How to be a better online church attendee

At the beginning of the pandemic, I bet you thought the coronavirus was a blip.

I know I did.

We weren’t alone in that opinion.

Thinking everything would soon be back to normal, many churches didn’t really try to do a good job of online church.

And, speaking from the pew, I didn’t really try to do a good job of attending online church: I got to my computer, more or less on time, and sat and watched while my minister preached to an empty sanctuary while I and the rest of my church watched from our homes.

Oh, sure, I did some things:

  • I said hello in the chat of our Facebook Live stream.
  • I clicked “Like” on the odd comment.
  • Let’s see … was there a third thing? No … I guess there wasn’t.

So, I did two things.

I could have gone to the virtual coffee time after church, but I didn’t because, hey, it was all going back to normal soon, right?

Right?

Well … maybe not.

Is online church the new normal?

An April 30, 2020 report from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy predicted that the pandemic would last between 18 and 24 months.

I guess COVID-19 isn’t the extended vacation it felt like last April when you got to feel cozy at home with baking and jigsaw puzzles. Now the virus is making us settle in for the long haul.

And even if you’ll be going back to physical meetings in 24 months, can your church survive two years of nothing? Can your fellowship stand two years of only “Likes” — from the 10% of your livestream audience who does that — and still be vibrant when it comes out of its bunker?

If all you do is “Like”, how many people will be in your sanctuary that first, post-pandemic Sunday?

COVID-19 has made your community more lonely

We used to call it “social distancing” in the early days of the pandemic. Then we rethought the term and changed it to “physical distancing”. But maybe “social distancing” was right all along. Because the pandemic has spread loneliness even deeper into the lives of your community.

Pre-pandemic, a 2019 Angus Reid poll reported that:

  • Only 14% of Canadians described their social life as “very good”.
  • 62% wished they could spend more time with friends and family.
  • A whopping one-third had no one to count on for financial assistance in an emergency.

And now In the age of COVID, a May 2020 Sun Life survey states that 56% of Canadians confess that life under the coronavirus is having a “negative impact on their mental health, with social isolation the top contributing factor.”

All this is happening at a time when access to care is lessened and the fear of stigma around mental illness is leading people to suffer in silence.

People are hurting as they hide among all of those silent people watching your church’s live stream. All those silent people in the digital dark.

Your online church can bring people together

How can your online church service make life less lonely for the majority who never leave a comment in your online service?

How can your live stream lift the spirits of its attendees? How can your online church service bring people closer together?

Rev. Stephen Fetter at Forest Hill United Church says, “the chit-chat ahead of [the church service] and afterward is as important as the worship …. It’s part of why [people are] there.”

And Allan Buckingham concurs. The media technology consultant in moving churches online says that chatting as the service is getting started “lends a comfort … a familiarity. You’re walking into a space where people are chatting already, and I think that makes a big difference. If we just had pre-recorded music … that’s a whole different experience than when you come in and there’s some liveliness … people are eavesdropping in on that. They’re not really participating, but they are [in a way] …. That kind of friendly, chill atmosphere as people are gathering goes a long way.”

Here is what to do to warm up your online church

I’ll start with the most important thing first.

Have a host for your live stream

One French word for “host” translates to “animator”. If your service has an animator, you can bring the fellowship alive before — and after — the service.

Have someone besides your pastor host the live stream. Start before the official time for the service, and welcome people as you see the number of devices grow beside the “eye” icon on Facebook Live. There is a ton of content you can share to help people feel welcome:  

Ask people to say hello and tell where they’re watching from.

  • Respond to the commenters by name.
  • Inquire about the weather where they are.
  • Share an interesting fact about a hymn in the service.
  • Whet their appetite for the sermon.
  • Take a survey — polling ability is built right into Facebook Live.
  • Point them to your church’s website to get on your email list.

And if your church doesn’t have an official animator, you be the animator by stepping up in the chat and talking people up.

Reward people who come in out of the dark

The first time a new person comments is a special moment for your congregation. “Like” their comment. Reply to it with a “Hello, it’s so nice to have you here today.” The first comment from a new person that stands by itself with no one “Liking” it doesn’t encourage a second one.

Have every device in your home connected to the live stream

The number beside the word “LIVE” on your Facebook Live stream reflects how many devices are connected to it.

If you were hopping around on a Sunday morning looking for an online service, would you rather visit a church with 36 devices watching — or 136?

Which feels more like a good investment of your time? Certainly, many households watch the service from one device, but having several devices in your home connected to the live stream reveals the true number of people in attendance.

Show up early

In my church-growth workshop, I emphasize that the most important time for connecting with newcomers is the five minutes before and after the service.

If you want a warmer fellowship, come early.

And when you do come early, don’t sit in the silence. Participate in the discussion. Call out to others. If someone on camera asks a question, answer it. If they put up a poll, participate.

Consider that your worship leaders are talking alone before a camera; for them, it can feel like playing handball against a curtain if you don’t respond.

Stay after the service

Chatting before a service might be understood as killing time while waiting for church to begin.

That would not be Jesus’ opinion.

Listen: Christ is in your midst as soon as the second person comes into the live stream. That is the church service just as much as the sermon or hymns.

Want to really blow the minds of the visitors to your Facebook Live stream?

Stay after church is over and continue to chat on Facebook.

What a message of caring and community that sends!

Seed the chat beforehand

Before the live stream, arrange to dialog with some people during the stream. Your comment might look like this: “Hey, everybody, how was the rain for you on Friday? Keisha Jackson, did your tomato plants survive?” Keisha might then share a picture of her plants from her phone.

Does someone in your congregation have some good news? Graduate from high school? Learn to drive? Become a citizen? Before Sunday, ask them if you can share it. I guarantee they’ll attend that live stream service.

Ask open-ended questions

Open-ended questions have the words “how”, “why”, “in what way”, and sometimes, “what”. You can visit the social media pages of people at church to see what they’re thinking about and then create a question to all, such as:

  • “Students — what class are you looking forward to at school?”
  • “Hey everybody, what was the best part of your Saturday?”
  • “Is it just me, or are everyone’s appliances acting up?”

Turn yourself into human glue

Back when my church met physically, I would get up from my pew before the service and go over to complete strangers to welcome them to our church.

It wasn’t easy the first time.

My negative self-talk was fierce.

“Don’t do it! This isn’t cool!”
To which I would tell myself, “Actually this looks really confident, which is way cooler than doing nothing.”

“Who do you think you are?”
“I’m someone who thinks church should be a friendlier place.”

“Nobody else is doing this!”
“That’s true. And that’s why loneliness is an epidemic.”

“What if everybody did this?”
“Well, that would be wonderful.”

In these early days of online church, I’ve got the same negative self-talk in my head. But I know I will get past my fears and discover that welcoming visitors to our online service will be the highlight of my week.

So much so, I’m planning our first, virtual, New Member Sunday.

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