Wednesday, June 24, 2020

People Say They’re Growing Spiritually During Online Church—Will It Continue?

By Warren Bird, Ph.D.

Have Christians grown in their faith during the recent “shelter in place” days when church buildings were closed?

The answer is YES, according to a recent survey of 2,948 Protestant churchgoers.

Pew Research compared two groups: those whose church pivoted to online services vs. those whose church didn’t offer online services. Those involved with churches that do offer weekly worship online are 13% more likely to say they’ve grown in their faith during this time.
Did the online worship cause spiritual growth? Not necessarily. But it’s fair to conclude that online worship is in some way associated with spiritual growth.

Online Worship Is Here to Stay – Even After the Pandemic

Most church leaders have decided that their commitment to quality online worship services must continue even after churches begin to re-gather in person (let’s avoid the term “re-open,” which wrongly implies that the church closed during the pandemic). Larry Osborne, pastor of North Coast Church and popular writer, calls this future a “both-and church.” Tan Seow How, a megachurch pastor in Singapore, says in his blog, “Churches now have two storefronts—physical and digital….The future belongs to churches who can do both online and in-person services well … [and] who can clearly differentiate the purposes, audiences, content and elements for both platforms.”

The most compelling reason I’ve heard for continuing a quality emphasis on internet services is evangelism. It’s not to keep people online, but to catch people when they are online! It’s an empowerment tool for followers of Jesus to help their friends check out their churches—a contemporary version of “show and tell.” Churches are also reporting that their online services are making geography irrelevant in their outreach: through online services, they can literally connect with people around the world.

The Next “New Normal” for Online Service Metrics

What you count and what you celebrate creates your culture. An earlier issue of this blog analyzed How to Measure Online Attendance. My main point was the importance of measuring engagement. Engagers participate by liking, commenting, sharing, subscribing, making decisions (salvation, baptism, new-here forms), donating, and more–and my earlier blow includes a list of ten examples of measurable actions that attenders can potentially make during an online service. These are responses you can count and celebrate.

Now I’d like to push further: online church enables you to measure (i.e., to “count” and “celebrate”) in ways that in-person church cannot measure as cleanly. Could these be ways that we can discern where and how the Holy Spirit is at work in the people we seek to serve? Consider these helps in digital discipleship:

Action to Take

Remember that relationship always trumps technology, as Church Anywhere’s Tyler Sansom says. “If you can have a relationship with 50 people online, you have more of a shot of ever getting them into your church facility, if they live close enough, than if you have no relationship with 5,000 people who each watch online for 3 seconds,” he explains.

If the goal is spiritual growth continue from online services, then I believe it will happen only if your online services and metrics “drive engagement” rather than “feed consumption,” as Carey Nieuwhof describes it here and here. Again, please see my list of 10 online church “call to action” engagement points in a previous blog. While there, see also the conclusion of that blog for how ECFA can help you!

P.S. Hat Tip: I learn from many scholars of religion. I found the research above in Ryan Burge’s recent article, Survey Shows that Faith Can Prosper in Online Services. Take a look at @ryanburge on Twitter. To track Pew Research’s findings on Twitter see @PewReligion.