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The Importance of Affirming Online Engagement

And we are learning, most notably from the State of the Bible survey, that people who attend churches with both in-person and online service options have a more positive opinion of their church experience than attenders at churches with only one option. Those who attended both in person and online were most likely to strongly agree (44%) that their church services increased their desire to read the Bible. The same results were found when respondents were asked about whether church services increased their understanding of Scripture. Churches offering both online and in-person services found higher percentages strongly agreeing that, indeed, they had. The good news is that even after almost every church was back to meeting in person, Hartford Institute for Religion Research found in 2021 that eight in 10 US churches were continuing to provide hybrid services, offering both in person and online options.

People will choose based on their desired experience, readiness to surface physically, and, even among core members, how their week went. Rather than fight this change, embrace it. It will not prove helpful to elevate in-person attendance over online attendance, much less shame online attenders. The better and more strategic path is to embrace any and all engagement. As Carey Nieuwhof has written:

The hybrid-church model will simply become church. In other words, hosting church online and in person is just how you do church to reach the next generation.

People have lived in the slipstream of digital and in-real-life for well over a decade now, and church leaders will realize that church online is both a necessity and an opportunity.

It’s good that the debate over online church will fade into the background because then leaders can get on with the key task: Reaching people however they come to you—in person or online.

One of the most strategic decisions I made as a leader, and this was just prior to COVID, was to affirm that attending in person or online was attending. When COVID hit, this proved to be pivotal. Our experience has been that when you provide a combination of in-person and online experiences and events and give people the freedom to sample and choose, overall engagement goes up exponentially. At the time of this writing, our online campus is where, by far, the greatest number of people attend and the arena for our greatest growth. Our in-person weekend services are still running below prepandemic levels. Yet select in-person events—Christmas services, fall experiences—see record numbers. Being okay with that is critical to the new reality.

The goal is to become omnichannel, allowing individuals to connect online and offline seamlessly. In retail, becoming omnichannel involves driving traffic to stores through services like “buy online and pickup in store (BOPIS),” as well as offering “an expanded set of ship-from-store services.” As Dave Anderson has written, “An omnichannel approach to church would allow people to fully connect and engage with a church without the need to step inside a physical environment every week. They could attend one Sunday, listen to the message on podcast the following week, watch a live online stream the Sunday after, and catch the message on demand in a church app the week after that.”

He notes that this “shifts the church from a location-centric approach to an audience-centric approach that allows people to connect and engage with churches both digitally and physically.”

Every church should embrace the new reality: You have at least two campuses. One is physical…

… and one is digital.

This article originally appeared here and is used by permission.