A year ago, churches nationwide unexpectedly were thrust into exclusively doing virtual events and services, over many months. With churches recently returning to live services, and the worst relating to the pandemic seemingly behind us … what now?
Over these past 12 months, churches have adapted on the fly. Many have begun hosting live services recently, and are looking to soon begin scheduling live events as well. For some churches, having gone fully virtual has resulted in a congregation adding new members, locally and beyond. Eventually, as churches reopen for services and approach their pre-pandemic attendance numbers, the virtual option shouldn’t disappear. After giving so much attention to virtual efforts in recent months, pivoting back to doing live events well is challenging.
Working to Ramp Up In-Person Offerings
Even as things eventually get back to some sense of “normal,” don’t anticipate a magical return to February 2020. Among the first steps is to return to in-person services, albeit with limitations such as social distancing.
“Obviously, we are communal beings. God has built us to be in fellowship, together in person,” noted Van Metschke, church relations/client solutions representative for Vantage Pro AV, based in Newport Beach, California.
Returning to some degree of how life was a year ago, won’t happen overnight for most churches, added Metschke.
“The bigger issue is the comfort level of those in the congregation,” he said. “Each person’s degree of comfort will vary coming back, with others being in a close proximity to them.”
As explained by Zac Novak, owner of MediaNet.AV, “The biggest thing for churches is that they are all about community. The hope is that everyone will come back safely. Even if some come back wearing a mask.”
Even as congregants begin returning to in-person services, Metschke anticipates needing continued virtual efforts by churches.
“I believe there will be a larger percentage of people that will stay at home and watch virtually in the future, than before the pandemic started,” noted Metschke.
As In-Person Events Return, How to Handle Doing Virtual?
To help boost the numbers of those returning to in-person services in the coming weeks, Novak cited hearing from some churches, “about getting rid of the livestream. Or to offer one (streamed) service. That’s to encourage people about coming back, as some have gotten accustomed to staying home.”
Any suggestion to turn things back, where some churches are not streaming, as was the case a year ago, or cut back, wasn’t viable to Metschke.
“What they are doing online, that cannot be taken away, once they go back to in-person,” explained Metschke. “Once you have established those things, you will have to keep those (features).”
Among the more valuable aspects of streamed services, Metschke outlined, include prayer requests, chat rooms or donation/tithing functionality.
With what has transpired over the past year relating to streaming and virtual events, Metschke added, “Churches have learned that their online experience is as important as their in-person experience. It’s not just because of COVID, but because of any event, for those people that cannot come to church. Those people cannot get less of an experience.”
Overall, positive strides have been made virtually, with Metschke noting, “As far as technology, churches have improved their product online. That will benefit in the technology of a live event, as long as they’ve applied what they have learned.”
Recognizing Value Toward Improving Virtual Choices
For too many churches that previously relied on hosting in-person events and services, the lurch to virtual wasn’t smooth.
“When things shut down and everything went 100 percent online, for those churches that had not been doing it, and had to quickly put something online … quality suffered,” explained Novak.
The MediaNet.AV owner noted that for those churches which were doing at least minimal streaming before last year, oftentimes large strides have been made.
“There were churches doing (limited streaming), with 5 to 10 percent watching. Then it suddenly rose to 100 percent,” added Novak. “In many cases, they have stepped up their game. It’s opened up the church’s eyes that the quality (of a stream) is important.”
As Metschke elaborated, “It’s better to do something simple well, versus doing something grand poorly.”
To be successful in such an effort, it’s best to turn to those who have experience with such projects.
“You have to have a plan and partners, like local tech people or integrators,” said Metschke. They can help you execute what you want to do well.”
Encouraging A Return to In-Person Services, Events
Among the various ways to bring congregation members back for services or events, Metschke suggested taking advantage of one’s space.
“Offering in-person events in a worship environment where the room is bigger, and more spread out, will probably be safer,” he said. “It offers people a low-impact entrance back into (an in-person service).”
Among the ways to make it work for congregants, Novak explained, “The churches that we have been working at, spread people out. That includes using multiple rooms for overflow, and seating for every other row.”
Helping with that approach, churches typically follow state government directives relating to capacity and safety measures.
“Churches probably want to follow what their own governors indicate is mandatory, from cleaning things, to wearing masks in buildings,” explained Novak. Metschke agreed, adding, “They need to do their due diligence. That may include how many chairs can be in a certain spot, or the maximum number of people in a building, to making sure things are clean in a restroom area.”
As In-Person Events Return, What to Change?
Many churches have made significant adjustments to the makeup of their events and services recently, after shifting fully to virtual. Don’t envision simply shifting things back, once in-person services and events return.
If the church opts to change their virtual service broadcast, to broadcasting its in-person service, “Will that work for the (online audience)?,” asked Metschke. In many cases, churches have seen some growth in its audience in recent months after going virtual. “They have created this online audience. It’s one that expects certain things with the broadcast. If the church shifts to an in-person feel, the audience may not like that,” he added.
With each passing month and more practice, many churches have come to learn a lot about their virtual needs.
“Most churches that have been doing online, should have upped their game on personal interaction before and after a service, with an online pastor,” noted Metschke.
The value of having an online pastor, described Novak, is that they “welcome (online attendees), and speak to them directly. Instead of just having a camera looking into the room, it’s much more engaging for the congregation.”
In developing virtual events or services, Novak agreed that “the hardest part is making them feel like that they are there and part of the service.”
This means seeking to improve engagement beyond services, explained Novak. Using technology proactively to stay connected with the congregation throughout the week is just one way.
“Churches are creating more video content midweek, because they have more time to prepare it,” said Novak. “There are many pastors who are also doing more on social media, in part because they are doing fewer in-person meetings” compared to a year ago.
As the first day of spring recently arrived, for much of the country, it opened up seasonal in-person service options.
Among those choices are outdoor worship services, noted Novak. “For churches that have purchased a FM transmitter, members can stay in their cars and listen,” he said. When asked about such an option, Metschke added, “It goes back to taking the temperature of the congregation. If you have the space in your parking lot, and the technology to do it, it’s certainly an option.”
In general, when considering such possibilities, Metschke added, “The bottom line is what can a church do? When working at having people hear the Gospel and the message, as long as it’s feasible, the church should do it.”