2020 was the beginning of church online for us at VOUS. I know, we’re late to the party. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, VOUS had never streamed a service live online. Quarantine sent us into this new world unprepared and disoriented. But we worked quickly to get our bearings and learn a completely new way of doing church. We still have lots to learn, but one (rather obvious) lesson we learned early on was that church online is different to church in person, and we need to approach them differently. The goal of church online is not to replicate an in-person experience on a digital platform, it is to create a new experience uniquely designed for that space.
My guess is you have had your fair share of challenges over the past year. Every year comes with its difficulty. That fact isn’t going anywhere. But the unprecedented nature of the past year has reminded all of us that things can change quickly. We cannot take for granted that things will continue to be the way they always have been. In fact, the only thing we can be sure of is that things will change. How or when they change is the part that will always come as a surprise. I’m not sure what your particular challenges have been, but my hope is that some of the lessons we have learned recently will be helpful to you as you tackle the challenges that come your way.
Here are four things we have learned over the past year about doing church online.
1. Keep It Consistent
Consistency has always been important for church in person. But the digital space can make change easier and more enticing, and being unsure of our strategy and the tools at our disposal can cause us to shift and change frequently. Consistency is just as important for church online. People need to know what to expect from you. They need to know where and when to find you—which platforms you’ll be on and when your services will stream. Consistency creates confidence. Inconsistency creates uncertainty. If you are not consistent, you will undermine your online audience’s confidence in your church. If they are unsure of what to expect from you, they may not be willing to put in the extra effort to keep up with the changes.
2. Speak To Your Audience
One easy mistake to make with church online is to continue doing what you’ve always done for church in person. After all, you may have spent years developing the language, systems, and programming for your in-person experience. Not only is that difficult to rebuild for a new domain, those habits are hard to break. You may find yourself saying things that used to be relevant but no longer make sense. Saying “How are you feeling this morning?” doesn’t make sense when you are streaming to different time zones simultaneously and making the service available for playback later on. “Light up the chat” tells people you are aware of who they are and how they’re joining you. You have to customize your language to your audience. If you’re new to it like we are, this will take effort and intentionality. You are going to have to plan, prepare, rehearse, and catch yourself again and again. In your online program, share stories that are relevant to a global audience. When you talk about giving, focus on your global impact. It may take some getting used to, but it is well worth the effort.
3. Build An Online Community
For church in-person, we never settled for singing songs and preaching messages. It was always our goal to create a community of people who were connected to one another in relationship. So why would we settle for any less online? The win for us is not just maximizing our peak stream count (the highest number of viewers for a given stream), it is creating a place for people to get connected to our church and one another online. It’s the same play in a new era.
One way we have worked to do this at VOUS is through our team of moderators. Moderators are servant leaders (volunteers) who are scheduled to join an online service at a particular time. They are provided with a playbook of what information to share and how to interact with people in our chats. They are there to maintain the culture of our church during a service, answer questions people may have, offer information on next steps, and filter spam and abusive content. This is the team that ensures people don’t just hear a song or a sermon on a stream but are invited into a community of real people who know their name and are here to serve them.
4. Follow Up & Follow Through
In order to get people connected to your community, you have to be crystal clear on what those connection points are and how people can take the next step. Often in the church world we put so much effort into crafting what we are going to say to people that sometimes we forget to consider and communicate what we would like them to do. So you’ve worked on your content for your stream. You know what the worship songs and sermon points will be. But what is the call to action for your audience? What would you like people to do in response to what they have just experienced? People are looking for next steps. They are tuning in because they want to grow closer to God, strengthen their faith, and deepen their devotion. After the stream ends, what do you offer that can help them do that?
Here are some of the next steps we provide:
— Fill out a Connect Card
— Join a VOUS Crew (small group)
— Attend Growth Track
Like everything you do, the way you do church online will be unique to you. No one can do it quite like you can. There is endless room for creativity and innovation. It is an exciting time to be the church! I hope these tips are helpful to you as we all continue to learn and grow in this area. Trust me, you’re doing better than you think you are. God is with you. He has prepared and empowered you for this very moment. Trust him to lead you every step of the way. You are a crucial part of the bigger story God is writing in history. Lean into the possibilities and face the challenges head on. You got this!