No, Pastor, Online Church Is Not Slowing Your In-Person Attendance

For most people, online church is a step toward in-person attendance, not away from it.

Here’s a common conversation between pastors.

  • Pastor 1: How has your attendance been, post Covid?
  • Pastor 2: Rough. A good one-third haven’t come back yet.
  • Pastor 1: It’s half for us. I blame online church. They’d rather watch at home than show up in person.
  • Pastor 2: I agree. We may stop our live stream so they have to come back. Maybe that will work.
  • Pastor 1: We’re thinking of doing the same thing.

Online Isn’t The Enemy

Here’s the reality. Online church isn’t what’s stopping your congregation from returning to in-person services.

If they’re not coming to church in person, they’re probably not watching online either. It may not be a one-to-one correlation, but if congregational attendance is down, you need to look elsewhere for an answer.

We know this for a few reasons.

1. Regular Church Attendance Was Already Declining

Long before online church became common, in-person church attendance was dropping. The trend from three times a week, to three a month, to two a month, to strong anecdotal evidence suggesting that the once-a-month attender is the “fastest-growing segment of church life” has been happening for decades.

Sure, it accelerated during the pandemic lockdowns, but the pandemic and online services didn’t change what people feel about church, it just exposed and amplified feelings that were already happening.

2. Online-Only Church May Be Less Than You Think

According to the latest reliable stats from Barna, around 20 percent of church attenders only watch church online. About 26 percent do both. The rest (54 percent) only attend in person. And there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that most of the 20 percent who only do online church didn’t stop going for convenience, but for many reasons, including illness, distance, age, trauma, and more.

The simple reality is that while online church attendance has spiked since Covid, live streaming is not to blame for in-person attendance drops.

3. Churches That Stop Live Streaming Don’t See An Attendance Rise

I have yet to see a church stop their online service and experience an in-person uptick because of it. It’s like closing one of your front doors and expecting more people to come through the remaining doors. That’s now how this works.

4. High Quality Live Experiences Will Always Be A Draw

Movie theaters are facing a severe downturn since the pandemic because what they offer isn’t live. It’s just on a bigger screen. Sports and concert attendance is down too, but not as much as movies, because the in-person experience for a truly live event is so compelling.

Church is more like sports and concerts than movies in this regard. The in-person experience for them is very different than simply having a larger screen at the theater.

5. What Brings Them In-Person Is What Happens Off-Camera

If people watch your church online, they’re only seeing what happens on stage. And that’s not the main reason people go to church – not in smaller churches, that’s for sure.

People come to church in person for what happens off stage at least as much as for what happens on stage. Gathering with old friends, meeting new ones, asking for prayer, doing ministry together, and so on.

So, What Is Happening With Online Church?

Right now, online church serves two purposes, especially for smaller congregations.

The first purpose is as an alternative for those who can’t attend in person. The family on vacation, the senior who can’t make it due to illness, and so on. They want to be there, but are temporarily absent. And they’re grateful for the chance to check in with their home church online for a week or two.

The second purpose for online church is to serve as a sneak peek for those who are looking for a church to attend. They’re not watching online instead of coming in person, they’re watching several online church services hoping to find one to attend.

In both circumstances, online church isn’t keeping people from attending, it’s helping connect them to the in-person experience. Online church is a step toward in-person attendance, not away from it.

Replace Passive With Active

Passive events, like watching TV, are being replaced by interactive experiences like computer games, social media, and YouTube videos where the viewer can give input about future videos.

The answer for lagging church attendance isn’t less online church, it’s more relationship and discipleship when we’re in church. Don’t just give them a good stage presentation, work with them to have a better shared offstage experience.

Connect believers with each other. Give them chances to minister in ways that help others and satisfy their itch to be needed.

Jesus didn’t build his church for people to sit in a church building any more than to sit watching church at home.

He wants active disciples, not passive observers.

And, deep down, that’s what we all want, because we know that’s what we need.

(Photo by Nenad Stojkovic | Flickr)


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