Online Church—The very words bring strong emotion to the hearts of many Christians and ministry leaders.

Hope – to the extremely cautious.
Joy – to the tech savvy.
Peace – to the introvert.
Fear – to the majority of pastors.
Concern – to the theologically astute.
Fatigue – to the faithful church member.
Gratitude – to every Christian who wasn’t able to attend physical services through the epidemic.

There are two ditches in which the American church may drift as we rapidly speed toward the future.

1. Ignore the online opportunities and return to business as usual.
2. Embrace the online opportunities to the point of theological neglect and weakened discipleship.

Therefore, I propose that ministry leaders should be thinking in terms of building a “Bigger Front Door” rather than establishing an “Online Campus”[1].

How can I take advantage of this new global paradigm so that we can reach more people in need of salvation, and nurture more fully our own church members? Allow me to give you five principles that will help you think about the very near and real future.

1. Eliminate the Fear

What if people prefer the online experience? What if they never come back to the church building? What if some of our disciples use the online services as an offramp from our church community rather than an onramp to our church community? These and other concerns may be legitimate for several reasons.

· Backslidden Christians have improperly used online services as an excuse to miss church. On multiple occasions I’ve had people tell me how much they loved my livestreamed sermon on Sundays we’ve hosted guest preachers.

· The church is not a content distribution business. However, in the age of Netflix and YouTube, immature Christians may not know the difference.

However, although the online service will garner a following and invariably some may use it improperly, most people will eventually want an in-person experience. One of my deacons works as a manager of an Apple Retail Store in Las Vegas. He recently explained to me this fascinating thought:

“Do you know why Apple has invested billions of dollars into brick and mortar retail stores around the world? Because people will always desire the experience. I can click on my computer and within two hours have a brand-new iPad delivered to many locations around the country. It’s convenient, it’s cheaper, it’s easier, and I don’t have to leave my home. Yet, nonetheless, Apple Stores can be found from Paris to Paraguay. Why?—most people are tactile. They are physical creatures who desire a physical experience in an increasingly virtual world.”

Don’t let the fear of what might be keep you from the reality of what will be.

2. Connect the Viewer to a Real Person

We are establishing a small group of four talented onscreen personalities that will function as our online hosts. Similar to the hosts of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, two of these personalities will welcome our livestream viewers and engage them with social media challenges designed to gather information from which we can further connect with newer viewers. The more comfortable our viewers become with these hosts, the more likely they will be to visit one of our locations. They will feel as if they already know someone at that church. 

We plan on rotating our four hosts. Two onscreen and two greeting at the front doors of the church. Every other Sunday they will switch spots. From the studio in the back of our auditorium the viewer will be able to interact with the LIVE hosts during the first 10 minutes of the worship service, while seeing the actual services begin in the background. After ten minutes of interplay with the online audience, they will cut to the worship service in action. The second broadcast interruption will take place just prior to the sermon. During this cut away the two onscreen hosts will encourage the viewers to fill out a digital connection card, give online, and connect with one of our many programs and ministries.

3. Develop a Workable Online Assimilation System

The point of the service is to bring them to a physical location where we can more biblically disciple the individual in the ways of Jesus Christ. You must develop a proper digital connection card. From here a process can be written that begins with a connection card and ends with an in-person visit to one of your physical locations or to a sister church within the Idea Network. The ultimate goal is not increased online activity. The ultimate goal is not monetary giving. Our ultimate goal is to bring them to a physical location where they can be truly discipled.

4. Whet the Appetite

Let’s be honest. The moment you open up your doors after the pandemic, it’s unlikely that the building will be full once again. People have been traumatized. Perhaps it will take months, if not years, for some of the more fearful sheep to return to the fold. What they don’t need is to be harassed, shamed, and degraded for not returning to normalcy as quickly as you would like. I don’t believe they should be heartlessly humiliated, but neither should they be patronizingly placated. Leave them wanting more.

Let them see the services happening. Let them see the crowds returning. Let them see the worship team, the choir swaying, and the preacher bloviating. Let them wish they were actually there in person and allow the Holy Spirit do in their hearts what you cannot do on your own.

5. Establish a True Online Team

Regardless of the size of your church, to do this well, will take volunteers and financial resources. Depending on the size of your church, you may even need to hire staff to execute this correctly. This may become a new hospitality ministry. These are the greeters, parking lot attendees, and welcome committees of the future.

We see two main categories of volunteers that will make up this team. On-screen helpers and technical knowhow. Both of these will need to be proficient in social media and extremely tech savvy. We at the Idea Network believe that you can take advantage of this new global paradigm and see more in-person guests than ever before.

You won’t have to change your theology! You won’t have to compromise your philosophy! But you will have to intentionally build a bigger front door—an expanded entrance by which more souls can enter your church.

[1] There are some who would not have the theological reservations that I would have in relation to establishing a fully functional online campus. This article is not meant to address these theological quandaries. It is simply meant to encourage increased online ministry to those who may have such concerns.