For another perspective, read “Why Our Church Will Unplug from Streaming” by Jim Davis and Skyler Flowers.
Our church will keep our livestream post-COVID for the same reason that we introduced it pre-COVID: online worship is a catalyst for Christian community.
As a Lutheran pastor with a commitment to the ministry of Word and sacrament, I appreciate both the centrality of in-person worship to the Christian life and the fears that online worship experiences could pull people away from these vital activities. There are some things you just can’t do virtually.
The technology many fear will disconnect people from authentic Christian community can actually become a catalyst for people to experience that very community.
And yet in my seven years of experience with streaming—both as the church planter of a young congregation and now as the pastor of a 110-year-old congregation—I’ve discovered the technology many feared would disconnect people from authentic Christian community can actually become a catalyst for people to experience that very community. That includes, for our church, an increase of in-person attendance.
Over the years I’ve seen three key benefits to streaming worship.
1. Connecting with the disconnected outside our community.
In the digital age, people research everything online—what phone to buy, what restaurant to try, even what church to visit. Most new people who attend our church in person have watched up to three messages before walking through our door. Our livestream made them comfortable on the front end, and when they finally came to our church they felt a deeper connection because of their time spent connecting online.
In the digital age, people research everything online—what phone to buy, what restaurant to try, even what church to visit.
Moreover, in an age when everyone has personal platforms via social media, people make it a point to share things online—whether funny videos, powerful quotes, or even their pastor’s message. When things make their way online, they can find new life through people sharing the content. This leads to the message going places you would least expect. At one point I discovered our Sunday messages were being used in a secret house church in China!
You never know whom God will touch with his message when you post it online. In a culture that’s becoming increasingly post-Christian, is it wise to limit the places we’re sharing the gospel?
2. Connecting with the disconnected inside our community.
We often hear the arguments for how streaming pulls people away from the community of the church, but for some the livestream may be their only lifeline to the church. We can focus so much on the potential attendance benefits of online worship that we miss the benefits for spiritual care.
The pandemic has given us a new sympathy for those who are shut in and cut off. Overnight our congregations were given a firsthand look into the life of a shut-in—what it feels like to be cut off from the place you receive Word and sacrament and experience life-giving Christian community. Online worship was a vital connection to a message and a community you depend on in a season of uncertainty.
The pandemic has given us a firsthand look into the life of a shut-in—what it feels like to be cut off from the place you receive the Word and sacraments.
When we launched a livestream in a pre-COVID world, the main responses were from the hospitalized and the homebound. Feeling connected to the community, even for just one hour on a Sunday, gave them a sense of joy amid their trials. This is one of the main reasons ours will always be a church that streams worship—it connects the otherwise disconnected in our community.
3. Fostering a love of gathered worship through consistency.
The final benefit of streaming touches on an issue all churches wrestle with and lament: gathered worship no longer seems to be a central priority in the lives of many Christians. We live in a highly mobile culture in which regular church attendance has dropped from once a week to once a month. Vacations, youth sports, and other priorities seem to pull on people more in our generation than in our parents’ or grandparents’ generations.
In a time when everyone’s on the move, broadcasting your services online can keep people connected to the teaching series even when they won’t be there in person. This creates a new consistency in the teaching they’re receiving. The person who was only engaging with one or two worship services a month is now engaging with services every week, some in person and some online. The person who missed a message is now able to go back and watch.
By engaging online when they’re away, they can develop the rhythm and habit of hearing and engaging with the Word. This regular engagement with the Word preached creates an increased hunger for it.
There are certainly understandable fears that an online option will pull people away from the in-person worship that’s central to Christian life. But in our experience, the opposite has been true. Streaming worship has been a catalyst to in-person connection with authentic Christian community.
How Can They Hear?
I’m reminded of Paul’s words as he shares his desire for God to turn the heart of his people:
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of this who preach the good news!” (Rom. 10:14–15)
This principle reminds me of the importance of getting the word out by every means possible. If the road for online ministry has been opened, let’s use it to proclaim the unchanging gospel to our ever-changing world. And when people connect with that gospel—even if online—the work of the Spirit will lead them to the community of God’s people in his gathered church.