another question for consideration relates to whether we are offering online worship or online ministry. Online worship is the 30- to 60-minute worship experience usually offered or posted once a week. Online ministry is the full expression of the life of the church offered digitally. In other words, online ministry encompasses extravagant hospitality, optional methods for giving, connection, engagement options, discipleship, service opportunities, prayer, and faith sharing. Does your church offer online worship or online ministry?
While there was already a growing concern around the number of people who reported being lonely, depressed, or anxious, the pandemic escalated those numbers significantly. People are hungry for community. People are aching to connect with others in meaningful ways. At one time, people found this type of community and connection in their local church. But because the church has become culturally irrelevant to so many, the church is no longer the “third place” (work and home being the first and second) where people do life. During the pandemic, not only was the church not the third place, but often work was eliminated as a second place. Most people were left to do life in only one place: home. Isolated at home. For months. No wonder people are lonelier and more depressed!
From attendance to engagement
We used to gauge church vitality based on the average number of people who attended in-person worship. We have now come to understand that worship attendance does not necessarily equate to discipleship growth. While participation in a small discipleship group led to increasing frequency of worship attendance, the opposite — that increasing frequency in worship attendance leads to discipleship growth — was not always true. Therefore, we need to reexamine how to measure ministry effectiveness and fruitfulness. The emerging trend is that evaluating and measuring engagement is the better barometer.
Engagement speaks to an individual’s discipleship development. How are the newly gathered connected to other people in the gathered community? Perhaps by engaging with other newly gathered? How do we help them engage in ministry (serve)? How do we help them find and engage the discipleship pathway? How do we help them take their next faithful step on that pathway? How do we help them continue to take additional steps? How are we offering mentors/coaches to pick them up when they trip on their faith journey? How are we offering models of mature disciples? For those newly gathered, we need to intentionally and authentically provide relational connections to help them engage in ministry and discipleship in meaningful ways.
Because we are in the disciple-making business — which is accomplished through relationships — our primary focus, attention, energy, and resources should be on those yet to be gathered. Those yet to be gathered are unchurched people God is calling us to reach. In a pandemic world, some were quick to reject the possibility of reaching new people while the world was in quarantine. Yet, there are many options to connect with new people, even in pandemic times.
Here are just a few examples:
- Watch parties. Build a culture for those attending online worship to host watch parties inviting their online friends to join them for worship.
- Invite others. Believe it or not, a surprising number of people said they would attend church with someone they knew if they were invited. Invite a friend to join you!
- Starting new groups. Those who were already gathered have great opportunities to connect with unchurched neighbors in new ways: at neighborhood curb parties where neighbors stay in their respective driveways and talk to nearby neighbors; as parents gathering virtually to support other parents trying to juggle working from home with homeschooling children; as cooks gathering with other cooks to share recipes because more people are cooking at home; by launching a neighborhood care group to pick up groceries or prescriptions for those unable to get out; or through online happy hours, online book clubs, etc.
The possibilities are endless! Find a need or shared purpose/desire and invite people to join! It is that simple. Post a picture contest, trivia challenges, devotionals/reflections, Bible study podcasts, virtual music concerts or neighborhood driveway dance-offs. Also be sure to review the previous hospitality and newly gathered section to ensure your church is relating, connecting, and offering next steps for the newly gathered. Consider this for both the online community as well as the in-person community.
This article is excerpted from “The Ultimate Relaunch Playbook for Being the Church in the Post Pandemic World” in Being the Church in a Post-Pandemic World (Market Square Books, 2021) by Kay Kotan. Used by permission. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.
- Participation & Presence: Leading Meaningful Digital Worship, a Lewis Center webinar recording featuring Dr. Tim Snyder
- There’s No Going Back to the Pre-Pandemic Church by Kay Kotan
- “Online Worshipers: Moving from Viewers to Participants,” a Leading Ideas Talks podcast episode featuring Orlando Evans