By: Christa Meland
One Sunday, when Rev. Steve Richards started introducing himself to a woman he’d never seen in church before, she told him: “I know who you are—I watch you every week. I wanted to come and see what you’re like in person.”
Messiah UMC in Plymouth, where Richards is lead pastor, has live streamed its worship services for the past couple of years, and it turns out the woman had been tuning in from home for weeks.
“Everything is moving online,” said Richards, in explaining the church’s decision to live stream. “Why should church be something where you have to come into a physical building to participate? As people have lives that take them everywhere, why shouldn’t we be available wherever someone is?”
Although many people who participate remotely won’t ever set foot in a church building, online worship has become a key tool to help churches reach new people, share Christ, and provide support to those who aren’t part of a faith community.
In 2017, the first year online worship attendance was tracked, 39 Minnesota United Methodist churches collectively reported that 1,579 people on average tuned in remotely on a weekly basis. In-person and online numbers together actually show a slight worship attendance increase for the Minnesota Conference as a whole as compared to the prior year when online worship wasn’t recorded. Figures for 2018 are still being collected, but what this preliminary data suggests is that meeting people where they are—whether on vacation across the country or at home on the couch—could have the potential to halt and perhaps even reverse a decades-long trend of worship attendance decline. The Twin Cities District has experienced the most significant impact from online worship.
Aldersgate UMC in St. Louis Park—which has about 100 in weekly worship attendance—has live streamed its worship services for the past year and a half.
“Somebody who streams regularly but never shows up physically isn’t necessarily a help to your church institutionally,” said Rev. Paul Baudhuin, who serves that church. “But in terms of authentic reaching people with the good news—I think streaming has immense opportunities for that. They might not be able to connect to our communal life, but they can connect to what we’re preaching and teaching, and that can have an impact on people’s lives.”
Richards said his initial motivation to offer online worship was helping members of his congregation participate even when they couldn’t physically be present.
“I thought if we could see a 5 percent bump in worship attendance by helping people be more consistent in attending, it would be a success and worth the financial investment,” he said. “What I didn’t expect was growth in people who previously had no connection with this church.”
On a given Sunday, 20 to 25 percent of Messiah UMC’s worship attendance is online. That translates to about 100 people.
Aldersgate, meanwhile, decided to give online worship a go after the church installed cameras and screens so that worship could be projected into its gathering area, meeting room, and nursery. Live streaming seemed like a logical next step, and a particularly tech-savvy member was interested in figuring out how to make it work.
Roughly eight devices tune in to Aldersgate’s worship service on an average Sunday; Baudhuin points out that streaming software can only capture the number of devices (not people) tuned in, and anecdotally, he’s learned that groups of people typically watch together. Both congregations also broadcast worship to Facebook Live—just the sermon portion of the service, in Messiah’s case.
Both Richards and Baudhuin said there was a learning curve in making online worship work. Not only do you have to buy cameras and learn streaming technology (Messiah uses churchstreaming.tv and Aldersgate uses Sunday Streams), but you have to be conscious of timing, pace, lighting, and worship leaders’ movement to create a high-quality experience for those online.
“I don’t know that people in the sanctuary are always aware of this, but I believe it has improved their worship experience as well,” said Richards.
Both Richards and Baudhuin have many stories of people impacted through online worship—from truck drivers on-the-go to members tuning in from home while going through chemo.
Right before Christmas, Richards baptized two children. Relatives of the mother live in Colombia and weren’t able to be present in person, but they were able to watch virtually. (Both Richards and Baudhuin report that streaming is popular among out-of-town families of those being baptized, and at Aldersgate, many stream funerals as well.)
During a big snowstorm last April, when many churches cancelled worship, Baudhuin streamed from his living room—offering an opening prayer, his prepared sermon, and a closing prayer. Hundreds of people—including both members of Aldersgate and clergy colleagues—watched.
Not surprisingly, snow birds are among the regular streamers at both Messiah and Aldersgate. But Richards was surprised to learn that some members in Arizona were even inviting their neighbors to come over for worship. One such neighbor couple that lives in the Twin Cities for part of the year later joined the church.
“My hope is through people’s online participation, there’s a breakthrough in their own life—that they make a connection with the God who created them,” said Richards. But he also wants to develop a relationship with online participants—and that’s much harder to do.
Both Richards and Baudhuin said one of the biggest challenges of online worship is tracking participants. Richards makes it a point to say during each worship service something along the lines of: “Those watching online this morning, you are important to us. I so much want to know who you are. Will you please identify yourself so we can greet you?”
Messiah’s live stream web page has a “let us know you’re here” box that people can click to provide their name, contact information, and an optional message—and those who do provide it receive a welcome message from the church that very same day.
Messiah also has online small groups that online worshippers (as well as in-person attendees) can join to become more engaged with the church. But most viewers choose to remain anonymous, and closing the feedback loop is something both Richards and Baudhuin are eager to figure out.
“Ideally what I would love to see happen is for an online community to develop,” said Baudhuin. “I’m not sure what that would look like but it would require getting feedback about the people streaming. Maybe they’re sending us prayer requests. Maybe they end up with a need that we can meet. There are all kinds of opportunities to minister to people who might never come into your building. And developing a mechanism for all that is what we haven’t had time, energy, or resources to do.”
Richards plans to try something new this Lent to learn more about online worshippers: Messiah UMC will give all church members a copy of the Gospel of Mark, with a custom cover containing the church name and branding. Online participants will be invited to receive one by mail if they provide their contact information.
Although online worship isn’t a brand new phenomenon, it’s a tool that most churches are still figuring out. But one thing is clear: The Internet isn’t going anywhere, and it’s a platform churches can’t ignore if they are to remain relevant and reach the next person for Jesus.
“We need to go to where the people are,” said Richards. “That’s what makes us accessible.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church