Don’t be deceived or distracted by online church numbers

Now that we have settled into a “normal” routine from the COVID-19 quarantine, many churches have been forced into the virtual church realm while some have been offering online options for some time. Given the COVID-19 crisis, churches have seen historic online church attendance. I can imagine the chat during the post-Easter online staff meeting. “Easter weekend online audience was huge, wow!” “The biggest weekend we have ever had.” Over the last week, I have heard churches who normally have 280 people attending their weekend services now have an online “audience” of 750 people.

A large online church audience can be intoxicating. I understand how easy it is to get drunk on the numbers.

Having served as the executive pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle from 2011 to 2014, we hosted an average of 300,000 podcasters per week. That weekly online audience was 20 times the number of attendees in all the weekly services at our multisite campuses. At Mars Hill, we kept our eyes on the numbers — the numbers of people in seats Sunday and the numbers online via the podcast. And over time, the focus of the church shifted. We poured more energy into reaching the larger number, the online audience, through slick production. We produced resources (books, blogs, worship albums) to serve the online audience better. And in the end, we took our eyes off the folks that mattered most, our members in physical services — the people who did life together, who were in community groups.

Huge numbers can make a church staff feel like they are fulfilling the Great Commission. A bigger audience can trick a church into thinking it’s doing bigger things for Jesus. In this instance, the saying “Go Big, or Go Home” doesn’t apply. God builds his church one soul at a time, and according to Jesus in the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7), the “ones” matter.

In ministry, trade-offs exist. There are never enough resources (staff, volunteers, energy, time and money) to meet all the needs and realize all the opportunities for ministry. Many times, as an executive pastor, you oversee making these stewardship decisions.

After a huge Easter weekend, you will think through the next steps. How will you best steward resources in response to your online church attendance?

1. The church grows from fellowship and community. As we see the early church in Acts 2:23-27,

“They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” … “and day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes”.  Even in the current COVID-19 environment, we can connect people to Zoom or online community groups. It is so important to get people connected to other believers. To help you navigate how to integrate new online members into your church and small groups, Vanderbloemen is hosting a Facebook Live event this Thursday with pastors from churches of all sizes to discuss how they plan to connect new viewers to their church body once churches open again.

2. Evangelism is important, but discipleship is key.

We all want to see Jesus save new people. We all want to have the Good News of Jesus preached, and witness people respond to hearing the word of God with belief in Jesus. However, as pastors and leaders, this cannot be the end goal. Our end goal should be creating disciples of Jesus. As Jesus commanded us, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[a] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Matthew 29:19-20 ESV

3. An audience is not the church.

An audience will not go through hard times, but a church of brothers and sisters will.

I learned from Mars Hill that an online audience is just that, an audience. They do not have relationships within a community of believers where we see sin repented of and forgiveness granted. The opportunity for people to participate in loving one another (Romans 13:8), honoring one another (Romans 12:10), and serving one another (Gal 5:13), is difficult, if not impossible, to create online. So when trials and tribulations happen in the life of the believer or the activity of the church, people who do not have a vested love in one another will scatter.

I must admit that while I was at Mars Hill Church, we were so drunk on building online numbers at the expense of local church needs that we once had a goal of becoming the #1 Christian podcast in Australia. Yeah, I know. What does a podcast audience in Australia have to do with 15 churches across five states in the western United States? Nothing. It can distract a church staff away from the actual people who want to call the church their home.

Online church helps the body of Christ stay connected when crisis keeps it physically apart, but the real work of ministry is in developing a community of disciples face to face. As we lead through this crisis, let’s not get drunk on the numbers of online church attendance, but instead cultivate discipleship programs to steward the new believers God brings us through this and to deepen the faith and community of those who will soon walk through the doors of our church they call home.

To participate in Thursday’s free Facebook Live webinar on connecting new online attendees to virtual small groups on Thursday, April 23 at 1 PM Central, click here.

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Sutton Turner is the chief operating officer of Vanderbloemen, which serves teams with a greater purpose by aligning their people solutions for growth: hiring, compensation, succession and culture. Through its retained executive search and consulting services, Vanderbloemen serves churches, schools, nonprofits, family offices, and Christian businesses in all parts of the United States and internationally.

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