On March 1, 2020, few mainline congregations offered an online worship opportunity to their communities. By the end of March 2020, the majority of mainline congregations had found a way to provide an online presence for those seeking to continue to worship during the Covid shutdown. For the most part, we saw that online services were shorter, had less music, less time (if any) for communion, and some even had online coffee hour afterward. Services remained posted online and available for days, weeks or months after the original airing and continue to be viewed. Many leaders boasted of having people attend their online worship services from other states and even other countries. It was an unusual time for our country and for the Church.
The sense of crisis has passed and, from what we have learned, our attention to the online worship community has passed along with the crisis. As you can see from the Episcopal Pulse survey above, the majority of congregations continue to offer streaming but only 3% offer an online worship service that is actually designed for an online community. Instead, what we offer is the opportunity to observe other people worshiping, and that has really never been a draw for anyone except shut-ins who have had no other option.
I grew up Roman Catholic and if my sisters or I were too sick to go to church, my parents would flip on the televised Catholic mass. I can tell you there was no appeal to watching Mass on television. The same is true today. I flip around the internet on a Sunday morning and find no appeal in watching others worship. Rarely is the online community even referenced. Energy levels seem low, technology glitches are regular occurrences, and what is the person online to do while the collection is taken or communion is happening?
Church leaders tell me every day that their online worship attendance is dwindling but their in-person attendance is not increasing commensurately. This is the time to stop trying to go back to the way things used to be. This is the time to engage your online community in new, unique, and creative ways. Recent research on Digital Religion Among U.S. and Canadian Millennial Adults, published in the Review of Religious Research, shows that online services are especially attractive to Millennials (now often young adults with children) only if they are designed for an online community. This begs the question: who is your target audience and how are you reaching them?
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