5 Confessions of a Pastor About Online Church Attendance


So for months now, your church has been offering online services either for the first time or in a much more intentional way.

Ever wonder what it’s like on the other side of the screen?

I’ve been in church leadership for 25 years, and beyond that, until March 2020, attended church in person almost every Sunday morning of my life with the exception of a few years in undergrad where I mostly slept or traipsed in late once a month.

For several months now, though (with the exception of a half dozen Sundays I preached) I’ve been home like the rest of the world. My role as Founding Pastor these days means (for good reason) I shouldn’t be one of the 5-10 essential people that are legally allowed to be in our broadcast facility during the pandemic. Which means I’ve been watching from home. For months.

It’s a completely different pace of life for me, and after getting over feeling guilty, restless and out of sorts, I thought I’d write a (hopefully) helpful post about what it’s like to be on the other side of the screen.

The goal? If you understand the thinking of your online viewers, you can better engage them.

As a friend who loves fishing once told me, if you want to catch a fish, you need to think like a fish, asking yourself questions like what a largemouth bass would be thinking at 4:00 on a sunny afternoon (as in, hey, underneath that log by those rocks looks like a great place for shelter from the sun).

Thinking like a fish helps you catch more fish.

Although I’ve always tried to study, learn from and think like an unchurched person, not being able to be in church for months has helped me explore that mindset a little more deeply.

So, if like me, you’re committed to making your church a place where people who don’t know Jesus come to know Jesus, here are some candid and honest observations about church online.

1. 45 Minutes Is Way More Convenient Than 5 Hours

It was completely weird at first to go from a life-time of Sunday morning being a minimum 5-hour commitment (more with prep) to a 45-minute experience.

Like most churches, ours quickly figured out that a 65-minute service using the same format we used for in-person services didn’t translate well online. So we trimmed things down to about 45 minutes.

At first, I felt guilty, incomplete, and even strange about church being so short.

Then I really came to love it.

For the record, I do not believe that church is about consumption. Yes, we live in a consumer culture, but I believe Christianity is as much about what you bring to the mission as it is about what you gain from the mission.

That said, we live in a consumer culture.

To disagree with behaviour is one thing. To reverse it is another.

As much as you may not love online church attendance, it’s probably here to stay.

I’ve been quietly telling church leaders over the last few months that one of the hardest flips back to in-person gathering will be the switch from a 45-minute online investment to 3-5 hours (or longer for some volunteers) for in-person church attendance.

It’s one that, of course, I’ll make. And so will many others.  But not everyone will.

For years now, we’ve already seen infrequent church attendance among even committed Christians (here are 10 reasons why).

This will only accelerate that.

2. Unchurched People Aren’t Lying. Sunday Really Is Awesome.

For years, I’ve heard people talk about how awesome Sunday is. That it’s their only family day. The only free day. That it’s different than all the other days.

And although I was polite on the outside, I pushed back and kept thinking “Well, it would be way more awesome if you were here Sundays.”

I even secretly resented the line from Easy by The Commodore’s—easy like Sunday morning—because NO preacher has ever found Sunday morning easy. Amazing perhaps. Challenging maybe. Tiring for sure. But easy? Give me a break.

Having been at home almost every Sunday for months, I finally understand what people have been telling me for decades.

Sunday is a different kind of day.

My neighborhood, which is about 95% unchurched, is much quieter on Sunday morning than it is on a Saturday or any other day. There is something wonderful about enjoying a two day weekend when most other people aren’t working that is different than taking a Friday or Monday off.

So what’s the point?

I guess it gives me a fresh perspective on the cultural challenge church leaders face when I’m asking someone to give up a Sunday morning to get to know God better.

As Scott Sauls, disappointed by a low initial return-to church attendance at his church in Nashville, rightly says, worship should be a sacrifice. Going to church is not just something to do if you have nothing else to do.  (You can listen to Scott’s full conversation here.) He’s right.

And yet that’s a tough sell to someone who has never gone to church or only attended half-heartedly in the past.

Moving forward, this will give me a fresh motivation to ensure Sunday gatherings are meaningful, powerful, and significant. Of course, they’ve always been all that and more, but sometimes we miss the mark.

People are deeply disappointed when they show up at church hoping to find God but get us instead.

3. Streaming Isn’t Enough

Having led a church for over two decades, I know how much work Sunday is. I get how much time, energy, prayer and planning go into Sunday mornings.

But having sat at home for weeks on end, I can now see how streaming Sundays isn’t nearly enough.

In the early moments of the shutdown and pandemic, almost every church experimented with live streams beyond Sunday, online prayer meetings, different gatherings, and content drops and encouragements throughout the week.

Judging by what I see on my social media feed, it looks like the innovation curve has slowed way down or stopped.

Most churches have stopped experimenting and instead focused most, if not all, their resources on the Sunday morning service and programming with it. Their online footprint has been reduced to Sunday morning and everything on social leads into it or out of it.

I’m a huge supporter of Sundays done well, but just so you know, that’s a really narrow online footprint.

Engaging people for 45 minutes a week through an online stream of your Sunday service misses the opportunity latent in the other 10,035 minutes a week.

If you want to go beyond social media to social ministry, Nona Jones has a great perspective and practical ideas on how to do that here.

4. I Really Want You To Equip Me For Life In The World (Not Just The Church)

Another thing I’ve been thinking about (a lot) over the last few months is how facility-centric ministry is. Again, this is self-reflection and self-criticism, having built several facilities which, of course, I’m not against in the least. We need gathering spaces.

That said, COVID has exposed for me how deep the assumption runs that the primary way people can find faith or live out their faith is in a building.

Not being able to access the building reminds me how most of us spent over 160 hours a week outside the building, or in some cases, 168 hours each week away from the building.

Pastors, meanwhile, seem to focus all their effort and attention on getting people to come to the building.

In the future, I think the successful churches will figure out how to equip people where they’re at, in their homes, apartments, neighbourhoods and workplaces to live out their faith.

I sit on my front porch and write, and every day dozens of people walk, run and cycle by. I don’t know most of them.

The question I’m asking is can you equip me?

Listen, I went to seminary. I’ve taught this church leadership for years. And I’m well aware I can google this in a heartbeat. And I have.

But as I sit here 167 hours a week like everybody else has done for years, I’m longing for more regular resources to help me do that better without becoming ‘that guy’ every neighbor avoids.  If that’s how a seminary grad feels, imagine how people who haven’t been to seminary must long for daily help.

It also takes me back to the year I worked in law, where I had a similar question: who’s going to help me live this faith out in an office tower?

Again, I know there are a million books and resources. I just want a companion.

Still worried about Sunday? Leaders who figure out how to equip their people to live out their faith every day will have more to celebrate on Sundays.

5. Mindless Or Troll Chat Is Disengaging

A final note.

The chat on your online streams or social media will, without any effort on your part, default to two categories: mindless or troll-level. Both are disengaging (at least for me). This is a massive problem on the internet that will quickly become a significant problem for your church or organization, if it isn’t already.

As far as chat goes, I don’t really want to weigh in what my favorite pizza is, nor am I ever going to engage the troll who says the moon landing was a conspiracy or the haters who trash everything being said.

The key is to get some thoughtful people running the chat. Sure, a few ice-breaker questions are a good way to welcome people, but then to really engage the life-questions and faith questions people have will get more people to engage.

I have a love-hate relationship with comments. Unlike most websites, we’ve left the comments on for this site. And over 31,000 comments in, I’ve learned it is possible to have rich and meaningful dialogue online.

I’ve found the same thing on social. Sure, you have to delete some comments and block a handful of people every now and then, but most people are good people who have real questions. If you set a thoughtful tone, offer real content that stimulates both the heart and the mind, and engage in a way you would if you were talking in real life, some great conversations can happen online.

Because of the sheer volume of comments on my channels, I haven’t read every single comment. But I’ve read tens of thousands and engaged back thousands of times. I’ve learned so much from my readers and listeners.

Here are two simple metaphors that can help you in the comments and chat:

First, try to set the tone you would want at a dinner party. It’s okay not to agree, but at a dinner party, most guests would disagree without being disagreeable. And if one of the guests tries to sucker punch another, you’d either call the police or ask him to leave. Do the same on your channels and sites. Blocking exists for a reason.

Second, by the content you offer and tone you set as a leader, try to make your presence on the internet a place where good gathers.

Those two things will go a long way in improving the tone and tenor of the conversation on your channels. Remember, unchurched and spiritually curious people are watching and reading. Don’t play into the stereotypes or settle for the lowest common denominator.

So…What Do You Do?

In light of all this, what do you do?

Obviously, this is part of a much bigger conversation we have every week on this blog (if you’re not a subscriber, subscribe here to get my latest emails), but here’s the one thing I would do.

I would plan your future strategy, budget and staffing around two scenarios:

  1. Static or reduced in-person attendance.
  2. An expanded online presence.

If you bet the future on things going back to normal, you won’t have much of a future.

Crisis is an accelerator, and for better or worse, the convenience of online church just got accelerated for millions of people.

So plan, budget, staff and prepare accordingly.


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