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The boom in online church attendance is good. But it’s not enough

Many churches are reporting huge increases in the numbers of people tuning into their Sunday services. But while the statistics appear to be encouraging, David Taylor says caution is needed

The day after the lockdown began, ITV News reported that churches were seeing double their usual attendance. This was being achieved by some creative online methods, that even the Archbishop of Canterbury has adopted. Churches of all sizes and denominations have taken their services online, and many thousands of people, who wouldn't normally attend physical services, are logging on.

As someone who wants heaven to be ‘standing room only’, my heart was filled with praise at this news.

But imagine you are one of those tens of thousands who has found the church online. Will you feel a part of a community or will you just be an observer?

Recently, I've been watching a huge amount of the BBC show, Great British Menu, where top chefs from the UK’s regions compete to serve dishes at a banquet. I have grown to love the programme and must confess to becoming emotionally invested in some of the chefs and the food. I'm a fan, and I watch every episode. But that is where my love affair with baking ends.

I can’t go to the restaurants; they’re all closed due to the virus. I can’t find many of the ingredients in my local Aldi, which I have to queue to enter. So while Great British Menu is inspiring me, the show hasn't really changed my approach to food.

Instead what has changed my life, is my wife! She adores cooking and I'm learning from her.

The difference between the TV programme and my wife is that I’m in community with my wife. We live together, talk things through, argue occasionally, forgive, explore what things mean. When she enters the kitchen, I follow, and I get stuck into the cooking and baking. This week I made my own flatbreads. I learned this from watching her. Not from watching Great British Menu.

My fear is this sudden uptake in online church attendance could translate into a generation of armchair, consumerist Christians.

If I used to travel to church every Sunday, but can now get it at home, is there less reason to go once the building is open? Sure, most of us will say we want the community. But there will be those lazy Sunday mornings where we know we can open our iPad in bed and ‘attend’ from there.

And what of the new cyber-church members? Will they be excited to rush down to the church they’ve been watching online?

We can’t know for sure. We pray that God tugs on their heartstrings and draws them. But we shouldn’t just sit and wait. We should be sowing seeds and preparing the ground now.

Being part of a church means being part of a body of people. We are all in communion around a belief in God and an experience of his love.

If your church is streaming online and you’re getting good numbers that’s great! But are you doing enough to grow the community aspect of what church is?

My career has been built around community focused communications. I look after social media platforms and PR strategies. A lot of people will come to me asking for increased views or to ‘go viral’. These are nice goals, but they don’t benefit anyone if those views don’t translate into community. To use the example of the charities I work with, if people watch their promo film, but don’t donate, then very little has actually been achieved.

In the same way, churches need to start putting together what the charity world would call a ‘donor journey’. Think about the steps you would take someone through to convert them from passive live-stream watcher, into a genuine member of your community:

1. Do you have a way for your cyber-congregation to get in touch, such as a phone number or email address? Can the enquirers find a human?

2. Will you connect new people to a local house/connect/cell/life group? Are these online?

3. They may not have a Bible, or a daily devotional. Can you welcome them with some resources?

4. Will you follow up with them?

Billy Graham preached the gospel with urgency because he knew life is short and temptation is everywhere. Your new congregation are watching church online, surrounded by all kinds of temptation. Will you reach out to them with urgency?

David Taylor is a PR and Communications specialist. He is a keen political campaigner and passionate about seeing Christians engaging in the political sphere

Premier Christianity is committed to publishing a variety of opinion pieces from across the UK Church. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the publisher

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