The trajectory of digital ministry has looked something like this:
According to Google Trends, a handy barometer of cultural trends, there was a meteoric increase in church online searches during the early stages of the pandemic.
Then there was a similarly steep drop-off in searches for church online.
And today, there's almost as much interest in church online as there was before Covid-19 - which is to say, not much interest at all.
If online search data is a leading indicator of cultural trends, online church attendance is a lagging indicator. Some congregations continued to see strong online attendance and participation throughout 2021 and into 2022 as the Delta and Omicron variants spread. It was only in the second half of 2022 that online church viewership for these parishes moved from stable to shrinking.
One of the churches whose churches I occasionally watch saw their online participation drop from hundreds each week (in 2021) to dozens (in early 2022) to low single digits (late 2022).
And as congregations struggled to staff digital production roles for livestreams viewed by few if any people, a question emerged. What good is digital ministry if nobody shows up for the livestream?
In the "Holy and the Hybrid," I argue that hybrid ministry is less about livestreams than it is about inclusion. Combining the online with the offline is not the point. Instead, the goal of hybrid ministry is extending a wide-reaching invitation to life in a Christian community while forming individuals for lives of discipleship and service. We do effective hybrid ministry not when we livestream everything, but when we discern the ideal methods for inviting and equipping using the digital and personal tools available to our community.
If we understand digital ministry in this way, then our attendance metrics are irrelevant. The question we should ask ourselves is not whether we should cancel the livestream moving forward. Instead, the question is how we should best utilize digital tools to be inviting and inclusive.
This might mean pivoting away from streamed services and moving towards more content creation and curation. It might involve developing a set of KPIs that is less focused on viewership and more focused on hospitality.
2022 Barna Group data indicates that Millennials, and particularly non-white Millennials, are more involved with church communities than they were in 2019. 22% of Millennials have even started attending multiple churches, in a pattern of digital church-hopping. As congregations become more fluent in digital content and online forms of hospitality, people are becoming more connected to the church, and to the Gospel message.
And so, as we start a new year of digital ministry, perhaps it is time to discard the 3-year-old playbooks we started to write in March 2020. Maybe it is time to focus less on how many are watching, and focus more on digital ministry practices that are consistently available, original, and hospitable.
Join Faith+Lead and I for a morning of digital learning focused on online visibility! Registration is now open for this January 26th, 2023 workshop!