Digital Church Hospitality: Getting to Know Your Online Neighbor
Updated: Jun 13, 2022
How do you build relationships with those you never see?
It's a question that's key to navigating the Digital Reformation. With worship becoming a hybrid event, pastors and church leaders see and hear those attending in person. But unless the congregation gathers for online worship via Zoom (perhaps the ideal platform for small churches), the names, faces, and even the needs of those online remain unheard. This creates two tiers of church attendance: those who leaders and members know and recognize, and those who are yet unknown.
If we are to get to know our online neighbors, it's helpful to consider some broader worship attendance trends.
Christianity Today notes that regular church attendance in the United States has dropped from 34% of Americans to 28% of Americans. This decline in worship attendance paralleled a drop in religious affiliation. For the first time in our nation's history, the percentage of Christians has fallen below 50%.
There are far fewer church members and worship attendees today than there were at the start of the pandemic. In a related finding, Pew Research data tells us that just 10% of active church-goers plan to continue regular online church attendance. Thus, many of the faces we were accustomed to seeing before March 2020 haven't shifted to worshipping online, as some would expect. Rather, they've stopped attending altogether.
Amidst this decline in worship attendance, active members have started "church-hopping" online. According to a 2020 Pew Research Study, 59% of church-goers have attended worship at a congregation other than the one they attend most often. These figures suggest a continuation of a pre-pandemic trend first noted by the Barna Group: that many practicing Christians regularly attend two or more different congregations. Since the start of the pandemic, attendance at second or third congregations has typically been virtual.
These data suggest that many of those attending worship are not active or regular members of that congregation. They are church-hopping neighbors and guests, new faces whose identities are obscured behind the anonymity of YouTube, Vimeo, and Facebook Live.
This may surprise some who imagined that online worship attendees are usually active church members. This may even frustrate those who imagined that lower in-person worship is explained by more frequent online attendance. The stark reality is that fewer people are coming to church. Those who are coming to church are less committed to a single congregation. And those who are resolutely committed to a single congregation are seldom worshipping online.
This reality calls us to consider how we might get to know our online neighbor. While there are few easy answers in digital spaces where we cannot see names and faces, there are a few hospitality practices that merit further experimentation. Specifically, we might:
Create accessibility across platforms. Everything a church does online should be seamless to access, easy to connect to, and consistently inclusive. For starters, church leaders should work to help guests access worship on the platform of their choice. Plug-ins and integrations (such as the Zoom Livestream for Facebook feature) make it easy to broadcast the same service or event on YouTube, Facebook, Zoom as well as your app and website. But it's not just about the platforms. It's also about inclusivity. Content should be accessible within one click of the church home page. Perhaps more importantly, live events should be captioned.
Strengthen words of welcome. Liturgy begins with a gathering, often in the form of words of welcome. Most congregations use these words of welcome specifically to greet guests in attendance. But too many congregations fail to greet guests who are gathered online. As the guest experience moves online, it is critical to specifically name, greet, and welcome online guests, those who are encountering the congregation for the first time.
Extend a specific invitation to connect. At some point in the welcome or the announcements, guests should be invited to connect with a pastor or church leader. Too often, this invitation is ambiguous, as in if you are new, fill out this form."Getting to know the online neighbor involves greater specificity. Why should visitors fill out the form? For prayer requests? To schedule a call with a pastor or join a mailing list? To request a new visitor kit? Having provided some specific reason to submit a visitor form, we must work to ensure the forms are easy to find. Utilize QR codes, link shorteners, or video overlays to connect visitors to a contact form as easily as possible.
The church visitor experience has gone online. We must now learn to welcome our online neighbors, recognizing that digital hospitality is now synonymous with hospitality itself. We will turn to these ideas, and more, in subsequent posts.
Ryan Panzer is the author of "The Holy and the Hybrid," available now for pre-order wherever books are sold.