For more Coronavirus Resources to Help you and Your Congregation Stay Connected When it’s Critical check out: The Church Leader’s Guide to Coronavirus: How to Continue Ministry During a Pandemic
Live streaming your service allows your members to participate and worship with you anytime, anywhere. But it’s also a great way to expose your church to people who have never been to your services before.
Whether these people are local, across the country, or on another continent, there are things you can do to help them feel more like part of your church. Engaging your online community can help some people transition to joining you in-person or encourage them to invite others into the experience. As you connect with people online, you may find that there are growing pockets of fellow believers joining you from around the world.
Here are six ways to engage your online community:
1. Directly address them during the service
Occasionally people who live stream your service, listen to your podcast or watch recordings will reach out to share about their experience with you. Maybe there’s a family joining you from their living room in South America every week. Or maybe a church that’s in transition who has been relying on your teachings while they search for a teaching pastor. Perhaps someone discovered you while sitting in their favorite coffee shop a few states away.
Whatever the case, you want these people to know that you value their participation. Mentioning them by name during the service or calling out areas where you have a lot of viewers does two things:
- It helps your in-person congregation recognize that God is using your church to reach beyond your local community.
- It makes your online community feel like they’re part of your congregation.
This can encourage online viewers to continue joining you each week, and it may inspire them to invite others to experience your church with them.
2. Create special events just for them
While live streaming and digital content like podcasts, blogs, and sermon archives can help your online community participate in what your church is doing, they often still feel disconnected. Depending on how scattered these people are, there are several ways you can more directly engage them.
If there are a lot of local people joining you online, consider inviting them to join you virtually for coffee. Schedule time to meet up virtually outside of your regularly scheduled sermon, and during the service, make a point of announcing when and what time that will be.
You could also host “streaming parties” or location-based small groups to encourage them to gather and interact with others in the area.
Of course, due to recent mandates across the U.S. encouraging online-only meetups for churches, meeting in groups of more than 10 people is currently not advised by the CDC. Instead, you could organize an online meet-and-greet or host webinar events on specific topics. You could even survey or poll your online community to find out what they’d be most interested in exploring with you.
3. Give your online community a name
Often when a specific aspect of your church is an integral part of your mission, you give it a unique brand. This communicates to your congregation that this is something you value and prioritize, but it also helps people feel like they belong to a real group.
So if a thriving online community is a core part of your church—or you would like it to be—you might want to consider giving it a distinct brand. You wouldn’t want to do this if live streaming is the extent of your efforts to build an online community, but if you’re taking active steps toward growing this part of your church and expanding your online offerings, this could help your online participants feel more like family. Plus then you can all refer to it as something other than your “online community.”
4. Invite them to share their stories
One of the challenges of creating an authentic, meaningful online church community is that it often feels one-sided. Your online viewers regularly see and hear from you, but there aren’t as many opportunities for you to get to know them.
During your announcements or at another appropriate time during the service, consider inviting online viewers to tell you more about themselves—where they’re from, how they heard about you, and what made them decide to check you out. Giving people an opportunity to share their stories helps them feel known, despite not being physically present. It also gives you valuable information that could inform how you view, talk about, and grow your online community in the future. You can refer to these people at future services as well. And of course, having them reach out to you opens the door to follow-up opportunities.
Be sure you have a convenient, streamlined path for people to contact you, whether that’s a pastor’s email, a comment form on your live stream page, social media, or through a church admin.
5. Be responsive and available online
Whether someone reaches out on social media, email, or a website form, responding quickly shows them that:
- This is a good way to interact with your church
- You care about them
If it takes days for someone from your church to reply to a Facebook message, that sends a strong signal that this channel isn’t as important to you—which means people will use it less and less. That may not seem like a big deal, but if the best way for someone to interact with you is online, and their first interaction with you makes them feel like they aren’t important to you, that doesn’t exactly motivate people to maintain or pursue a relationship with your church.
Responding promptly and thoughtfully to online communication encourages your online community to continue coming to you with their questions, comments, and needs, which allows you to build relationships and minister to them, regardless of whether you ever meet them in person.
6. Facilitate a group on social media
Social platforms like Facebook make it easy to form specialized groups. Creating one gives you a convenient gathering place for your online community, and you can use it to share and discuss your Livestream, blog posts, podcast episodes, and other online content or to spark supplementary conversations and provide a simple way for people to share their stories and interact with church staff.
Your online community is a group of people
Above all, remember that every view and every play represents a real person who needs Jesus and a community of believers to belong to. And they’re using the internet to overcome barriers and cross borders to be part of yours.