5 lessons from jumping into leading an online congregation
by Mark Dean
[4 minute read]
COVID-19 forced churches right across the globe to step into digital ministry. Whether they theologically agreed with, had prepared for it, or even considered it before, churches had to make the quick pivot to online simply to continue to meet together. For some, that move back to meeting in-person meant that they stopped meeting online, whilst for others, it created an opportunity to reach more people. I know that many churches have prayerfully and deeply considered the cost, complexity and capacity that online church brings.
Now, cards on the table – I am an online pastor. In 2015, in the relative comfort of pre-pandemic ministry, I sat in an Arrow facilitation led by Dale Stephenson when God planted the seeds of a strong passion for online ministry in my heart. For me, COVID confirmed the place that online church had in the church landscape and now I have the blessing of leading our online congregation (yes, I know that some will say that we can’t call ourselves a congregation) and it’s been exciting, terrifying, mind-bending and faith-building.
My goal in leading an online church is to reach people where they are and to take those people from watchers to engagers. I have learnt a lot (mostly through mistakes) about how to run church online with those goals in mind, so here are 5 lessons learned from jumping into leading an online congregation.
- Behind every screen is a person (or a few)
One of the challenges of digital ministry, particularly preaching or speaking to a camera, is that it feels cold and impersonal. I’ve learned to remember the person on the other side. I will place in my mind’s eye the people and who I am connecting with in place of not being able to see their actual faces at that time. It helps me to keep that smile on my face remembering that John who is a FIFO worker is tuning in from Perth, or that Jane, who is a faithful but weary mum, is connecting from Caboolture.
- Online is real community, but you must create it
Just like online dating, online church can create real connection. However, it would be silly for us to simply launch a video stream of a service and expect people to gather around it, connect on a personal level and disciple one another. We as leaders have to foster that. The same as any relationship, it demands time and intentionality. Just like a church foyer, people want to be welcomed into online church. They want to talk to people about their week and their struggles. They want to pray with people and respond to a message in the same way one would in person.
We try to connect with people personally and deliberately. I find every opportunity that I can to connect in the online chat, email people during the week and ring people where possible. Church Online Platform has great ways to identify who is online each service (if a person wants you to know), which enables us to connect with them even if they might be feeling shy in a chat. Remember, when you gather in person, you physically see who is coming in your doors. Online, you have to have systems and follow-up in place to make sure nobody gets forgotten or left in the dark corners.
- Online brings flexibility (and complexity)
I would have never imagined that we would be able to launch a small-group made up of people from different countries, time zones and walks of life. But, through technology and God’s grace, that is what online enables us to do. We’ve even been able to connect people who live in Malaysia to people in the United States for mentoring. Finding times that work and mediums that suit everyone can be a little tricky, but it’s worth it. The people are worth it. The ability to plug people into a smaller community where they can grow personally and spiritually is worth it.
- Online isn’t in-person repeated
Online church shouldn’t be passive. It shouldn’t be a place where people only come to ‘watch’, which means we can’t just expect people to tune in to a camera up the back of our church auditorium. We have to find ways to speak to people through the screen and engage them in the service and the community.
We livestream our online service from one of our campuses. We’ve had to change some of our language so that we’re not just speaking to the people in front of us. We’ve had to find ways to make people engaging online not feel superfluous, but instead, feel like we’ve been intentional about inviting them into the space and the service. When we plan for a response from a message, we have to be thinking about how we invite people who are sitting in their loungeroom to participate in the same way. Truthfully, we’ve had to think about every aspect of our service through the lens (no pun intended) of our online community. We’ve not always nailed it, but we are determined to build it into our culture.
- Online helps you reach beyond your capacity
Thanks to Google, Facebook, YouTube and many more platforms, we can create ads and landing pages that speak to people where they’re at. We can curate content to connect with people searching for search terms like ‘hope’, or ‘God’, or ‘where can I find help for…?’. We can have action steps that point them to a church service, counselling centre or our care facility. Do some homework or a Udemy course on how to maximise the content that you’re probably already producing to impact wider.
If you have a heart to reach more people online, I pray that you trust in that journey. If you would like someone to bounce ideas off, I’d love to hear from you. firstname.lastname@example.org
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Mark Dean is the Worship Pastor and Online Pastor alongside his wife Eden at Gateway Baptist Church in Brisbane where he has served on the staff team for 10 years. He has three sons, Harrison, Luca and Joey who are a bunch of fun and full of energy. To relax, he enjoys watching sport and connecting with friends and family over food.