Beginning with the governor’s “stay-at-home” order months ago, most churches in the Michigan Conference became multi-site campuses. Churches moved from in-person Sunday morning worship services to hosting them virtually — either using Facebook, YouTube, Zoom or another digital platform. Worship seemed to change overnight.
Since March 2020, churches have alternated between exclusively online worship to a mix of online and limited in-person worship. A few churches hosted online services before COVID-19 but most did not. Churches have learned and applied new technology, purchased equipment, opened YouTube channels and trained people to provide a quality worship experience in an entirely new way. Almost all churches report attendance at in-person worship services is a fraction of what it was before.
Nevertheless, churches, pastors and worship teams have risen to the challenge of a steep learning curve.
After navigating technology and establishing new virtual campuses for worship as well as for small groups, meetings and fellowship, what are the next best practices as churches move forward?
- Continue with online worship and small groups as options when COVID restrictions are lifted. Some people may have discovered they prefer at-home worship and will continue even after people feel safe being in larger crowds. Churches shouldn’t consider the online worship as a stopgap until everyone comes back to church, as that’s unlikely to happen. Consider your online worship as here to stay.
- Transition to an ongoing multi-campus ministry. View online worship and virtual small groups as campuses or satellites centered around a central in-person one. Continue to provide ways people in both congregations can connect to the church and grow in discipleship and service. See this helpful blog: Learn How Your Church Can Worship Both Online and In-Person in Innovative Ways.
- Find ways to develop relationships with your online campus. Online worship can provide worship, gathering and education, but what about the relational aspect of a worshipping community? Relationships are an important part of spiritual life. Many churches have initiated a “house church” model, which provides an opportunity to build relationships.
Wikipedia defines a house church as: “a label used to describe a group of Christians who regularly gather for worship in private homes. The group may be part of a larger Christian body, such as a parish, but some have been independent groups that see the house church as the primary form of Christian community.”
One church I am familiar with hosts seven house churches with one meeting remotely from India.
A member moved away from home to college this past September. She worshipped with the online campus the first week she was away, then thought of the “house church” option. By the next Sunday, she gathered with eight other students and worshipped along with the online service. Afterward, they discussed the questions about the message provided by the pastor and followed their discussion with prayer.
For more information on house churches, read the blog by Ed Stetzer.
Relational connections with the online congregation might be more difficult, but that connection is crucial for people to remain active in worship and grow in faith and service. The church planting organization ABWE posted a blog discussing ways that churches can create multiple touchpoints. The Indiana Conference UMC published an article titled, Tips for Discipleship and Social Distancing.
- Follow up with first-time and repeat guests. Many churches use a digital connection card. Develop a connection card using an embeddable web form available from Google or Jotform. Every week, invite your online congregation to complete the card. Here is a sample from Valley UMC in Allendale and First UMC, Northville. Monitor attendance of your online congregation. Just as you might notice when someone misses your in-person worship, take the time to notice who is missing your online worship. Check the connection cards, as well as Facebook or YouTube likes.
- Quality counts, even more so virtually than in-person. If the only camera is in the back of the sanctuary, making the pastor or other worship leaders look very small, find a way to install another camera closer to the front. Check the sound to avoid muffled speech and determine the correct volume. Make sure there is adequate lighting to provide clear viewing. These are relatively inexpensive investments but will provide a much better experience for the online congregation. Watch these two videos about online worship, the first by Jason Moore, titled Telling the Old Story in a New Time and Ready to Launch (R2L) by Cathy Townley.
- Make the online campus worship service shorter. Studies show that a 45- to 50-minute worship service is ideal. It works best if you resist playing back your recorded in-person service. Instead, tailor the service for a wider audience. A leading voice in equipping the church for creative worship, Jason Moore, writes, “Consider that some visitors won’t be familiar with United Methodism or Christianity. Explain the parts of worship as you go, and assume not everyone knows words like doxology, prelude and sacrament.”
Moore also urges churches to adapt. “Find ways to make the service more interactive and participatory. For example, the pastor or worship leader can respond out loud in real-time to comments in the live chat. Or people can text their prayer requests, and the pastor can pray for those requests right away. You have the opportunity to make people feel even more cared for and heard during the livestream service than when meeting in-person.”
- Offer online Bible studies and small group experiences to draw the online congregation into the life of your church. A significant part of our spiritual growth comes through a clearly thought-out discipleship process. Determine ways your church includes options for growth or training for the online congregation.
The United Methodist Church, through Discipleship Ministries, offers small group resources as well as help with developing a discipleship system.
- Treat your online campus with as much intentionality as you treat your in-person one. The online campus is not an afterthought. In preparing for worship, think through the entire service to determine what parts need to be communicated differently. Pastors and worship leaders should regularly watch their posted worship services. Watch with an eye to how parts of worship actually translate to this new campus and ask for feedback.
Most people are disappointed that we’re still unable or uncomfortable resuming in-person worship. However, providing the online opportunity helps your church reach out to more people than ever.
A pastor I know said he was approached by a man while shopping at the local grocery store. “You’re my new pastor,” the man said. “I’ve been worshipping at your church online for the past eight weeks. I saw it on Facebook once, watched it and now attend every week.”
Develop a strong campus, a campus without walls, to reach more people with the love of God through Jesus Christ. Online ministry is one more way to reach more people, younger people and more diverse people.
Dirk Elliott is director of Congregational Vibrancy in the Michigan Annual Conference.