COVID-19 prompted most churches to move to a 100% digital strategy in a short time. It was new and different, but churches adjusted. After moving online quickly, most churches saw higher numbers of online engagement, with about half of churches saying they grew. However, Easter came and went that year and those same numbers started dropping drastically, leaving most of us thinking about how we can change the trend.
Now, smart churches are continuing to expand their church's online footprint alongside their normal, in-person programming. As we expand online, we have to pay attention to engagement as much as we do reach.
So, how can we grow engagement?
Ideas for Church Engagement Online
These ideas are grouped by category. Which 2-3 ideas can you implement in the coming weeks to help grow online engagement?
Live Stream Engagement Ideas
In a live stream service, whether it's truly live or simulated live, there are lots of opportunities to promote engagement. This is an opportunity where a lot of church attenders and guests are watching and might be ready to take a step to become more engaged in our churches.
Prep our live stream church online hosts with engaging questions to ask. Tom Pounder shares 35 questions here.
Get creative with our live stream formula. Rather than simply putting what we used to do online, what if we changed it up? Sitcoms have formulas. Stories have 7 basic plots. We can have a set amount of “formulas” to how we plan our services online and still get creative by mixing it up and introducing new elements.
Start and promote watch parties. Engagement is all about getting people to connect and Facebook Watch Parties are one way to do that. Take a page out of Highmark Church's playbook where they provide helpful instructions to their attenders for how to host parties and promote engagement.
Online Engagement Through Our Church Website
In many cases, our website will be the first impression with guests. It's important here, more than just bout anywhere else, to thinks bout ways to promote engagement so visitors are inclined to take their next step.
Re-design (if necessary) our website with first-time guests in mind. Especially the home page. Also, design it for mobile. Imagine someone who has no experience with our church visits our church website on their phone; maybe through a search, after seeing a social media post, or through an invite. What can we include on our website that will encourage them to watch a message, stream the full service, or listen to a message podcast? Hint: It may not be just listing the current message title. Boosting church online engagement should start with first-time guests and what they experience.
Provide an easy next step for someone who is visiting again. After a guest visits the first time, and maybe a handful of times, what is ONE next step we can invite them to take right there on the website? Instead of giving 43 options and promoting anything and everything, we can make our home page focused on helping first-time guests take a quick step to engage (as in the previous point) and provide one option for the returning guest to take a next step.
Provide a personalized invite to their best next step. Using a tool like Right Message (affiliate link), you can invite people to take a different next step based on what steps they have already taken (or not). Unfortunately, Right Message won't sync with any church management system, but it can sync with Mailchimp, which could be used as an in-between option. A tool like Right Message can allow you to present custom messaging catered to the person who is visiting based on what you already know, or don't know, about them.
Social Media Engagement for Churches
Social media presents a massive opportunity for engagement. With over 2.5 billion, with a “b”, active users on Facebook, 1 billion on Instagram, and the second biggest search engine in the world (YouTube) available to us, how could we not meet people there? The whole premise is that it's social. As churches, however, we tend to use social media more like digital bulletins or megaphones, sending out whatever we want to promote. Here are some ways we can leverage social to promote engagement.
Re-share when church attenders post about our church. Whether they share something because you promoted them to, or they just share something on their own, we can re-share that content on church handles. Who doesn't like seeing their content shared? Then, that promotes them to engage more.
Share their content on church social accounts. Do you have attenders who run local businesses? Do you have attenders who share fun things about their family on social? How about attenders who share something that happens in their life that they're proud of? Those are great things to consider sharing on church social accounts to celebrate with them. They engage, share it, and so do their friends and family.
Give people a peek behind the scenes. Most attenders see online content or in-person experiences, but rarely get to see what happens behind the scenes throughout the week. Use social media to share a look at what happens behind the curtain. Typically, behind the scenes peeks get much more engagement on social media regardless of context.
Have a ministry “takeover” church social media handles. People engage more with teams they are closely affiliated with. Have ministries within the church “takeover” the church social media handles for a period of time to invite more engagement. People who serve on that ministry team or are served by that ministry team will tend to engage more.
Use social media as a discipleship tool. Social media is an extension of the church, so why not use it for discipleship? Provide devotionals for people to use through social media channels. Ask for prayer requests. Re-post key teaching points with corresponding action steps people can take to help grow their faith.
Highlight volunteers. Use church social media to highlight a volunteer. Not only does this cast vision for why people should serve, but it also promotes engagement in the same way that sharing an attender's social media content does.
Have fun and play games with people through social. Brady Shearer highlighted the importance of this and gave a great example in this Instagram post.
Encourage Church Engagement Through Online Community
One of the important engagement steps we want everyone to take is to step into community. To go from attending and potentially being unknown to getting involved in some type of intentional community where they are known and they know others. There are a number of ways to do that online.
Host virtual small groups via Zoom, Google Hangouts, or Microsoft Teams. Nothing new here, as most churches began doing this after COVID-19 shut down in-person gatherings. The question is– How are we helping guests and attenders who have never been in a group get connected?
Create opportunities for people to discuss the sermon online in a group setting. These don't have to be as long as our virtual small groups. Instead, they can be short opportunities (30 minutes) where anybody can jump in with a smaller commitment. Ideally, we should target new guests and attenders since long-time attenders may already be connected in community.
Create Facebook Groups for specific ministries and/or the entire church. Facebook Groups are used by 1.4 billion people, over half of the active users. Plus, Facebook LOVES groups. So much so, they spent tons of money for a Super Bowl ad that featured Groups. Why does Facebook love groups? Because it connects people. The same thing we want to do as churches. Facebook Groups are a great way to create online community and help people engage. Two big benefits are that it's available all the time and the barrier to entry is low. A guest can feel much more comfortable joining a Facebook group than they would be in joining a virtual group, much less an in-person group.
Hold a prayer meeting online. The Church prays. Why not hold an online prayer meeting and invite people to attend. Like the service discussion groups, these can be short. Maybe 30 minutes and it's another opportunity for attenders to engage in a simple way.
On-Demand Engagement Ideas
We live in an on-demand world now, where most people want the content they want when they want it. Live has tremendous value, but on-demand is just as important. Here are some ideas for how to help church online engagement through on-demand opportunities.
Offer classes online, not just live, but on-demand as well. Online courses have been growing quickly in adoption over the last few years and the industry is projected to bring in $350 Billion in 2025. More and more people are taking online courses and not just for accredited education. What if we recorded classes that our churches regularly offer and offered them online, on-demand? Dave Ramsey's company has pivoted to offer their courses on-demand online for individual users and for churches to share with their attenders. We can move the same direction with other classes.
If you offer regular on-demand content, give a video preview in advance. A lot of churches pivoted to offer children's and student ministry content on-demand through their website or YouTube. Early on, as we're trying to build traction, one idea is to release a short video previewing the content that's going to come out that week. Nobody has to be trained to consume on-demand content elsewhere in their life, but as on-demand content is new in the church world preview videos can help people get used to planning to watch it.
Leverage podcasting for more than just messages. It's important to provide podcast episodes of messages, but there are other opportunities with podcasts as well. What about a weekly podcast discussing the message? Or, a weekly podcast discussing the Bible? How about a weekly podcast encouraging parents? There are numerous opportunities to provide on-demand content that helps people engage through podcasting.
Children's & Student Ministry Online Engagement
After COVID-19 moved most churches 100% online, the biggest area to suffer, based on my conversations with church leaders, was children's ministry. Churches and children's ministry leaders did a great job shifting their content online and curriculum organizations like Orange were very generous and helpful along the way. However, every church leader I spoke to saw much lower engagement online compare to in-person attendance and it dropped significantly over the following months. There are no magic bullets here, but below are some ideas for children's ministry online engagement.
Feature the children's ministry in the main service live stream. In most churches, children's ministry parents and volunteers represent a pretty significant portion of who is watching our services for adults. Therefore, featuring children's ministry in the main service live stream actually makes a lot of sense. It raises the awareness of the ministry and what is offered and it is a reminder for parents to use it with their kids.
Offer pre-registration for children's ministry on our website. Create a way for first-time families to pre-register their kids through our website before attending. This should allow them to get through the process faster in-person and it increases the chance that they'll take the engagement step of attending.
Create online experiences for families. Create experiences for families to participate in together as well as with other families in the church online. Our church did this with the Easter Jam experience from Orange and it was a huge hit. We also hosted a Family Trivia Night using the tool Crowdpurr. These and other ideas make it easy for families to engage because it's fun and it connects families to each other, even through something as simple as a live chat during the experience.
Create curriculum boxes or bundles for parents to support the curriculum usage at home. If our strategy for children's/student ministry includes parents leading their kids through content at home, try sending physical curriculum boxes hope (or do a digital bundle) that gives parents everything they need to implement the curriculum that month.
Offer fun prizes for various games that are played. This works for live stream content or on-demand. Have fun with kids and students through online content and then offer prizes for engagement. The prizes can be simple, inexpensive items from Amazon or Oriental Trading.
Host a drive-through experience for families. Weather permitting, host a drive-through experience for families where they can pick up resources that will help them lead at home. Giving them the resources will help them engage more, but the best engagement might be seeing them at the drive-through!
Bonus Idea: Provide Accountability
Often times, the things we actually do are the things we're held accountable for. It's why most people have gym memberships but don't go. They don't have accountability. Do you know who goes more often? The people who have coaches expecting them to show up. One way to boost church online engagement is to provide real accountability, whether offline or online. One example of this is to start an accountability group for parents where each parent is in the group specifically to help them stay accountable in leading their kids in faith at home through the resources we provide.
The New Digital Church – Apply Online Strategies to Reach More Peopl
The New Digital Church is an 11-session course to help churches take strategies and tactics from the world of online business and apply them to their church. Churches are doing a lot to reach and connect people online, but I believe there is much left to do. If you're interested in taking the course and applying it to your church, you can get access to this course as a part of Ministry Boost Membership.
Free Download: 81 Tools & Apps for a Digital Church Strategy
I put together a PDF of 81 Tools & Apps churches can use as they develop their digital strategy. You can get the free eBook here.
What online engagement ideas have worked for you?
Share in the comments below.