I began as a full-time online pastor eleven years ago, and I wish I’d known then what I know now. In this article I’ll share a couple of things that I wish I’d done differently when I was preparing to start an online church. Hindsight is 20/20, right?

Since we’re all in this together, we should only have to pay the “stupid tax” once.

2 Things I Wish I’d Done Differently When Starting an Online Church

1. I wish when I’d started, I understood if what I was shooting for was an online campus or online church plant.

Now that I’ve ministered in the online space for a while, there are distinct differences in both approaches toward Kingdom expansion. Here are a few ways I see it — in broad strokes for simplicity’s sake.

Church Component Online Campus Online Church Plant
Sunday Programming Determined by broadcast campus Determined by target audience
Funding source Broadcast campus Followers, ads, patrons, affiliate marketing
Funding model Determined by broadcast campus Determined by church plant
General Size Tends to be bigger Tends to be smaller
Relational Impact Broad Deep
Digital Platforms As many as possible The platform the target group is using
Follow-up tools Determined by broadcast campus Determined by platform
Practical Target Demographic Churched Pre/De-churched
Evangelism context Church service Conversations
Caters to Those who want a church service Those who want relationships/solutions
Driven by Content Connection
Cadence of interactions Weekly Daily
Feels like Digital Attractional Church Digital Missional Community

 

I could go on, but I think you get the basic idea. These are very different ministry models and require vastly different approaches and leadership styles. 

COVID IMPACT

Before COVID, most of the online expressions of church were an Online Campus, a natural expansion of the multi-site campus model. Like the multi-site model, it uses the Sunday service as the primary tool. As a result, taking it online is pretty simple and consists of adding another campus — though digital. Some of the advantages of this multi-site approach are to help buffer the decline of on-site weekend attendance over the years, power in integration, and more unity across all sites.

But then COVID hit.

Like other sectors of society disrupted by COVID, many churches were in scramble mode to get what they do online for the first time as quickly as possible. I also saw many make the same mistake I wish I hadn’t done when I was starting out: they started with the Sunday service, when a different approach might have built a stronger foundation. Keep reading. 

Be sure to also check out: 5 Genius Tools For Your Online Church Experience

2. I wish I hadn’t started with the Sunday service experience. 

What might have made sense to do a decade ago is no longer the case.

To clarify, COVID accelerated 10 years of cultural change within 10 months. People became more isolated and the need for connection and community skyrocketed. But instead of giving people what they need most, connection and community, most churches offered a livestream of their Sunday morning service to start their online church programming. As I see it, this was a missed opportunity to serve people using online tools.

While this effort might maintain connection for churched people, it leaves the unchurched out in the cold. Here’s why: because there’s no relational connection to maintain, it’s just another video of people I don’t know (which can be kind of depressing if they’re having a good time).

To build relationship connections among online attendees, go beyond a Sunday service livestream. Use online resources to encourage community, even simple tools like a chat function or info to join an online study or group. Click To Tweet

Like many churches this past year, when I started a decade ago, I began first with a church service first. I couldn’t figure out why so few seemed to engage in the chat or join an online group for more community. It’s because there’s no connection or bond. It’s one thing to maintain an already-established connection online, but to build it from the ground up is difficult. 

Different Means to the Same End

There’s a phenomenon I call “Dance with the One who Brought You” syndrome where the methods or tools that brought you to Jesus tend to become sacred. In other words, there’s a sense of loyalty to methods that worked positively on you at one time. As a result, moving on to another method gives a twinge of disloyalty.

But even Jesus said that people put new wine in new wineskins while saying the old is better. 

Be hospitable online: Optimizing Your Church Website for First-Time Guests

Just because we’ve always used the Sunday service as the means to inviting people into our faith experience, it doesn’t mean it’s the only way or the best way. On the contrary, in the online church world, it might be detrimental.

When I started in online ministry, I didn’t realize that when people imprint with a church service that isn’t interactive, whether it’s a passive watching of a service on-site or online, that initial experience determines the way they interact with the church going forward. And that’s a habit that’s hard to break.

It’s difficult to create community if you don’t start with community.

People imprint with church service styles. Once they get used to passively watching church, that determines how they interact with church going forward. It’s difficult to create community if you don’t start with community. Click To Tweet

Don’t get me wrong, the modern church service (especially at scale) does many things well, but community isn’t one of them. And yet, that’s what people need most right now.

Interaction is key and I’ll discuss that in a later article. I have a long list of regrets, so there’s more helpful tips to come. 

What I Know Now

In summary, we must not confuse methods and mission. After all, the church service is a tool as a means toward the end of making disciples. It’s not the only tool and increasingly it’s less effective as it used to be. Given that, to simply start with the service might not be the best approach.

Especially if we don’t have clear what kind of Online Church strategy we’re trying.

Do you pastor an online church? What are some hard-learned lessons you’ve encountered? Drop a comment below an share your experience with us.