I wanted to take a minute to share some thoughts and realities with my Mount Pleasant/IMPACT family related to our Online Campus (Digital Church). After 17 weeks of nothing but Digital Church, we returned to in-person worship on July 11/12. The first two weekends have pretty much been what I expected. Because of the continued need for social distancing and not being able to offer any Children’s or Student programming, our numbers have been small (at least in relation to what they were before COVID-19). Up to this point at our Mount Pleasant campus in Greenwood we’ve said, “Masks are welcome but not required.” All of our IMPACT Campuses, because they’re in Marion County, have required masks. That’s about to change for us here in Greenwood as a result of Governor Holcomb’s mask order that takes effect on July 27 (watch for more details soon). So, while we’ve returned to in-person worship, the majority of our church family has continued to worship online, which is absolutely okay.
As we prepared to return to in-person worship, I made the decision to continue to pre-record the service for our Online Campus (Digital Church). I know some of you have been disappointed by this because you feel like you’re not getting the opportunity to be part of the “live” service, even though, with the exception of one song, the content is exactly the same. Let me tell you why I made this decision and then ask for your help.
Having been a Pastor for 40 years, I can tell you that weekend attendance has always played a powerful role in the life of a church. I can also tell you that weekend attendance in the American church has been on the decline for some time. This is true for megachurches and for small churches. For the sake of explanation, let’s say that you are a pastor who leads a church of 500 people (weekly attendance average). The truth is, you’re probably reaching somewhere between 750 to 1,000 people…they’re just not all there on the same weekend. As I said, this has been happening for some time. Before we began online only services in mid-March, our average weekend attendance was around 4,500. The first weekend of online only services, we had an attendance of 6,400 (probably not an exact number, but the closest we can get with the way we measure online worship). On Easter weekend, we had 10,703, which is our largest weekend crowd ever. The next weekend we had 9,118. Do you see where I’m going? Our Online Campus was already engaging a large number of people, and when the shut down came, that number grew significantly. And when we looked at our online analytics, we saw a BIG difference. Before the shutdown, we could see that most of our viewers were right here in Central Indiana. But now, our viewers are spread all over the United States and in multiple countries, including Ecuador, Italy, England, The Netherlands, Sweden, Korea and India. It’s really been pretty amazing. Our “digital” reach has exploded. And while about 25-30% of our people have returned to in-person worship (which is in line with what’s happening in the church in America), our digital attendance has continued to grow because the COVID-19 virus has accelerated what was already happening. On top of that, most Church Growth Consultants predict that during whatever amount of time the church was closed for in-person worship, people's worship habits have changed. In other words, there are probably people who will never return to in-person worship.
So, with all of this in mind, I made the decision to continue to pre-record our Online Campus service so that we could have the freedom to discover new and better ways to engage with online worshipers. Now, I’ll be the first to say that this is a work in progress, so there haven’t been a lot of new things added to the Online Campus – at least not yet. But this is our goal because, as one Church Leader has stated, “The future of the local church will be shaped by how we handle the digital opportunity now.” And I, for one, do not want to miss the opportunity to reach lost people or encourage what might be called unchurched or de-churched people because I’m unwilling to do something new.
I’m am, in many ways, a very traditional person. And over the past few months I have found myself grieving over the loss of church as I have known it my entire life. I’ve always been thankful for the ability to reach people through our Online Campus, but the expansion of the Online or Digital Church would not be my first choice, especially not at my age (and now I’m being very transparent). I have gone through some significant internal battles over whether or not I’m even equipped, at my age, to be a pastor in this new age of doing church. But the Digital Church is here to stay (some of you may remember that a few years ago I said this was coming during one of our January “State of the Church” messages). And here’s the conviction of my heart. If we use our Online Campus only for the benefit of existing members, we are missing a huge opportunity to reach new people and help them grow. And I believe God expects us to use whatever means necessary to reach people.
So, if you are missing the old way of worshiping online where the live service was simply “streamed,” then I want to ask you to do two things for me. First, embrace the new format of the Online Campus and pray that God will show us how we can make it a more engaging experience for the new people we are reaching. I’m going to believe that when the time is right for you and your family (and I trust that to you completely), you are going to return to in-person worship. That means Digital Church is something that’s temporary for you. So, pray that God will show us how to make this the most effective tool it can be for reaching new people (lost people). Second, as you worship through our Online Campus, pray for the people who are worshiping with you that you don’t know and will probably never meet. Pray that we can reach them on a personal level and help them discover the new and better life Jesus offers. Pray that we can engage them in some kind of online Bible Study or Small Group that will help them to grow.
I’m anxious for the day when we will all return to in-person worship. I’m longing for the day when I can say, “Go ahead and stand with me for the reading of the Scripture,” and a large crowd of people stands in front of me with Bibles open. And I’m longing for the day when I feel your hearts and your involvement and your energy as I preach. You have no idea how much I miss all of those things. But even when that day comes, we won’t simply be going back to church the way it was before. Church has already changed – whether we like it or not. And we need to make sure we embrace the positive opportunities of that change to reach and engage as many people as possible in the name of Jesus. So please pray for me and please pray with me as we discover new ways to reach people.