You’ve had so much change thrown at you this year, it’s hard to know what to do.
Especially about church online.
As more and more churches regather, it will be easier than ever to look at church online as something you had to do to survive, or as a side project you keep going while you focus 90% of your time and energy on in-person gatherings.
And that would be a mistake. For some churches, it might be a fatal mistake.
For others, it’s won’t be fatal, but it might mean you grossly under-realize your potential and miss the opportunity of a lifetime.
To help you realize the potential of church online and grow your online ministry, I’m hosting a free Online Church Engagement Summit with Levi Lusko, Nona Jones and Bobby Gruenewald.
You can register your entire team for free here and learn how to turn viewers into engagers with insights from the leaders behind YouVersion, ChurchOnline, Facebook and Fresh Life Church.
In this post, I’ll take on seven weird lies about online church I keep hearing that it’s time to finally stop believing.
1. People Are Screened Out
I hear this one almost every day from church leaders.
Sure, the spike in screen time in 2020 has been a shock to all our systems, mine included. And yes, people are looking for chances to meet in person, go for a walk or do something other than take yet another Zoom call.
But just because you personally feel screened out doesn’t mean the culture is.
If you think people are screened out, run your theory by TikTok or Instagram. Apparently, people aren’t nearly as done with screens as you think.
The idea that people are screened out doesn’t resonate with long term trends. In 2019, for the first time ever, the amount of daily minutes people spent on their mobile devices surpassed the minutes they spent watching TV. The younger the demographic, the more true that is.
The truth is time spent on social media has been rising every year since it was invented. The average American spends 152 minutes a day on social media alone…that doesn’t include other online activities.
You can find some evidence Gen Z is being more careful about social media taking over their lives (and some are quitting or taking breaks). That said, 91% of Gen Z still uses social media .
So what’s going on? Here’s my theory.
People are screened out on things that aren’t interesting to them. People are screened out on bad content.
But are they screened out? Nope.
At least not yet anyway.
2. The Internet Is “Temporary”
I have a hard time believing this is actually something church leaders argue, but I’ve heard so many versions of this I had to list it.
“The internet is temporary” is an actual quote I pulled from the comments on my blog.
Other variations of this include:
When everyone can come back in person, they will.
People don’t like technology.
Online won’t last. It’s just a bridge to get us to reopening.
I personally wouldn’t bet the future on the internet being temporary.
But, resistance to technology and predicting its demise has historical precedent.
This 1985 article from a New York Times columnist predicted that laptop computers were a fad that was fading fast:
On the whole, people don’t want to lug a computer with them to the beach or on a train to while away hours they would rather spend reading the sports or business section of the newspaper.
Somehow, the microcomputer industry has assumed that everyone would love to have a keyboard grafted on as an extension of their fingers. It just is not so.
Just because you don’t like something, or don’t fully understand it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
And just a reminder, you’re reading this on your phone.
I’m guessing the internet is here to stay, and I’m planning my strategy around it.
3. Online Relationships Aren’t Real Relationships
Another argument I keep hearing is that online relationships aren’t real relationships.
To begin with, many leaders are changing their minds on that, as we speak, discovering that people who were either resistant to face-to-face gatherings or couldn’t get to one, are loving the ability to connect digitally. Nicky Gumbel’s story of moving Alpha online for the first time in 2020 and seeing huge results is inspiring.
The reality is we all live in a hybrid of online and real life relationships.
You FaceTime your parents and then see them three nights later for dinner. You text your friend and minutes later meet up for coffee. Some long-distance relationships are kept alive because of technology.
According to a recent Stanford study, more couples now meet online than through friends, family or church.
Naturally, those relationships migrate into real life, but in many ways, that’s what the church can expect for the future.
People who meet you online will eventually meet you in person. But if you only rely on in-person for connection, you’re greatly limiting your options.
Saying online relationships aren’t real relationships is a little like saying online shopping isn’t real shopping. Ask Amazon whether they would agree with that.
4. My People Aren’t Online
I have to push back on this one a bit.
Really, who are you leading?
While it’s true that in rural areas internet usage and adoption is lower than in suburban and urban areas, even in rural America, 86% of people say they use the internet daily. In 2019, 90% of Americans overall say they regularly use the internet.
I appreciate the fact that pastors have a heart for people who don’t have internet. That reflects a shepherd’s heart, and there are workarounds for that.
But 8.7% of American’s don’t have access to cars. That hasn’t stopped church leaders from constructing buildings that require cars.
I love that leaders want to help those with little access to technology. But your pastoral heart shouldn’t stop you from using technology.
Almost all of the people you want to reach and connect with are online. It’s time for the church to embrace that.
5. Online Attendance Will Keep Dropping
As churches regather (and in North America, the majority are now open for some kind of in-person services), pastors are noticing a drop in online attendance.
A few thoughts.
If you neglect your online presence, online attendance will continue to drop. Almost everything you neglect declines. As I shared in this post, the trap for many leaders in regathering is the trap of doing nothing well: You don’t have enough staff and resources to do in-person or online well.
Moving forward though, wise leaders will invest more time, skill and expertise in their online experience. And when you do that, you’ll see your effectiveness grow and with it, your online attendance and engagement.
If the internet was declining, it’s reasonable to think online attendance is bound to keep dropping.
But the internet isn’t declining.
And churches who embrace online ministry will see tremendous fruit down the road. Hang in there.
6. It’s Impossible To Get People To Engage Online
This is a hard one.
It is tough to get people to engage online. But it’s not impossible. You just haven’t figured it out yet.
Reddit, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and many leaders online have figured out how to get people to engage. Some churches have done a great job at this, too.
To help, I’m hosting The Online Church Engagement Summit, a FREE 90-minute online event featuring Levi Lusko, Nona Jones and Bobby Gruenewald.
During the summit, we’ll share best practices from YouVersion, ChurchOnline, Facebook and Fresh Life Church about how to turn viewers into engagers. YouVersion alone has 443 million installs on devices globally that see people engaging daily with God’s Word. We’ll share industry best practices that will help you and your team.
You can register your team for free here.
Turning viewers into engagers is a tough nut to crack. But you can do it.
7. I Can Afford To Ignore This
Returning to what you know, what you’re good at and what you’ve had success with in the past is really tempting.
In the midst of an unprecedented amount of change, it’s natural to cling to the familiar. It’s also a terrible leadership strategy.
Here’s the truth, in the short term you can ignore online. And you’ll probably go back to 40-70% of what you used to have in church pre-COVID. You might even eventually grow back to 100% of what you had.
Success is intoxicating. But when your success is based on an approach that was already producing diminishing returns, your success is both short-lived and much smaller than it could have been.
As a leader, you love to think you can defy the odds, recreating something no one else can do and ignore the trends. I do too.
But of course, the rules never apply to you until they do.
And when they do, and your effectiveness is far less than you want it to be, you might wish you could get this moment back.
So, seize it now. The future you will thank you.
So will all the people you reach.