If approached incorrectly, online church might actually be a distraction for your church. Church online can stunt your church’s impact if you don’t manage it correctly. Before you send me hate mail or decide that you’re no longer going to read my posts, please know that I have been involved in church online since 2009. Over the years I’ve spent an incredible amount of time, effort and money on making online church work, and I speak from a place of experience with both failure and success in this area.
We spent several years trying to figure out how to connect live video (or at least simulated live video) to a chat room so that we could minister to people digitally. A funny thing happened in 2015 when Mark Zuckerberg and his team at Facebook developed Facebook Live. This innovation, undoubtedly, made it much simpler for many churches to provide an online church experience to their guests, which was great because too many of us were spending too many resources trying to develop our own online platforms. While I’ve heard some interesting stories about churches that made somewhat of an impact, for many churches online church can become more of a distraction to our calling to build local churches where people meet face-to-face.
Before your church jumps headfirst into church online, or if you’re questioning whether your current investment of resources is worth it, here are five reasons why I believe church online might be a distraction to your church’s vision.
Does it move people toward community?
At its core, the tension within church online is achieving the movement of people from anonymity to community.
When we first started playing with the church online world, we had chat rooms where users could make up their own usernames. At the time I remember struggling with how we were going to help someone with the username “FancyBear213” become a fully devoted follower of Christ. If someone couldn’t even identify themselves with their own name and profile picture, how were we going to move those anonymous contacts into community with each other and get them plugged in?
Now granted, the folks at Saddleback Church have done an incredible job developing online community groups. You should study them and learn from how they are making that happen. Even so, most churches experience online groups as an anonymous mass. I’ve also seen churches count the attendance at church online in the same way that we count heads on Sunday mornings. However, there is a significant difference between counting IP addresses or “seven-second watch-times” and the people who come in person and actively participate in our communities.
I’ve written so much about how difficult it is to move people from sitting in a seat to plugging them in. This is a struggle we’ve all shared. How much more difficult is it then to move someone from the anonymous space of their phone or laptop to connecting with others in “real” life? There isn’t a clear path, and investing time, effort and energy at this point would be a waste of your resources.
At the same time, there are people attending your live services today, the old-fashioned Sunday morning crowd sitting in rows, who also aren’t plugged into community. Work harder at what could be a real growth opportunity in your “IRL” services.
Online tends toward amalgamation.
In the end, there will probably be one or two very large online church presences. There aren’t hundreds and thousands of online retailers; there’s Amazon. There aren’t thousands of places to stream shows and movies; there’s Netflix. There aren’t hundreds of incredibly popular, niche search engines; there’s Google. The same is bound to happen with church online. The drive of the Internet is to reward a few very large content and community providers. The network effect takes over and those providers with the largest communities win in the end.
Over time, some churches will figure out how to use this medium for outreach, but chances are it’s not going to be your church or my church. The contenders could be churches like Saddleback, or North Point, or Life.Church. These churches are indeed doing incredible work already, but the reality of it is online media tends to amalgamate into one or two very large, dominant leaders. The way that Amazon, Netflix, Google and a myriad of other online sectors have narrowed down to one or two leaders will also happen with church online.
On a Sunday morning sometime soon, take the opportunity to scroll through different online church experiences. What do you notice? They’re all very similar; they’re not differentiated from each other. Over time, what happens in an undifferentiated market is some player ends up becoming more dominant through significant differentiation. Every other player in that market offers a “commodity offering” while a single player or two stand out with above average differentiated offerings and gain the majority of the mindshare. Today we might not see a clear leader, but I believe that over time one will emerge.
Instead of focusing on how you can outdo some other large church on the other side of the country, consider how you can attract people who live within the vicinity of your church to come and attend. In fact, the act of trying to differentiate online could take you away from the value of reaching people in your own area.