By Eddie Pipkin

I hope you’re getting that traditional post-Easter rest, and I also hope you’re not!  Sorry for the head fake, but these are unusual times.  On the one hand, please, all ministry leaders stop and give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back, a gold star, and a celebratory lap around you empty sanctuary, because frankly it has been inspiring to see the many innovative (while touchingly traditional) ways you made Easter happen.  God bless you and your worship teams.  In the normal course of events, you would now give yourself a slow week or two to catch your breath after the busyness of Holy Week.  But please don’t do that this year: we are in the middle of an epoch-defining crisis, and now is the time to dig deep and redouble our efforts.  You’ve passed the initial test of adaptation and emergency relevance.  It’s time for phase two.

Everyone has been working diligently to develop online versions of ministry, including teleconference Bible studies and small groups, streaming worship, and, in some cases, interactive content.  One of the benefits of virtual, Internet-based ministry is that it is possible to do very specific tracking of who is participating (and conversely, by extrapolation, who is not).  It is easy to delegate part of your team to do a detailed dive into what virtual participation looks like for your congregation.  This has two different benefits:

  1. It’s important to be able to tell who the people are in your congregation who are staying actively engaged and who the people are who need some extra contact to be sure that they haven’t fallen by the wayside.
  2. It’s a great way to gauge the effectiveness of various virtual and online strategies – because this is one of the things that is going to stick around as a shift in ministry for some time to come – a shift that will be a major sea change for those of you who weren’t already working in these formats.

Our benchmark in the early weeks of this new way to worship, engage, and conduct ministry has simply been getting things up and running.  That means that we have set the goal of having an option for people to choose to engage with, and for churches far and wide, large and small, the initial engagement has been enthusiastic.  People have been willing to give it a try.  But not everybody has jumped in (for various reasons), and not everybody who initially tried it has stuck around (also for various reasons).  Therefore, it’s time to take a more data-driven look at the quantity and quality of our congregational engagement in these new platforms.

This is a great opportunity for your ministry data nerds!  These are folks who care about your mission and ministry and who intuitively understand the world of Information Technology and enjoy its nuts and bolts.  This is a win-win because these smart people, often working from a different skill set than the extroverted standouts who dominate face-to-face ministry, can be overlooked and underappreciated in the normal course of events. It’s their time to shine, and if you aren’t empowering them to help you right now, you are doing your ministry a disservice (especially if you are trying to handle this stuff single-handedly).

Ministry data nerds can comb through the information on any technical platform you are using and collect useful aggregate numbers like these:

  • How many people are tuning into your streaming worship?
  • How many people are opening your update emails?
  • How many people are “liking” and “sharing” your Facebook content and Instagram posts?
  • How many people are sharing your tweets of encouragement?

All of those numbers are easy to collect.  They are featured prominently in the places where those activities are happening or easily accessed (as in the case of email distribution).  But are you recording and collating this information to track trends and report back to leadership?

  • How are the aggregate participation numbers on each of these platforms changing over time?
  • What the most popular and least popular kinds of content?
  • What kind of content gets shared or reposted?
  • Can you do an analysis of the kind of interactive prompts (either by type of prompt or language used to promote the prompt) that seems to generate the most interaction?
  • Do particular authors get more attention?
  • Do particular age groups generate more attention?

You may have some limited sense of the answers to these questions, but you probably don’t have time or inclination to develop a detailed and organized analysis.  Let others do this vital work for you!  Once you have a better handle on the answers, you can act on that information to develop more content that fits your audience.  You also can identify portions of your audience that don’t seem to be engaged at all and brainstorm ways to get them to engage (most prominently by encouraging someone from within that group to be a part of your content development team).

And an important word here: If at this point in this “new way of doing things,” you have only staff and  a couple of key ministry leaders posting content – if they are the ONLY ONES developing and posting content – you are missing out big time.  This strategy (comfortable and easy as it may be) seriously undermines your ability to be creative, share different perspectives, and promote maximum engagement.  Plus, if you are only sporadically posting content, you are training your folks not to check your feed very often (which translates to less overall engagement).

As always in ministry, we should not be trying to do everything ourselves; we should be team coaches looking to maximize the available talent.  And there are an awful lot of people right now who are – through no choice of their own – hungry for something fun and meaningful to do with their time.

Engagement breeds engagement.   The more people who are actively engaged in online ministry during the week (through teleconference small groups, participatory “post a picture” contests or trivia challenges, encouraging devotionals and reflections, Bible study snippets or podcasts, fun “giving” challenges, reports from different ministry areas, and virtual music concerts). the more people who will join you for your online Sunday service.  Likewise, Sunday’s livestream becomes a forum for promoting all these other engagement opportunities.  And more engagement across the board means discipleship is continuing to happen, more people stay connected in ways that mean they can support one another, and giving to support ministry is also more robust.

A detailed look at the data can boost these efforts and can help us identify where people have “disappeared.”  Looking at your normal email distribution list, as well as your Facebook Live and YouTube Live feeds, you can see the names of the individuals who are participating (because they are the ones who are actively viewing, and they are the ones who are opening their emails — and by the way, this is a perfect time to be cleaning up that email list).

Someone in your organization should be keeping virtual attendance!

Ditto with your small groups and studies that have moved to a teleconference platform.  Aggregate attendance data from small groups meeting by video is useful and should be celebrated, but there are some interesting variations that distinguish the virtual world from the face-to-face world.  For instance, we should celebrate the 10 virtual groups we started, with no less attendance than six people in every group!  However, digging a little deeper, we might find out that, due to ease of access in this new format and owing to a new abundance of free time in the present reality, there are three or four people who attend three or four groups each.  Still to be celebrated!  That’s engagement!  But it also means that the aggregate number isn’t necessarily telling us the narrative of broad-based engagement that we assumed it might be.  Similarly, we might find out, if we look deeper, that the demographic participation in teleconference small groups is narrower than we had imagined.  That’s not a critique.  It’s an opportunity to empower the not-yet-engaged.

All of this data mining can also clue us in to people who don’t seem to be participating at all by virtual means.

We need to reach out to these people by other methods if we plan to keep them engaged.  If we’re phoning people to check in (which is awesome), we can focus our phone efforts on these people.  It’s not necessary to phone people who are already clearly engaged in multiple virtual options – it’s fine to do so, but if our bandwidth is limited, let’s focus on the ones who are not being reached otherwise.  We can also use some seriously old-fashioned technology, writing cards and letters to the people who are not into the online thing.

And the reasons people are not into the online thing are multiple:

  • Some people just don’t like the computer-based stuff. They just don’t get it or don’t enjoy it.  And that’s fine, but let’s don’t write them off.  (I heard a colleague tell a great story of encouraging a 90-year-old matron of the congregation to tune in to the livestream worship, only to be told, “I hope it doesn’t hurt your feelings, but for right now, I’m going to watch the Baptist service on the television.”  He laughed and told her good for her!)  Notice the key part of that story, beyond giving her permission to do what was comfortable and most beneficial to her in this moment, was that a conversation had taken place and he knew what was going on with her.  These conversations, however they happen, via whatever technology, are the crucial element.
  • Some people need help with technical issues. By now, hopefully, you have some folks who have made a ministry of helping the non-technical among us figure out how to get their devices to work properly.  (I am leading a book group with 10 people, and the first week we ZOOMed, about half of us had audio and video.  It took us three weeks to get everyone to 100%, but we got there with faith, perseverance, and help.)  This issue is highly frustrating to people who can’t figure it out and who don’t want to be a bother: they will just give up and go back to watching Tiger King.  Don’t let that happen!
  • Some people like the streaming world fine, but they are frustrated with your presentation. Keep working on it, remembering that John Wesley did not know what the Internet was, but he certainly would have included technical ministries in his admonition to keep “moving on toward perfection.”  There is still a lot of uneven audio quality in the feeds I have been visiting.  Please invest in simple microphone set-up for at least the preacher!  Keep working to make your production values stronger.  This is effort that is not going to go to waste.  We may be using this as our primary outlet for many weeks ahead.  Regardless, it is not going anywhere.  Even when the government advises us that it’s okay and relatively safe to assemble again, some people are not going to feel comfortable doing so.  They will still be relying on a virtual connection.

Using the available data that is there for your consideration can help you be more responsive to people’s needs:

  • Have someone actively monitor the real-time comments during your worship livestreams.  It is a great way to sense the concerns (express or implied) on people’s hearts and follow up with them afterwards.  You can also get a hint of great stories of praise and prayers answered that could be followed up on in more detail and shared with a broader audience.  You can solicit more detailed testimonies and then share them, for instance.
  • Ditto your social media feeds: Be sure someone is reviewing the comments and following up as needed.
  • Pay special attention to names you don’t recognize and have someone designated to click through and follow up with those people.  Even if they aren’t from your immediate community, they can be an active part of your “virtual congregation.”  And if they are a new visitor from right around the corner, how awesome is that!

Social media is a perfect medium for soliciting direct feedback, so don’t forget to do that.  Get ideas from people easily!  Ask them about their favorite parts of what is happening right now, how you might make adjustments, and what they would suggest for ministry to help others in this moment.

And don’t forget to share your good news!  Celebrate publicly how many people joined you for online Easter (this kind of enthusiasm also generates engagement — people don’t want to miss out).  If you have some favorite posts, encourage people to actively share them with friends and neighbors.  And don’t forget to share all of your content across multiple platforms!  If something is worth sharing in one spot, it’s worth sharing in all your spots.  Not everybody visits everywhere, so be sure they see your good news anywhere (they happen to visit).

Is your congregation paying close attention to levels of engagement with your virtual options?  Who is engaged and who isn’t?  And how are you reaching out to those who are not choosing your current options?  Share your stories, now more than ever!  In what ways have you been surprised and blessed unexpectedly, and in what ways have felt frustrated?  We’re all in this together.