Zoom Fatigue and Falling Livestream Numbers? Expanding our Imagination about Online Church

If someone had asked me “Have you considered online church?” in January 2020, I would have said: “My church has talked about doing live streaming for a while, but we’re not there yet.” Well, the pandemic hit and we got there in three days. And now, not only are we live streaming worship, but we are also hosting Zoom meetings like pros. We even know how to use the breakout rooms and poll features!

We have certainly expanded our definition of ‘online church’ in 2020.

Old definition = Online church is live streaming worship.

New definition = Online church is live streaming worship, Zoom classes, and gatherings.

There are two underlying assumptions that go with this new definition of online church. First, we assume that online church is simply moving the programs we would typically do in the building to an online platform. Second, we assume this move online is necessary for now but it won’t really be needed when we can return to the building safely.

These assumptions are problematic if we introduce a third.

What if we assume the Spirit is up to something here?
God does seem to have a way of working through difficult situations to invite the church into new ways of being and doing (see the Book of Acts for reference, oh and the Pauline letters, too).

A common antidote among clergy is that they are reaching new people through their online offerings. The consensus, however, is that these new folks will never walk through the doors of a church building.

When the pandemic ends, if we put all of our focus and finances back again into getting people to come to the building for a few hours once a week, we will be turning our back on a population of people we have discovered who live on the internet and who are hungry for the good news but can’t stomach sitting in a pew.

The Holy Spirit is showing us through this pandemic that online church is a means of grace, a way through which God can and does work to change lives and transform the world.

Online church is not a substitute for church or a supplement to church, it is real church because real people are online and they really are interested in finding authentic communities where they can connect and deepen their spirituality and spiritual experiences.

If we fail to prioritize and resource online church, we fail our God-appointed mission. If we think of online church merely as a means to get people to come to our physical location, we fail our God-appointed mission.

So, what does prioritizing and resourcing online church look like? Here are three next steps you might take.

First, start talking about launching an online campus now.

If most of your conversations these days are about reopening your building safely and how to adapt old programs to work in this Covid-19 era, get a cautious, caring committee together and give this work to them. Create more space in your week for conversations about developing and sustaining a thriving online church.

Nona Jones is a pastor and thought leader on leveraging technology for ministry and she has outlined in excellent detail how to create a thriving online church in her book “From Social Media to Social Ministry.”

We have created a summary of the book that can generate discussion and next steps for your leadership team. Download the free PowerPoint presentation here.

Second, start asking different questions and begin to shift you and your team’s thinking about social media.

Most mainline churches treat social media as the bait to hook the fish and get them into the boat but social media is not the bait. Social media is the boat! Start viewing social media as the boat by asking “How do we create an experience that facilitates connection with and among people?” instead of “How do we get more likes?”

One platform that stands out from all the others as having the most potential for engaging people in digital discipleship is Facebook Groups. The platform offers space for genuine interaction and online learning. So far, I have not seen any Methodist churches using Facebook Groups in the way Jones describes in her book. We have become very comfortable with Zoom, which is good…but let’s not get too comfortable. We don’t want to one day find ourselves saying the familiar phrase heard in most churches: “We’ve just always done it that way.”

Third, start putting resources towards online church. This is a key point not to be missed. Online church is not simply starting a new Facebook Group one afternoon and seeing what happens. Starting an online campus is like starting a new physical location of your church. It requires people, strategic planning, time, and money.

Churches who will be thriving in five or ten years are those who are making room in their budgets to hire a “Digital Discipleship Director” right now. They are bringing a lay team together with people who 1) feel called to cultivate an online community for the purpose of inviting more people into deeper spiritual connection and growth, 2) are willing to try new things, learn and fail forward, 3) have gifts for communicating authentically through technology.

As Jones says, “Dying churches see their target population as the people in their pews. Thriving churches see their target population as everyone else.” Everyone else, she says, are living online (and she has the data to prove it).

Our ‘mission field’ is no longer just those who live within a three-mile radius of our building. The church has been forced to leave the building because of the pandemic and in leaving, we have arrived at a new vision for the church that is hardly new.

The church was never meant to be confined to a building.

Blair Thompson-White

Rev. Blair Thompson-White, Director of Leadership Ministry

Blair is from Norman, OK. Growing up, she spent a lot of time in the principal's office (waiting for her mother to finish her work for the day). Blair graduated from the University of Kansas with her B.A. in English and Communications Studies. After graduation, Blair became a teacher through Teach for America. She taught sixth and seventh grade English and coached girls basketball in Houston.

Blair attended Perkins School of Theology for her Master of Divinity degree. She has served as a pastor in a variety of settings, including small town Kansas, downtown Dallas, and most recently in suburban Richardson, Texas. She completed her dissertation on pilgrimage in the development of clergy leadership for her Doctorate of Ministry degree in Fall 2018. Blair joined the staff of TMF as the Director of Leadership Ministry in July 2020.