We are finally, slowly coming out of lockdown. More importantly, hopefully it’s our last lockdown. Churches and Houses of Worship are welcoming people back into their buildings, and soon for those that use music as part of their worship, we may all be allowed to sing inside again! With all this happening, we are also seeing a drop in people watching our services online or listening in to the phone line. So some are starting to ask if it’s worth keeping this going for the few, if any, that are now attending the live stream service.
If you’re wondering if you it’s time to end your live streaming subscription and go back to all in-person services a la 2019, there are a few reasons we think you should consider the longer term impact of a hybrid church model.
Measure how your congregation feels about coming back into church
An early question you might want to ask is: do people want to come back into a building yet? Some people may be desperate to get back into the building and see people face to face, worshipping corporately with others again in the flesh. But others may be feeling a bit nervous about this and want to wait a little longer before they start going out too much in public again.
Still more might have preferred the convenience of digital worship.
Would ending your online services end up alienating any of your current congregants?
Measurement is a key to understanding your church over the next few months. If you continue to offer in-person and online services, keep track of how the attendance fluctuates for at least 6 months so you can have real data across different seasons that shows how your congregation behaves with the option of both online and in-person offerings.
Consider where you see your church headed in the next 1-5 years
The first question must be what is your Vision for your church? What are your aims for the future and how do you think you may get there? How does being able to stream help or hinder?
If you want to continue growing your church attendance, and reaching those who are less inclined to attend in-person services (or who travel frequently), continuing to offer virtual services is still a part of that growth and retention.
Take stock of your church demographics
Demographic obviously means many things, one big meaning within a church context is age. What is the average age of your congregation? A survey produced by the Church of England and documented in their Statistics for Mission, 2019 (written September 2020) shows that 33% of regular worshippers are aged 70 and over. These are the people who may have had the greatest difficulty in accessing church in its online form, but who may have benefitted from being able to call a number and listen to a live service.
This group may also be the ones who are the keenest to get back to in-person services. Something to consider with this group though is, what about later in the year, when the weather gets colder and wetter and darker.
How do you reach your congregation in times of illness, holiday, weather, and other life complications?
How accessible is your church building? Will this group of people struggle to get to church at any point? Do they go back to just missing weeks of services if they are unable to get there due to accessibility issues or illness that prevents them from going out for a little while? Or is your church in a rural location where if you get heavy rain or snow or any other bout of weather no one can get to it? What then?
Have you gained or lost members and how many more could you gain or lose?
Reports vary from congregation to congregation on this. Some churches report how they have lost members of their church family during this pandemic due to them not being able to access the services online, or not ‘connecting’ with the services at home, amongst some of the reasons. Other churches have reports on how their congregations have increased, in some cases doubling or tripling in size since they moved online.
Due to its nature, if you have been live streaming your service, people can access that stream whenever they like and from wherever they like. People in Japan and New Zealand can join in with a service in the UK either as it is live, or at whatever time suits them. Members who have work on a Sunday morning and so quite often would miss the in-person service, can now watch it whenever they get home.
Many clergy have stories of how people who have been struggling during the pandemic and started searching for answers have found their church on YouTube or Facebook and slowly become part of the family. These are people who may never have actually put a foot into a church pre-pandemic, and may still not be comfortable doing so if the service moves back to in-person only.
What is the financial impact of live streaming: positive or negative
Like the majority of people and businesses, churches have taken a hit financially during this pandemic. Congregations not meeting in person means no collection plate. Lots of people have found it harder to talk about charitable giving over the last year when so many people have lost jobs or have been living off reduced pay.
Stopping streaming or stopping your phone line could help with your deficit but keeping them going may also help in the long run. There are plenty of ways you can encourage your online congregation to give if they can afford it through an online giving page, your own website or phone number.
Streaming doesn’t have to be expensive, there are many streaming services that offer part of it for free or at low rates. You can still use your mobile phone on a stand if you don’t have any other equipment, or there are companies that offer packages for streaming equipment to fit budgets big and small.
Evaluate the outreach you do online that you can’t do in-person
As I’ve previously mentioned, some churches have found that they have had new people join them during the pandemic. Some of these people may not have ever stepped into a church, but with so many churches live streaming now they have found you, started to make a connection with you, but still for whatever reason would not want/be able to come into your building for an in-person service. Keeping your services online has the potential to reach a whole new group of people. You could start an online only service at a different time of day or on a different day altogether to reach those people.
What about house groups/small groups? As life opens up and gets busier again for many numbers may drop off for these groups. If people can join in from wherever they are though they may keep coming.
These are just a few points to consider. Before you decide, think about them, talk about them but ultimately make the choice that is right for you.