Three Ways to Build Our Online Congregational Engagement
Archdeacon Mike Besson Teams Up with the Communications Office to Explore Opportunities (and Concerns) for Online Church
Over the last six months, COVID-19 has introduced us all to a new way of life, shining a spotlight on the importance of human connection during times of trial, and times of celebration. In a kind of extended Lenten fast, public health guidelines for worship and in-person fellowship have kept friends and family apart, forcing churches to adapt, to re-adapt, and then to adapt all over again in order to respond with the love of Christ to the ever-changing world of the novel coronavirus.
In the midst of all the guidelines, protocols, statistics, and changes that have taken place, one thing has remained constant: congregations that are able to do so have gathered online for worship.
For many (maybe most) Episcopal congregations, online worship services, whether live or pre-recorded, were uncharted territory at the start of the pandemic. Yet as the year has progressed, congregations have expanded their online presence to include bible studies, meetings, and small groups; others have added the Daily Office or other forms of weekday service to their list.
Diocesan guidelines for a phased return to in-person worship services emphasize that churches should offer supplemental, online access to in-person worship during the pandemic, in order to accommodate families or individuals that need to remain physically distanced and continue imagining ways to provide online options even after public life returns to normal. During the isolation of this pandemic, we have all needed the basic level of human connection offered by online church and experienced that digital formation opportunities can help sustain existing friendships and fellowship groups.
New online offerings present exciting opportunities for growth, but they also present legitimate challenges, questions, and concerns. Of course, online church offers connection, but it falls short as a full replacement for face-to-face interaction. Preaching, praying, or reading to cameras can feel awkward; Zoom meetings don’t allow for side conversations; technical issues never seem to cease; and members without access to the right hardware and software are left without ways to stay connected. And any change to traditional ways of gathering to worship our Lord Jesus Christ raise questions and concerns. Some clergy and lay leaders are left wondering, “Will offering online worship negatively affect our ability to worship together and share ministry after this is over? How will continuing an online worship option affect our attendance or weekly offering amounts? Will recreating liturgy, music, and sacraments in virtual reality minimize their importance in the real world, daily life of our congregants?”
Acknowledging these questions and fears of the unknown is an important part of moving forward and growing for the Church. We know online church is not the same as gathering in-person to worship the risen Lord. However, the opportunities for growth, rebirth, and transformation presented by exploring this new online frontier outweigh the potential for loss. Online church creates unique opportunities for new people to connect with the church and allows outreach to families who might not have been able to attend in person otherwise, even pre-pandemic, such as people who travel often for work, homebound individuals or full-time caretakers, non-members and seekers, people who are uncomfortable stepping inside a church, people who don’t live geographically near the church building, and others.
The idea of ‘digital evangelism’ or reaching out to potential new members using online communications is not a new concept. Yet COVID-19 has compelled Episcopal churches to discover ways to offer liturgical and formational content, beyond promotional marketing, to nurture our communities online. Now that we know how to gather digitally, we must ask ourselves how to steward this new knowledge and technology. Even if we embarked on this digital journey with some trepidation, let’s explore what we else can do with what we have learned, and consider what our online church offerings could mean for the Church.
What follows are three suggestions to build your online congregational engagement and connect more deeply with individuals in the pews, and with individuals online. Whether your church is streaming hybrid services for the first time this Sunday, or launching its fourth streaming setup in six months in an attempt to get it right, we can all adjust in small and large ways to improve our reach and to engage our online congregation.
Three Ways to Build our Online Congregational Engagement
1. Intentionally connect with the people watching an online service and create opportunities for your “at-home audience” to engage with the worship service.
Consider how often priests and lay leaders on camera speak directly to the congregation watching worship online. Make intentional choices to actively engage your online audience whenever and however you can.
- Begin the service with a greeting that welcomes both the online and in-person participants. Ask online participants to share where they are watching from. For example, “We welcome all of you watching online, both here in our city and from all over the country. If you’re participating online, say hello to everyone in the comment section and tell us where you are joining us from.”
- Invite online engagement during the announcement time. For example, “Thank you all so much for worshipping with us today; we want all of our online participants to know that you are part of our church family. Let us know in the comment section how you found us today!”
- Ask viewers (and even in-person participants!) to use the comment section for liturgical responses, including prayer requests by first name, a word or phrase that summarizes what they learned from the sermon, a moment when they felt the presence of God during the service, etc.
- Encourage everyone (members and visitors!) to send prayer requests or questions about the congregation, the Episcopal Church, specific spiritual topics, and more through the messenger feature of your social media or livestreaming platform, such as Facebook Messenger, Instagram Direct Messages, or Zoom Private Chat. Make sure to indicate whether you will respond to them after the service concludes or, if you’re feeling adventurous, during the livestream.
- Share links and instructions for your church’s online giving platform directly in the broadcast feed or post. Invite both in-person and online participants to utilize this option during the offertory.
2. Respond to comments and messages online, building on the relationship begun by a prayer request or question.
Once your church opens the lines of online communication and relationship, then you have a responsibility to respond to the information and questions you may receive. Make sure to follow up with each person that expresses a desire to be seen and known, even if they cannot regularly join you in the pews on Sundays, even if they live in other parts of the country or world.
It is unlikely that every one of the online viewers will actively engage with your congregation or give you their name and where they are from. But some might, and the people who do are demonstrating that they are seeking a connection with a Christian community. Imagine interacting with them in the same way that you would reach out to the visitor to your church that not only fills out a guest card, but then stays after the service for coffee and fellowship in the parish hall. When newcomers do that, they are more than interested in your church community, and they have found something that makes them feel a sense of connection. Visitors who take the online connection a step further are saying the same thing.
3. Consider how online worship, formation, and fellowship can add to your congregation’s in-person services and gatherings.
Reaching out to online viewers can go well beyond worship. In fact, online viewers can engage in the ministry of your church in a variety of ways.
What if our online presence did not try to replicate exactly our traditional, in-person gatherings? Give yourself permission to consider your online audience separately from your in-person audience, and think beyond broadcasting live events to online-only bible study or formation groups. Taking this line of thinking a little further, are there aspects of the in-person liturgy that translate easily online, like sharing a recording of a worship song from your choir or musicians, or posting just the sermon recording?
Elevation Church in North Carolina began a ministry they call their online family long before the pandemic. Elevation’s global ministry includes online worship, as well as “the eFam”. Through their website, individuals from across the world can join small groups for bible studies, topical discussion, women’s groups, men’s groups, parent groups, and more.
As our congregations explore new ways for evangelism during the pandemic and beyond, can we find ways to offer our unique, Episcopal ministries online to people that may never visit our church? Can we form small groups online that anyone can join? Are we open to the possibility that real connections can be made with one another, the church, and with God using this new online medium?
- "Post-Emergency COVID Communications: How Episcopal Churches Can Adapt, Engage, and Thrive" - recorded webinar hosted by the CEEP Network
- "Beyond Analog: Digital Welcome and Evangelism" - recorded webinar hosted by the Diocese of Texas
- "Digital Literacy for Ministry Toolkit" - resources and recorded presentations from Virginia Theological Seminary to help lay leaders and clergy embody online the values of their faith traditions and communities
The diocesan office is planning an online forum to share resources and facilitate small group conversations about building engagement in your congregation’s in-person and online services. More information regarding topics and dates will be announced soon.
As always, the work that our congregants, our clergy, and our ministries are doing is humbling, and it is inspiring. We are honored to work alongside you as we all navigate this most challenging time. Know that the diocesan staff is always here for you, we love you, and we pray for you all!