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In dialogue with ministry colleagues, one person suggested that for many years we sought to impress on churches the need to have an attractive curb appeal. A couple of decades ago as websites because a popular way for people to learn about congregations, the conversation added the idea of website appeal. Now with the era of online worship services in a strong crescendo the focus has shifted to a congregation’s online appeal.
In mid to late March 2020, many congregations who had not live streamed or recorded and shared their worship service online through their website, social media, and video sharing services began to do so very quickly. It was the way to connect with people who could not come to a live worship service.
Congregations who were already online with their worship service said, “We’ve got this!” While true, as leading edge congregations in the arena of online worship experiences, they have now been called on to check out their online appeal so that they may engage in continuous or disruptive innovation. The benchmark for first quality online worship is being raised higher. It’s time to assess your online appeal.
For congregations just getting online with their worship service, urgency caused them to start something – often in less than a week and without adequate video and internet capacities. Now they must move from their “ready, shoot, aim” efforts to a more focused and quality efforts. It’s time to assess your online appeal.
A congregation in the Columbia Metro Baptist Association in hearing about the conversation I had with ministry colleagues asked me to assess their online appeal. I did this on a Sunday in July. The following observations are based on connecting with their online worship on one random Sunday and assessing what I was looking for, what I experienced, and how I would assess it.
On any other given Sunday with any other assessor the observations made and meaning given could be different. Therefore, this is not scientific assessment over several Sundays by several assessors from various perspectives. It is one guy with a computer connected to the Internet on one random Sunday.
Prior to the Online Worship Service Going Live:
I began by going to their Facebook page to see what it would tell me about their online worship experience. There I could see a list of the Sunday musical setlist with a comment that expressed the desire to worship with me on Sunday.
I had to page way down to find a post that had their link to their online service. I guess I would have expected to find it pinned to the top of their page since this is the big experience for the day.
I clicked on the “Live” and the “Videos” buttons on the left side of the page to see if that would take me to their live online worship site, and it took me to the catalogue of previous recordings.
On the “home” page of their Facebook site was a button that said, “Watch Video”. This took me to a video that is great and helpful, but four years old. I was interested to know more about what is going on during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Several other buttons on the left side of the “home” page had old information that was not helpful to me.
I next went to their Twitter page, but nothing had been posted there since 2017. So, I moved on to Instagram.
Instagram had what looked like the same pictures that had been on Facebook. At first, I thought that it is only a collection place for pictures on both sites since Facebook owns Instagram. Then I saw a link to YouTube and thought either I would find more information, or this would be where the online worship would appear. No, it only led me to a video seeking to explain God to me. Also, I noticed on Instagram that the online schedule only had their old, pre-COVID-19 Sunday morning schedule.
OK. Enough social media. Let me go to their website. Pay-dirt! Their website had been updated, so forget about social media. There was an obvious link to worship today and what time it would start. Also, their updated Sunday schedule was there, plus ways to plan my visit and connect with the congregation. I should have gone here first! But how did I know? There was even a link to a letter from the pastor. Now I am ready to experience online worship.
Online Worship Service
I went to the online worship service ten minutes before the announced time that it would go live to see if any music or video were playing, but nothing was live. I wondered if they would welcome me before the announced beginning time, or perhaps they would show announcements as many congregations do leading up to their live worship service on-site.
I kept watching a blank screen hoping I was at the right place and would not have to scramble to find the right place when the online worship service went live. Perhaps something could let me know I was at the right place.
Finally, two minutes before the announced service time there was a series of screens with announcements. Worship went live one minute after announced time
Worship began with music by two guitarists, a keyboard, and a drum set. (The same old vanilla set of instruments I could have guessed before the service started. Where were a selection of brass, woodwinds, or softer strings like violin or harp that would broaden the appeal to more generations and worship preferences?) There were four people with the three of them singing. It was good-to-great quality music with words on the screen. Multiple camera angles helped and kept me engaged. Some camera views were close-ups, and some showed the whole stage. I could see that the congregation was standing, but I do not know if they were singing. I sang a little bit but fortunately they could not hear me at the church location.
A staff member came on stage live and did a good job welcoming, suggesting how people could connect by text, and gave an almost traditional service-ending “invitation” early in the service. It was actually good to lay out the expectation that people could make some type of decision to connect with Christ or congregation as part of the worship. The only problem was he spoke to the live audience and not to me.
The video announcements that followed were good. It was nice to see ministry service opportunities mentioned as well as how to connect with the church. Yes, it was also fine that ways to give an offering or donation were mentioned.
Then there was more music. Again it was good quality, and presented in a manner that was not overwhelming, but pleasing. I wondered if the music was supposed to fit the theme of worship – particularly the pastor’s message – for the day. It did not seem to do so unless I missed it.
Then there was a prayer. I guess that was a prayer. It actually seemed to be a way for a speaker’s stand to be brought in for the pastor to begin appearing in the shadows. Really! I am often not sure if prayers are prayers or ways to get people not to look while the people on the platform are shuffled. Maybe prayer is not really prayer but only a staging cue for transitions. (Is there another way to make this transition?)
The pastor was warm and spent about four minutes going through various issues to help everyone relax and prepare for his message. He expressed concern for the congregation during this Pandemic. He also thanked the congregation for their financial generosity.
The message was good, solid, and well presented with warmth. It was more than conversational in volume and tone, yet not forceful in a manner that would be a turnoff to some people. (Both the music and the message allowed me to feel warmth and family, and like, “This is a place I would want to be connected.”) Perhaps a little long for me as an online viewer, but not exceedingly so. The pastor was on stage 35 minutes. The key points and scripture during his message appeared below him on the screen and were very readable. They added to the quality and helped with focus.
I guess the only thing I would say about the message is that the pastor never looked at me – meaning he never looked at the camera. So, it was like I was observing him speak to a group of people and not part of the group to whom he was speaking. Of course, the same thing had been true of the other worship leaders. I believe it would feel somewhat more inviting if all the leaders looked at me every once in a while, so I would know I was included.
Then there was another prayer. This time by the pastor. But there was all this movement in the background. (I guess I should have had my head bowed and my eyes closed.) It was another transition. The prayer by the pastor, however, gave it a different feel. It had a special sense of passion to it. Subtle, but real.
Then there was some closing music. Good music. Well done. Not sure if it was supposed to be a capstone for the message just presented, or to help people feel connected to God and one another as they left by means of a positive closing song.
Then there was the closing. There was an old country singer on a music comedy show who often said when the time for comedy was over that “We’re gonna sing now”. That in a similar way is how the worship service ended following the music. Something was said like this – “You are dismissed now.” Or at least that is the thought that lingered with me. Perhaps a short, memorable benediction that fits the style of worship would have been helpful.
After the Online Worship Service Ended
The same set of announcement slides that were shown before worship went live were shown again. That is acceptable.
What would have been much better is a 90 second – pre-taped – message from the pastor thanking me for connecting with the online worship, inviting me again to a call to action about Christ and congregation, and once again how best to connect with the church. End it with something like “You are appreciated by God, by me, and by this congregational family. Do not hesitate to reach out to us.”
Then if the video could play that shows people how to come and attend worship on-site when they are ready, that would have been a great ending to the online worship experience. The pastor could pitch it as something to watch as people consider their interest in joining with the church on-site.
On a scale of one to ten the overall online appeal was a solid seven. The worship experience alone was an eight. It was some of the before and after that drove the overall seven assessment. This church is doing a very good job at seeking to have online appeal. Achieving the last 20 percent is always the hardest work, but it is within the grasp of this congregation. They are a good model for other congregations to observe – particularly as they take next steps in a continuous or disruptive innovation pattern.
By the way, I acted like a first-time guest, although many people watching likely are already connected with the congregation in some way and did not need some of the extra stuff I observed as either missing or missing the mark.
Also, as would be true in every case, that are specific reasons why some of the things I pointed out are done that way, that a first-time observer would not know the back story. However, it is still important to have someone point those things out from time-to-time as every congregation ought to be innovating all the time.
George Bullard, www.BullardJournal.org, July 16, 2020