What should we do about online church after the pandemic ends?

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If the government roadmap goes according to plan in England, churches will be able to fully reopen again from the 21st of June. During the pandemic, most of us have been providing online content for the many people who have been unable to attend our services in person. During that time, we have learnt that such online provision may be helpful longer term for two reasons.  First of all, there are many Christians who find themselves unable to attend church physically in person due to their circumstances, particularly around health.  Many have felt far more included than at any time.  Secondly, online provision has proved a useful opportunity for others showing an interest in Christianity to “dip their toe” in, to see what church is like and to hear something of the Gospel in a low pressure context.  So, this means that many of us are thinking about possible online content longer term. So how should we go about it? Here are my preferences and recommendations.

My first recommendation is that you don’t get carried away with things spending money on kit, appointing online pastors etc. That is likely to become disproportionate in the context of a local church. To be sure, there will be a specific local need for online church but that is likely to be significantly less than the need for in person content. You may get some interest from further afield but you need to keep asking yourselves “is that what we are here for?”  My own experience is that the appetite for significant online content to watch and participate with live has curtailed as thing have opened up.

My second recommendation is that once we are able to welcome everyone safely that you move away from live streaming the actual service. There are a couple of reasons for that. First of all, some churches won’t practically be able to do it because as renters they won’t have guaranteed access to reliable wi-fi.  Secondly, actually you do want to get the message across to Christians who are tempted to see church as a convenience thing that they are meant to be gathering with you in person. Thirdly, the experience of watching in on a service is different to being there and participating. That’s why we’ve tended to find that the way we’ve done online services is different to how we do in person services. This can be down to the detail of how you preach. 

Some churches have persisted with filming the bloke at the front of the church hall standing and preaching even with the room empty but I find when I watch that kind of thing it puts distance between me and the preacher and reduces communication. If I’m watching from home, I listen best when the person speaking mirrors my context, sitting in their living room and having a conversation. So, I would focus on Sundays on looking at how the church gathers in person.

An additional factor to consider is that unless you have invested heavily in mics and mixers, then it is one thing to stream recorded or live music projected from the front of the building simultaneously. It is another to try and capture the congregation’s singing and the fact that the congregation are singing will affect your recordings.

I think it may be worth some churches continuing to provide zoom links for specific people who find themselves housebound. This means the link isn’t generally available. It also means that there is potential for those people to interact with one another as well as watching the service. Why not provide a “zoom booth” in the building too so that people at church can drop in to it for a chat with those at home before the service and during coffee time after?

Note that when I talk about it being safe for us all to gather together that I don’t mean you should drop all live streaming after the 21st June. I think that it will take time for people to come back and there may still be some restrictions in place due to variants. So, I would phase it out over time. I’d also talk to congregation members and find out how ready they feel to return.

My recommendation would then be to focus on providing tailored content for people to interact with during the week separate to the church service. This may also provide content for people to engage with who have also been to your service or it may encourage enquirers to follow up with an in person visit.      This will help you to think about “what will people like to watch or listen to in their own homes?”

So, why not try running a weekly online event taking on a kind of day time TV/magazine show format. Focus on topics of interest, get a couple to host it, invite guests on to be interviewed (including people from the local community). During the pandemic, Sarah and I ran something called Afternoon Tea. We would chat a bit, include some (in our opinion) witty banter, review books, music, films etc and tackle a relevant topic. We had a variety of guests on including an elder who is also a senior and well known local medic, Jeremy Marshall giving his testimony about facing cancer, a campaigner for mental health on social media and our local director of public health.  I think that kind of thing will continue to work and help connect people in.

However, what I’ve increasingly realised is that when people are not shut in through lockdowns they need content for life on the go. I’d always assumed that video content was the way to go and had set up a YouTube channel as well as doing live stuff on Facebook. Didn’t video kill the radio star? Well actually no.  You see if you are driving, walking, getting on with some jobs, you don’t want to be looking at someone (definitely not at my ugly mug). I’ve found that there is actually a far greater appetite for audio stuff to listen to. So think about podcast versions of those interviews and conversations or short talks. You can even do longer expositions as I’ve found with #TheDailyDose.

Of course I’m making assumptions based on my own experience. The best thing to do in terms of content would be to ask people. Why not set up a survey that non members who have been engaging can fill in. Get church members to talk to their friends who have linked in too.

My other piece of advice is, keep it natural and don’t let it become a burden. That means don’t over prepare. I don’t write out the stuff I do in the week. With the Daily Dose, I just open my Bible and get talking about what the passage is saying.  The aim is to share your life with others not deliver an amazingly perfect performance (there’s real TV and radio for that).

Find enjoyment in what you are doing, listen to feedback from people about what they find helpful and most of all, whatever you do, do it to the glory of God.      

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