Church Revitalization Podcast – Episode 51

In this episode of the podcast, we’re sharing the webinar we presented on boosting online engagement. You can watch the video of the full webinar on YouTube, stream the podcast audio below, or subscribe.

March 15, 2020 was the beginning of what might best be described as The Great Disruption. The world changed about as fast as Thanos’ snap, and we’ve been charting a new course for the future ever since.

Half of all churches (49%) have declined since the beginning of the Great Disruption—even when combining their in-person and online audiences, according to Barna. Nearly a quarter of all churches are down significantly.

Nearly half of pastors report that building a hybrid (online/in-person) ministry paradigm is one of the biggest challenges their church is facing right now.

To be honest, many pastors are in denial. I regularly encounter churches and church members who think everyone just needs to get over it and go back to normal. 

The flaw in this is the assumption that what was “normal” was working. Let’s be honest. It wasn’t.

We say it a lot on our team, but a crisis doesn’t create problems: it exposes them. The world was already skewing digital, and most churches were tragically behind in adapting to the digital world. Even “big” churches were missing the mark on what defines a “good” digital strategy.

Others have suggested that The Great Disruption is a good thing—a proverbial sheep from the goats moment. They suggest that the losses churches are experiencing are simply shaking out of the True Church. Someone commented something akin to “good riddance” on a recent social media post about church decline recently.

And while God promises that our faith will be tested, your job as a pastor isn’t to be fatalistic. We have a mission from God to go and reach your community with the good news of God’s grace and forgiveness.

Let God be the Judge. You need to be the missionary.

Today, that’s our simple goal in this training. We want to help your church be on-mission when you’re on-line, so that your church can make and mature more disciples.

You’ll learn five key strategies to boost your online engagement, and finally begin to bridge that gap between online and in-person ministry.

Strategy 1: Determine Your Measure for Success

Here’s a simple truth: you cannot boost what you do not measure!

One of the foundational reasons churches are struggling with their online engagement is that they haven’t defined what successful engagement looks like.

Imagine for a minute that you said you wanted to get healthy. Healthy could mean a lot of things to different people. What specifically do you mean by getting healthy? Do you want to achieve a certain weight? Are you aiming for a target BMI? Are you defining health simply by how you feel? Is it measured by how many glasses of water you’re drinking or steps you’re taking? Maybe you think health is determined by your cholesterol numbers, or your blood pressure, or your resting heart rate.

There are hundreds of health metrics. All of them have their uses. But to simply say, “I want to be healthy” without putting any boundaries our definition to that statement, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Likewise, if your church has chased five disconnected metrics for online engagement, or worse, you haven’t selected any specific metrics at all, you are set up for failure.

There is no one best metric for online engagement, but there are bad ones. 

Here are two bad metrics for online engagement:

  1. Video views
  2. Video impressions

Attendance online is better termed “Attention”, and Attention can be bought. (We’ll circle back to this later). Imagine being able to pay $10 dollars per Sunday, and 1,000 people would at least poke their head into your building for three seconds. On Facebook, this what boosting your videos literally does. 

So when you track impressions (how many people were exposed to your worship service) or views (how many people “poked their head” into your online service for at least three seconds), at best, you’re getting a skewed view of who and how many people are engaged with your service.

Instead, choose a metric that shows a person took a step towards discipleship.

Let’s walk through three examples of metrics that show progress towards discipleship:

  1. Target # of new people start a Facebook Messenger conversation

    We’ll talk more about this later, but you can use a native service within Facebook to make connections with newcomers rather than sending them off-Facebook to fill out a form. Targeting a certain number of new connections each week would show that people didn’t just watch your service, they took a step towards deeper engagement.
  2. Target # of new people fill out a Digital Connection Card hosted on your website

    Similar to the first example, except this option uses an off-app form. This is a helpful option when you don’t want to have a Digital Connection Card for Facebook and a different one for YouTube or Church Online, etc.
  3. Target % of people who filled out Digital Connection Card register for Online Growth Track

    This really shows movement! This measure assumes that you’re already gaining momentum in collecting Connection Cards, and now you’re wanting to get them to take a step towards commitment.

It’s important to set a Critical Number. This is the one number you choose that indicates positive progress. However, it doesn’t mean it will be your only number that you track. For example, we may find a correlation between more people filling out a Digital Connection Card with an increase in average watch time.

Just like you can track lots of “health” numbers (weight, BMI, number of ounces of water you drink, number of steps), you’re better off choosing ONE critical number and letting any other metrics support your efforts in chasing the one goal. For example, reaching my 10,000 daily steps helps me accomplish my weight-loss goal.

Bonus tip: your Critical Number might be a “lag” measure (something that either did or didn’t happen). Pair that Critical Number with a “lead” measure (something you can influence in real-time). For example, your Critical Number might be to collect 5 Digital Connect Cards per week (lag), paired with a target of averaging 15 comments per service (lead).

Strategy 2: Maximize Your Platforms

Once you know what your Critical Number is, you need to maximize your platforms to achieve that Critical Number.

Each online platform is a bit different and has their strengths and challenges. For the sake of this training, we are going to talk through three common platforms that are free and open to any church and have a social element: Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.

I recognize that a lot of churches are using things like the Church Online platform or others, and you may be streaming your services ONLY on your website and not on social media. I do not think this the majority, but I am aware that this is the case for some.

A year ago, we would have told you that your website is your church’s digital front door. 

That’s still true.

It’s the part of your church that people can find when they are Googling for churches, or when they are digitally browsing. There are still instances where your website will be a person’s first encounter with your church.

If your website is the front door, social media is the kitchen door. And The Great Disruption turned everyone into Kimmy Gibbler from Full House, and everyone (or, almost everyone) comes in through the kitchen door.

So, even if you’re streaming services natively on your website, I’m going to assume that you are also putting content on social media. If you aren’t, I’ll assume you’ll start doing that after this training!

Let’s talk briefly about how you can maximize the uniqueness of each of these three social media platforms.

YouTube

YouTube is largely a passive platform. People treat it like television with a comments section. In fact, 30% of YouTube video content isn’t streamed on a mobile device. 

When families watch services online with YouTube, there’s a greater chance that they’re watching that service on a television.

What are the implications?

You cannot expect YouTube to have the same level of interaction in the comments as Facebook. Your Call to Action (i.e. Digital Connection Card) needs to be something that can be done easily on a digital device, separate from the Live Stream.

Facebook

Facebook demands interaction. Comments and reactions to videos function as social proof. If a video has few comments, shares, or reactions (likes, etc), people are less likely to stay engaged with your live stream.

If you want to boost conversation, instigate conversation. You cannot treat watching church on Facebook like watching church in person. Talking isn’t rude, it’s critical.

You need at least one moderator, logged in as your church, commenting, replying, and posting throughout the stream. It’s also helpful to have volunteers as conversation starters—real-life people, not “The Church”–reacting and adding commentary.

Note: women are 10% more likely than men to engage with your church online. Statistically, they are only about 3-5% more likely to post comments in general, but men are less likely to be logged-on to the service in the first place. Lean into this reality. Women will be conversation starters but recognize that men will chime in, too, as engagement numbers increase (read: they notice that an increasing number of people are watching live).

Because Facebook is built for engagement, your church is likely to get a higher ROI in flooding energy in resources to boost your engagement here. This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t host services on YouTube, but you’ll have to work multiple degrees harder to get the same level of social response on YouTube as you do on Facebook. 

Instagram

Instagram should only be tackled by churches that have a good handle on Facebook and/or YouTube.

Instagram is like your church’s highlight reel. You can use it in two key ways, leveraging its two key features:

Use the Stories feature to show “behind the scenes” of your church. Show people walking into the building. Film a 15-second clip of your worship team praying pre-service. Get footage of the hospitality team brewing coffee. Catch the pastor before or after the service for a quick response to or teaser for the message. Then, promote where people can watch the full message on Facebook or YouTube. Use a service like LinkInBio to permanently place links to your Facebook Video library, YouTube Channel, Website, and Digital Connection Card.

Use the Feed feature to show short clips of previous sermons. Find the best 60-second or shorter clip of the message. You can upload the full message to IGTV, but don’t expect a large number of views or high engagement here. It’s a growing option, but far from perfect. If you’re going to use Instagram for video, I recommend short clips with a Call to Action to your other platforms where there is greater critical mass.

General Notes on Streaming 

Regardless of what platform you use, here are four tips to get better engagement and create a better experience for your online attenders:

Don’t ignore the digital audience while preaching.


Look at the camera as your default, and when moving, look at the audience. Your in-person crowd is less likely to notice that you’re looking at the camera than your on-line audience is to recognize that you’re never looking at them. When you don’t look at the camera, ever, it makes people online feel like they are passive bystanders in your church service rather than invited to be a part.

Have an online audience-specific host.


This requires more technical know-how. But when possible, have a specific host for your online audience. This way, your digital call to action is CLEAR. You can cut between what’s happening on the stage, and a digital host who manages the transitions. If your church isn’t ready to take on that technical challenge, be sure that your on-stage host specifically addresses the online audience, giving specific calls to action and instructions for the online audience. The host needs to look at the camera when addressing the online audience.

Your music can make or break your stream.


This is hard to say and may be difficult to hear, but a vast number of churches haven’t figured out how to stream the musical portions of their services well. The music might be fine in-person, but online, the music sounds terrible. People will tune out permanently from bad music. New people will cringe and never return. Existing members will choose not turn the service on until the sermon, which means that some won’t turn it on at all. No concrete data exists yet, but it’s safe to assume from anecdotal evidence that online worship either needs to be great or non-existent. You would get higher engagement from a sermon only stream than from a stream with a good sermon and bad music. I want you to hear the difference in sound from these two churches. (Play video). 

You have to repeat your call to action multiple times.


People tune in at different times. You cannot ask them once at the beginning of the service to fill out a digital connection card and expect a good response. You need to pin a comment with your call to action, and speak about it multiple times in multiple ways. Place a lower-third graphic multiple times throughout the stream to remind people of your call to action. Don’t worry about annoying people. If it’s new to them, they’ll notice. If it’s the third time they’ve seen or heard it, they’ll either act on it or ignore. It will only feel repetitive to you.

Strategy 3: Prioritize Connection over Content

Good content matters. We just proved that! But personal connection trumps good content every single day.

Success for small and mid-size churches hinges on accepting a key reality first: your church will always be at a disadvantage in regards to production value and social exposure.

If you view your church as in “competition” with those like NorthPoint, Elevation, or the largest regional church in your area, you’ll never gain momentum.

Likewise, if you throw in the towel and say, “Well, we might as well not do anything, we’ll never be able to reach the people the big churches reach,” you’ll never realize your full potential.

God has uniquely positioned your church to reach your Jerusalem.

To reach your whole Jerusalem, you’ll need to prioritize connection over content.

The key to long-term success is to streamline your worship service preparation as much as possible, and invest a disproportionate amount of time into making connections with individuals and the community.

Prior to Covid-19, most churches were investing under 20% of their budgets on ministries, not including their weekend worship services. (Children’s ministry, discipleship ministries, student ministries, community outreach ministries, etc.)

If you want to boost your visibility online, you need to boost your visibility in the real world.

The connection over content strategy expresses itself in two key ways:

Every regular attender must have a relational connection.


Depending on how well you’ve maintained your database (more on this in a minute), this will take old-fashioned detective work. Is every person on your active roster connected in a group, class, or one-on-one discipleship relationship that is currently meeting in person or online. And, if they are connected, are they participating?

If not, leverage your group and class leaders to re-engage those individuals. If Barna’s research rings true, as much of a third of your church has totally disconnected from the church. You could instantly boost your online or in-person attendance by simply re-connecting with these people individually. Again, use your group and class leaders to assist in the re-connection process.

Be visible in your community.


There are more needs today than ever before. Your church can get a “leg up” and boost your online visibility by being known in your community as making a difference. Get active in your local schools, which have massive needs right now. Step up to provide food and assistance to those struggling with job loss. Create space for virtual learners that are kids of working parents. There is an endless list of ways your church can be active in the community. 

As you increase your visibility in the community, people will be more likely to seek you out online and/or pause to view your content when they come across it. Put simply your, action needs to precede your words.

Boosting your online audience is not 100% a virtual strategy. Prioritizing connection over your content will help to boost people’s engagement with your content. Because when people believe you care about them, they begin to care what you say.

Strategy 4: Leverage Automation

You have limited resources, and your most stringent limitation is time. There are only 24 hours in a day! Therefore, if you want to maximize where you invest your time for “connection,” you need to know where it’s less needed.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and take a look at a parable.

What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” Luke 15:4

Did you catch it? I know you’ve read this hundreds of times. So it’s easy to miss.

Let’s look again.

What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” Luke 15:4

Did that help?

Generally speaking, we use this parable to talk about the amazing love of God—that he would leave the 99 just to find the 1. In fact, there was a really popular song last year that called this kind of love… reckless. Right?

But that’s not the premise of the parable, at all.

He says what man wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine.

The point of the parable is not about the oddity of a shepherd leaving the herd to find one sheep, it’s about the emotion we feel when we find something that’s been lost.

So, why can the shepherd leave the 99, not recklessly, but confidently? Because there is a fold. There are boundaries, and an expectation that the 99 are taken care of while he finds the one.

This is what a good system can do for your church.

Most churches today, especially after Covid-19, have a modern Church Management System, like Church Community Builder, Church Center Online, Breeze, or one of the many others. But most churches are barely leveraging the capabilities of their ChMS.

When we partner with a church, one of the things we work on is mapping out systems—weaving in the automation capabilities of your ChMS with the actions only people can do. But by creating a system, we’ve created boundary lines to know who are the 99 and who is the 1.

Churches right now are wasting time, energy, and effort because they don’t know where they should leverage their limited time.

If you want to boost your engagement and re-engage people who have disconnected, you need to be able to identify who specifically has disconnected. Additionally, if you want to get better engagement moving forward with guests and newcomers, leveraging a system that includes good automation will help you identify who is taking steps on their own (think of it as walking the game trail you’ve made for them), and who needs more personal follow-up in order to take their next best step.

Unfortunately, the time constraints of this webinar don’t give us the ability to walk you step-by-step into how to build a systems map that fully leverages your automation capability and maximizes your leaders, but let us know if you’d like the help. We help churches all the time build these out.

Strategy 5: Have a Bias for Discipleship

Far and away, the biggest barrier between you and your church engaging more people online and in-person is the lack of a clear, Biblical, strategic framework.

I was recently working with a church up north, and after walking them through our Strategic Envisioning process, he was astonished. He said, “I honestly don’t know what we were doing before this. It’s like we were stumbling through a room in the dark.” His executive pastor said that it was the most empowering investment of their staff’s time since she had been on staff.

Having a clear framework for ministry will streamline your effort, maximize your team, and help you focus on what actually drives your church to make and mature disciples.

Back in Strategy 1, I mentioned that online attendance is better termed attention, and that attention can be purchased. For just a handful of dollar per week, you can buy more eyes on your worship services. But if you don’t have a clear, Biblical strategic framework for making and maturing disciples, you’ll be no better off.

There are five components to a Biblical, strategic framework:

  1. A Great Commission Mission
  2. Actionable and Biblical Core Values
  3. A Streamlined Discipleship Pathway
  4. A Compelling Vision
  5. Achievable One-Year Strategy Objectives

Even if your church has one or two of these that are “working,” all five items in the framework work in tandem to help you make and mature disciples.

Strategic planning is often expensive. It costs thousands of dollars to bring in an outside process, plus hundreds of dollars for their travel. Some consulting groups take six months or more, and they never even get into teaching you a pragmatic implementation process.

We think this is ridiculous.

Your church deserves a process that helps you shape your future, and it shouldn’t take running a capital campaign or dipping into your church’s reserves to afford it.

More than that, we believe that church leaders are capable of leading their own churches. Certainly, churches benefit from having an outside Guide give leadership and perspective that is difficult to duplicate.

However, we believe in you. We believe you have what it takes to lead your church into a new era of effectiveness. You need the tools and a process to help you get there.

Church Revitalization University delivers the Strategic Envisioning framework that we use with churches in-person all across North America in a fully digital format. You get all of the first-class training from our team, plus we teach you how to use our tools and workshops to get the most out of your church.

Before the webinar started today, I had a poll running asking if your church’s engagement has declined, stayed the same, or grown since Easter.

The vast majority of you said you have declined.

Do you have confidence that the processes you’ve been using up to now will be effective in helping your church make and mature more disciples in the future?

We want you to be able to sleep at night, knowing that you have a clear, Biblical, and effective strategy that consistently delivers a Kingdom impact. Bring unity to your church, eliminate the frustration and exhaustion.

There has never been a better time for a strategic planning process. You shouldn’t wait until things go back to “normal.” That day might now come, and even if it does, “normal” is what set your church up for decline.

We want you to find hope, develop a strategy, and make a difference. Your church can boost your online engagement. And more than that, your church can make and mature more disciples!

Looking for a process to help? Church Revitalization University is a fully digital strategic planning process. Save thousands of dollars over the cost of traditional church consulting, and get the tools you need to shape your future. For a limited time, create a free preview account. No credit card or obligation. Kick the tires and see if our process is right for you.


Scott Ball is the Director of Services and a Lead Guide with TMG. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott)