(10 Things For Ministers in Another Lockdown)
Before covid, one of three key motivations for engaging in online church was a desire to connect. The online space provides opportunities for genuine community to be formed, including between people who are otherwise separated by distance, disability, ideology, or – now – pandemic. More than a platform for broadcasting a message, the internet is a place of connection: a social network.
As humans, made in the image of the relational God, it’s natural that we seek connection. And this connection is not passive but active. During covid, it takes more intentionality to stay connected. We’re less likely to encounter friends and acquaintances in the supermarket or on the street. We need to make a particular effort to reach out to one another. But don’t we need it? Those moments of interaction?
In the context of Sunday worship, connection requires more than passive viewing and can be enhanced by inviting participation. It might be as simple as inviting participants to respond to questions by commenting or posting in the chat. Or there could be a way of reporting back after an offline activity undertaken in bubble groups.
As I watched and analysed online services, I noticed that over time the level of participation generally decreased. One church partially dealt with this by having an online host who posted in the chat/comments in order to facilitate engagement. That was great. But I noticed that it was engagement that built engagement, and there was only so much that one person could do. Assigning more than one person to the role of engagement officer(!) would help to build engagement, particularly in larger contexts where it isn’t possible to have everyone sharing out loud.
It takes more effort but inviting pre-production participation in services can be really effective. And we’re all a whole lot more familiar with recording ourselves, so more people would be able to do so than 18 months ago. In one group that I interviewed, they laughed as they told me that they liked hearing from people who weren’t “paid” to talk about the hope that they had in Christ. That is, they appreciated hearing from people who weren’t on the church’s payroll.
So invite participation and encourage connection. If you’re inviting online synchronous engagement, (eg through chat, comments or breakout rooms), make sure that you have people skilled and assigned to facilitate that engagement.
If what you’re offering online is pre-recorded, perhaps comments can still be made, or there might be a spot on your website or social media, where participants might share an insight later. Including (with permission, of course) photos of (or from) church members, or short video greetings or reflections helps to keep people feeling that sense of connection, as well as participating in meaningful ways.
Take the opportunity to prioritise connection and invite participation.