In March 2020, churches around the world scrambled to shift their physical services to digital streaming platforms in just a matter of days, as the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear and governments restricted public gatherings.
Discussions about the validity, opportunity and threat of Online Church, along with the lack of technological expertise or appropriate equipment were fast-tracked – enabling many churches to present their first digital expressions of their weekly services.
In the following weeks churches ensured their congregations knew where to go and how to access the live-streams, service elements were tailored to ‘studio’ recordings and a home audience, and finally pastors strategised about how to engage participants with the next steps of discipleship.
So, the following thoughts are written, assuming that you’ve made the jump to online (if not, that certainly doesn’t stop you from continuing to read).
Congratulations for doing so! You probably enjoyed a moment of relief after the first few weekends knowing that you’d actually done it!
Your congregation were joining in. They were inviting some of their friends that would never have stepped foot inside your church building. People were making decisions to follow Jesus. Some expressed interest in joining your online small groups midweek.
What you pulled off in incredibly challenging and confusing circumstances was no small feat.
In the elation of actually getting your services online, you may not have had the chance to consider how the nature of the digital platform you selected, is shaping that gathering. The technical term for this is “media ecology”.
It’s the thought that the medium of communication has the ability to change the message being communicated.
Here’s an extreme example to make the point. Consider the difference between reading an 80,000-word PhD thesis published in an esteemed journal and the same theory, published in blocks of 140 characters on Twitter.
The medium of the communication changes the audience demographic, the reach, the spread, the vocabulary, perception of authority, the ability to converse etc.
Here’s the point…
So, your church services are online (or nearly there) – but what influence does the digital platform you’ve chosen have on the expression of your service and those engaging with it. Whether you’re streaming on YouTube, Facebook, a dedicated software such as Church Online Platform or Brushfire Online or perhaps even Instagram Live – the medium is changing the message.
So how do you know if you’re using the best platform to stream your services?
First, you’ve got to appreciate the differences between these platforms, including their strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately who it is you are trying to reach. Here’s a brief snapshot of the most popular options from Hillsong Church’s perspective:
– 2.6 billion monthly active users. That’s one third of the global population within your reach.
– Primarily reaches an older generation as younger generation (under 25s) have switched off Facebook.
– Incredibly easy for congregation to share about their church services in a non-threatening or invasive way.
– Ability to notify your followers when you are live.
– You go to there to “scroll” and find interesting things, not necessarily to hang out for 90 minutes. It’s also full potential distractions and notifications.
– Naturally has a “comment culture”, but users may be surprised that hosts are actually available and want to “chat”.
– Ability to see who of your friends are watching with you at the same time or invite them to “watch parties”.
– The least reliable of the platforms. Stream may drop out randomly and no chance of getting support.
– It is the second largest internet search engine (after Google obviously) which makes it easier to be found with digital evangelism through Search Engine Optimisation.
– Ability to notify your subscribers when you are live.
– Don’t need to have an account to view the service.
– People are used to going there to watch content for extended periods of time so increases the time viewers stay.
– Has an established “chat” culture of discussing content while watching but still difficult to “pastor” people.
– Real mix of people watching – you never know who might show up, or where they are on the discipleship journey.
YOUR WEBSITE / CHURCH ONLINE PLATFORM
– Here you can make it feel like your congregation are coming “home” to join the service.
– It’s where the majority of the “members” of our congregation feel most comfortable participating amongst “family”.
– Directed there specifically from the church’s website.
– Growing “chat” culture that is perceived as safe space.
– Longest watch times by far.
– Most effective at enabling people to follow instructions to take action (e.g. make a decision for Jesus, ask for prayer, join a small group etc).
– Ability to seamlessly integrate with digital giving/donation tools.
– Dedicated software support teams to help fix any issues you experience.
– The newest and most experimental of all the options.
– We see it as “missional opportunity” where people might get a glimpse of what’s on offer as a seed for the future where they engage on other platforms.
– Only reaches people following your account.
– Hardest to engage and pastor people and short watch times.
Perhaps now you can appreciate the influence that each platform has on the effectiveness of your online services and determine that perhaps you need to switch over to a different option, either just during COVID-19 or to achieve your long-term goals.
But which platform is best for your church?
The answer is… all of them.
Thankfully delivering your online church services through any of these platforms is relatively inexpensive, and subject to raising the volunteers that can setup and pastor the participants for each platform, it’s a very real possibility to be present across all of them in the near future if desired.
But why all of them?
…because each platform does a fantastic job at reaching a specific type of person, that likes hanging out in a specific (digital) place and that is comfortable with a specific level of engagement.
Your service on Instagram Live can reach people that would never have ‘set foot’ inside your church’s website platform, and your service on YouTube can reach people that closed down their Facebook account years ago. How exciting!
Rather than purely seeing the job as being done because you have a singular digital church expression, consider ‘planting’ new digital congregations in new digital places, that reach new digital communities.
We’ve already likened a digital church service on your own church website or church online platform as being similar to your own dedicated permanent church facility. Therefore, creating a community on Facebook or YouTube is like renting a local cinema in your neighbourhood. It’s a place they are familiar with the rest of the week, doesn’t have negative connotations in their mind and feels like a safe space to try out an unfamiliar expression of “church”.
It’s unlikely that any one digital platform is sufficient to reach your whole congregation plus the friends they want to invite along too. So perhaps the next campus that you plant from your church, shouldn’t be a physical one but a digital one.
Let’s embrace the Great Commission and not just go to all cities and nations, but all digital platforms!
You can find more helpful resources from the Hillsong Leadership Network on the subject of Online Church here.