Online Worship Post-Covid: Where Does Livestreaming Fit Now?
When the pandemic temporarily halted in-person worship services, churches turned to the internet for a handy substitute. Virtual gatherings were a blessing for congregations that already had livestreaming in place or could quickly access and master the technology. Worshiping together online provided comfort and unity during a challenging time for church members and leaders.
But what is the status of online worship post-Covid — or, rather, in a post-pandemic era with ongoing variants, fluctuating risk levels and emptier pews? Now that social distancing is (mostly) a distant memory, is there still a widespread need for online church? What untapped opportunities still exist for online religious services and events? And what obstacles do churches and faith leaders face as they plan programming options for the year ahead?
Exploring the Status of Online Worship Post-Covid
In many U.S. churches, the post-pandemic landscape features fewer in-person worshipers. For various reasons, some members never returned to the church building after Covid lockdown restrictions eased. Others grew comfortable with the habit of “attending” worship services online, sometimes connecting with churches physically located in other cities or states.
Professor Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, says, “Congregational dynamics are still in a state of flux” in the pandemic’s wake. In a new report about Covid-19’s impact on churches, Thumma cites evidence of “rebounding” and “recovery.” But he also points to ongoing uncertainty, which complicates the planning process for pastors and church leadership.
Another complication is that the pandemic isn’t the only factor in declining church attendance. According to the Pew Research Center, the drop in church attendance is also the result of America’s growing secularization.
Regardless of its cause, declining attendance can be tough to track when you’re counting virtual hits rather than actual heads. And numbers aren’t the only important factor. Discipleship, fellowship, outreach, engagement and accessibility all are vital, no matter the worship setting.
Why Some Churches Are Keeping an Online Option
For many congregations, the benefits of continuing virtual worship services outweigh any costs or time commitments. In fact, with livestreaming, most of the expense and work occur upfront. Once the equipment and processes are in place, it’s usually just a matter of delegating AV tasks and publicizing availability.
Here are five reasons pastors report they’re keeping online church in place for now:
1. Everyone is included.
Whether church members are ill, homebound, working on Sundays, traveling, away for military service or college, or away for any other reason, they can participate in worship virtually. No one is left out when virtual services are livestreamed or recorded for later viewing.
Streaming also allows congregants to hear weekly announcements and prayers — and to “attend” a service they normally wouldn’t. Traditional service worshipers can check out the contemporary service online, and vice versa.
2. Online options broaden your reach.
Many visitors and potential new members “church shop” online these days. By checking out previous services, visitors can see what to expect when they show up in person. In addition, you might reach people who would otherwise have no exposure to the gospel message.
Younger people, known as “digital natives,” spend large portions of each day online and on social media. They’re more likely to feel comfortable with online church options. Even if your church body or leadership skew older, don’t ignore the goldmine of digital ministry for younger generations.
“There’s a whole mission field in digital,” according to Jeff Reed of Thechurch.digital. “It’s unbelievable, the opportunities that we have to engage in dialogue with people in this space.” Looking ahead to the next decade, Reed says virtual reality will have huge potential for missions and outreach.
3. Virtual worship is great for a wide variety of contingencies and emergencies.
If inclement weather shuts down Sunday services, churches with livestream options can move worship online. The same is true if a new Covid outbreak emerges or if a natural or man-made disaster occurs, from fires and hurricanes to evacuations and lockdowns. People crave community and fellowship at such times. When that can’t happen in person, ready-to-go online options are a welcome substitute.
4. Online church activities promote engagement and fellowship.
People who have busy schedules or live across town might not be able to attend every Bible study session or committee meeting in person. But with livestreaming and Zoom calls, members can participate virtually from almost anywhere. Homebound or sick people won’t miss out on that week’s study or gathering when they can log in from home. Maintaining connections with all members is key to a thriving, growing community of faith.
5. Virtual services provide a reliable archive.
With YouTube and various cloud-storage alternatives, churches can save links to years of recorded services. Those come in handy for recordkeeping as well as for documenting major events and milestones. When your church celebrates a milestone anniversary, for example, the historian or archivist can easily access worship events from previous years.
Challenges of Keeping an Online Option
Other pastors and congregations question the need for ongoing livestreamed or recorded worship services. They wonder if resources could be better used elsewhere. They’re afraid of sending the message that regularly skipping in-person worship is acceptable. Or they sense that long-distance worshipers also feel distant from church life and their brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.
Concerns about active engagement and discipleship certainly are valid. Church leaders agree that worship and church life are participatory, communal endeavors. California Pastor Alfredo Ramos describes the extra hurdles of ministering to online congregants. “The challenging thing continues to go back to how we effectively measure discipleship among our viewers and help people take steps beyond just attending or consuming,” he tells Christianity Today. His church tries to keep people connected via small groups and offers regular updates about volunteering and giving opportunities.
California pastor Jay Kim offers this advice to church leaders pondering various types of worship settings. “Rather than simply offering content, we should focus on provoking action, both in person and online,” he writes at The Gospel Coalition. “Real joy arises when we unshackle ourselves from self-centric tendencies — which digital technologies amplify — and immerse ourselves in a larger story.”
As for the future of church services, some people predict that a virtual-only model might eventually replace the traditional building-focused concept. Others say a hybrid model is more likely, with a somewhat equal reliance on in-person and online worship and activities. “We need the digital, and we need the physical,” Jeff Reed says. “We need both of these for the Great Commission.”
No matter what form(s) worship takes at your church now or in the future, take time to assess the needs of a wide range of congregants and community members. Brainstorm ways to deepen the experiences and faith journeys of online-only attendees. And implement ideas for engaging all worshipers with the church, with Jesus and with one another.
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