Rethinking digital - Why churches are reconsidering and recalibrating their live stream
Converge Northeast Regional VP & Associate Director
Communications & media
The time has come to rethink digital ministry, again. We invested countless hours and significant resources for digital ministry reacting to the challenges of the global pandemic. Initial metrics for Sunday streaming were off the charts. Then came the summer slump followed by a slow decline month by month.
As I spend time with pastors this is a constant conversation. While many churches are pressing on with what they’ve always been doing (since March 2020), most are experimenting with different approaches.
The elephant on the screen
Here is what is clear nearly 2 years into this new season for the church: digital expressions struggle to sustain full engagement. Before the digital doubters take a victory lap, read that again. If we center our energy on where our tools work best, we will foster a more fruitful and sustainable ministry. Here are two key values we need to consider.
1. Initial Engagement
Over a decade ago I surveyed new guests at our church. No surprise: every single one visited our website prior to a first visit. This reality is truer today than ever.
Personal invites always have the most effectiveness: neighbors reaching neighbors. But make no mistake, your personal invite will be followed by Internet sleuthing.
Here is where this gets real. Friends, some of our live streams are turning people away.
I recently attended the Northeast Leadership Summit where pastor David Whiting pleaded with leaders to reconsider the effectiveness of their live stream. You may have a warm atmosphere of worship where the vocals sound ok in the room, but does it translate well online?
And even if it is good, is it effective? We need to realize that digital is weak sauce in sustaining engagement, but it is hot sauce in initial engagement. Your online content is the appetizer nearly all potential guests engage with to consider stepping in deeper.
2. Extending engagement
Digital tools excel in extending existing engagement. We all use technology this way. You Facetime family, text friends, check in on social media, and if you are over 40, even call people on the phone.
Just before we were engaged my wife, Bethany, spent a year at Bible school in Canada. In the age of the land line phone, I used a calling card to connect. First, I dialed a 1-800 number, then a 16-digit code, then a pin, then the number of a shared pay phone on her dorm floor (and I often heard a busy signal and started over). Those phone calls we shared deepened our long-distance relationship in ways we still treasure today.
Today, we are all thankful to be done with 8 hours days on Zoom. That said, technology is invaluable for extending our relationships. Increasing the frequency small groups connecting, the effectiveness of boards and ministry teams, the accessibility of staff, and the awareness of the mission are all ways that digital ministry can foster health.
When we use the tools of technology to extend community rather than expecting them to sustain community our investment of time, talent, and treasure are well spent.
Paths forward digital for Sunday content
There are four paths forward to consider when it comes to the capture and distribution of your Sunday morning content.
1. Broad Sunday morning distribution
This is what most churches leaned towards in the beginning of the pandemic. Find us live on Facebook, YouTube, Church Online, our website and Myspace (ok, almost everywhere). If your church’s engagement is high and content is quality, then this is worth considering but I believe only a small percentage of churches should choose this option. You need to invest in your teams and dedicate significant resources to continually innovating.
2. Limited Sunday distribution
Increasingly this is a common practice even for some of the largest, well resourced churches. They are not hiding their Live Stream, but they are centralizing it and right sizing their focus and teams. Primarily I would encourage you to do this on the Church Online platform or perhaps YouTube. Facebook is designed for distraction, and I am increasingly convinced it is not the best place for full services to live. You will catch eyeballs as they scroll at 65 mph past your post.
3. Delayed on-demand distribution
This is the other leading model I see churches embracing. Releasing your sermon mid-week is the trend. Promote it. Encourage people to engage. Maybe include a song but maybe not 20 minutes of worship songs. This communicates the sacredness and importance of embodied worship without abandoning the opportunity of the web. What could you accomplish if you re-distributed the time and talent spent on live steaming to other digital endeavors?
4. Lean distribution
This sounds like the least effective path and if you do this merely as a protest, it might be just that. But if you step back and do less but better, you can see fruitfulness. Capture one solid sermon that you feature in video on your website. Update that once a year and call it a day. Audio podcast your messages. Release the hours and resources you are spending to other priorities in digital content.
Don't pitch a tent in the wilderness
No matter what you choose, make it a choice: for many of us having great photos with a sermon quote graphic every week would do more for us than mediocre video.
Yes, the time has come to rethink digital ministry, and this is just the next step. Let’s not go back to Egypt, but let’s also not pitch our tents in the wilderness. Steward well the context, people, and gifting that God has entrusted to you and your local church!
Andy Needham, Converge Northeast Regional VP & Associate Director
Andy Needham is a New England native who has spent the past two decades serving in ministry roles from church leadership, to nationally touring worship artist, to launching and leading conferences. He is the Associate Director for Converge Northeast, working to start and strengthen churches throughout the Northeast and beyond.