the shape of leadership

Who’s Really Watching?

To minister to your online attenders, it helps to know who they are

Chris Colvin on May 15, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has made us redesign how we do worship services, so we must rethink the content of our messages.

When the pandemic began, nearly every church took the same precaution of closing down public gatherings and moving online. Rather than meeting in a building, each home became the center of worship. Church the way we’ve known it was temporarily upended.

For two months, we’ve weathered the storm, developed strategies and perfected streaming to some extent. The availability of online ministry each week has been a constant comfort for many. Even as government restrictions ease in some parts of the country and churches discuss reopening plans, what was considered temporary may become longer term — at least for some.

I have had the privilege of consulting with pastors from coast to coast, helping them make decisions on how to adapt sermons in an unprecedented climate. One piece of advice I gave still rings true: Ask yourself, Who’s really watching?

Before this sea change and shift to streaming services, it was easy to know who you were preaching to. You could simply look out into your audience and recognize faces or notice new visitors. With a video format, however, those comforts are gone.

Now, you must rely on comments and social media interactions to figure out who is in attendance. With many churches opting to prerecord their services, there’s a delay in determining who’s really watching. Plus, only those who want to be seen will be seen online.

To better prepare, you need to shift focus. Plan ahead and decide beforehand who you will be talking to each weekend. That means a change in assumptions about your audience. Here are a few guiding principles:

Online Is All Ages

When the church shifted from buildings to living rooms, there were plenty of unintended consequences. Not all are bad, but many were unforeseen. One of them is that children would be joining their parents for worship.

Before the pandemic, most kids were dropped off in the nursery, ministered to in children’s areas, or gathered for an age-appropriate service in the student room. Now, all ages are worshipping together. Have you thought about the implications of that?

It’s easy to shape your message each week to a particular audience. When those people are adults, your illustrations and applications reflect that. And this is a time when you need to be speaking directly to them about fears, anxieties, opportunities and mission. Yet those messages may fly over the head of a fourth grader.

When you stream online, or provide your services to a high percentage of your church through streaming, you need to be aware that children are present. In fact, those churches returning to in-person gatherings will also need to grapple with this because their next gen ministries may need to remain closed for the time being.

While churches have taken a break from meeting in person, they have not taken a break from reaching the lost.

One way to reach younger viewers is to have a specific moment set aside during the worship stream just for them. That gives your children’s ministers an opportunity to speak. However, it may not always be enough.

A great way to prepare is to ask yourself, If I were speaking to 10-year-olds and their parents, what would I say? When you consider the message from their point of view, you will be more aware of their needs. Remember, if they are watching, they are part of your reach. Make sure you don’t leave them out.

Different People, Different Opinions

Every church is unique, but so is every churchgoer. Within your own congregation are people fearful about reopening too soon and those who think we’ve waited too long.

There are those at greater risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19 and those more likely to make a full recovery. There are those who think the current restrictions are too much and those who believe they are not enough.

The fact is, you are pastor to all of them. Set aside your own opinions on the matter and seek to minister to each person.

Doing something as simple as wearing a mask for a moment during a livestream might comfort those who feel awkward about the precautions they are taking. And sharing a story of physical healing could give others hope. Steer clear of sharing your own theories or assumptions, though. Instead, use the moment to unite and encourage.

The Gospel Matters

While churches have taken a break from meeting in person, they have not taken a break from reaching the lost. Though the gospel is still a priority across America, evangelism has required perhaps the biggest shift in thinking and response.

The strategy for many years has been to empower churchgoers to invite their unsaved friends to church. Then, at the close of service, there is a call for salvation. The response looks different in different churches, but it usually includes some sort of in-person activity, such as coming forward or filling out a card.

Three things need to be considered now. First, how do your people invite their friends to church? With online services, it may be easier than ever. Instead of planning a time to meet in a building, they can just click a link shared online. So begin with the assumption that lost people are watching.

Second, think through what a response looks like virtually. Perhaps people can indicate their decision in the comments section. Or maybe there is a link they can easily click to indicate they asked Jesus to be their Lord.

Finally, how will you follow up with them? That not only includes praying with them and getting them into a discipleship path, but it also means navigating the decision to be baptized. Though all of these might be accomplished with a little innovation and creativity, it begins with being aware of who is really watching.

For the time being, church is not being done the way we’ve always done it. Worship services are changing and audiences are shifting, but pastors are adapting. When you have a clearer idea of who is really watching, those adaptations are even more effective.

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