the shape of leadership

Should You Have Church Online?

The pros and cons of livestreaming

Chris Colvin on December 13, 2019

In today’s world, what was once inconceivable is now achievable. Space travel is a matter of fact, not fiction. Electric cars are becoming more and more prevalent. One area that has made the greatest leap is communication.

Once only a dream in comic books, video phones are now common. And with these simple handheld devices, anyone can stream live. Social media sites, specifically Facebook, allow for free and open access. Streaming online was financially restrictive at one time. Today anyone can do it, including your church. But should you?

Most churches will decide that the benefits outweigh any negatives. But before you click the button and livestream your services, think about the unintended consequences.

Benefits of Livestreaming

Livestreaming doesn’t require expensive equipment, catchy graphics or technical know-how. But besides the ease of access, there are other good reasons to livestream your weekly service. For one, there is the connection it creates.

When anyone in your church is sick at home or away on business, it would be easy for them to log on and watch the service live. It may not be the same as being there in person, but it’s the next best thing. This sense of connection can be just as strong as an in-person experience.

Online streaming can also be a factor in your discipleship pathway. By making the full service or highlights available later on in the week, your people can revisit your sermon, take more notes, or even watch with a small group.

In addition, online streaming may be an effective outreach tool. As your people share the link on social media, their unsaved friends online will be able to watch the service, getting a virtual sneak peek before visiting in person. And the preaching of the gospel is powerful, whether digital or live.

This outreach dimension can allow your church to reach places it otherwise could not. One of my friends travels internationally for business. While away one weekend in a predominantly Muslim country, he went down to the hotel lobby where the Wi-Fi signal was stronger to watch his church’s online service.

A hotel employee saw my friend watching the service on his laptop and offered to stream it from the TV in the bar. When he returned a few weeks later, the hotel staff told him that every weekend people gather in the bar to watch his church’s service in America.

Possible Downsides

With those benefits, it’s hard to see any downsides to online church. But there are some things you should think about. The online experience is not the same as being there.

While online church can be an effective outreach tool, make sure you are clear about the end goal.

Social media works best as a support for real-life relationships. The same is true of online church services. People can utilize it to enhance the relationship with their church. However, some may try to replace church fellowship with virtual experiences.

One important aspect of church attendance is service. Volunteering in church is not about filling a need. It’s more than just being a warm body taking care of kids or greeting people at a door. Serving at church is part of discipleship and growth. When someone routinely or exclusively “attends” church online, there is no outlet for service. Therefore, there’s a lack of growth.

While online church can be an effective outreach tool, make sure you are clear about the end goal. It should be to connect people first to Jesus, and then to a life-giving community of believers. When online church becomes the focus, it provides a distorted view of what church is. Instead of a place to grow after a point of salvation, it’s a production to watch.

Online church actually makes it easier to skip church, too. Rather than keeping people connected when they occasionally miss service for health reasons or travel, it becomes an excuse to avoid attending.

More than one family has recounted to me over the years times they woke up late on a Sunday morning and decided to just watch church online. Those occurrences become more and more frequent as the excuses start to pile up. Being online can feel like being there, so why bother getting dressed and getting in the car?

What’s the Verdict?

Is it worth it? From a financial point of view, of course it is. Livestreaming church services is easy and inexpensive. As an outreach tool, it may be the most profitable and affordable thing you can do.

But from the point of view regarding your church’s spiritual health, it should give you pause. When an online experience replaces the real thing, your church members will suffer. Attendance will begin to lag. Volunteering will decrease. And online guests can easily opt out if they disagree or feel convicted.

Should you choose to stream your church online, go in with open eyes and clear expectations. It may be helpful to have a moderator for each service, encouraging everyone to attend in person when they can. That individual can also follow up later with the online crowd to ensure they are being discipled.

The decision whether to do church online will probably not affect much about your church’s continued mission. It actually has the potential to enhance it. But it should also be approached with caution.

If you feel like your church members are starting to drift away because of the ease of online church, I would recommend making changes, perhaps even cutting off the feed altogether for a time. In the end, the important thing is that people hear the message of the gospel. If that can be done online, over the air, or in person, God’s people should be doing it.

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