From Pews to Pixels: Tips for Translating from In-Person to Online Church Services

Ready for the most important insight about moving to online church services? It’s not simply live streaming a church service.

I like how Benjamin Windle, founder and pastor of Lifeplace Church in Australia, puts it: “Adding a live stream and thinking that’s the solution is like a university adding a camera into a lecture room and calling it ‘online campus.’ It’s not the full expression of what a campus is; it’s just a camera feed.”1

All the leading voices agree—online church services are not just recording church. So then, what is online church? How can we possibly take something as earthy, bodily, and sacramental as church and replicate it online?

You can’t. And that’s the point. Here are some of the best principles experts agree on about how to think of online church.

Think transportation, not transference

Author and theology professor W. David O. Taylor provides a powerful word for moving your church online: “transposition.” When the medium changes—from online to in-person—so does the method. The material must undergo transposition. “To put it in musical terms, how might we transpose what we normally do in corporate worship into the new ‘key’ of technology?”2 This principle is absolutely critical and will touch every aspect of your church’s ministry, from your service to how you run online small groups.

The way to transpose is to go back to the heart of what you do—your why. Why do we ask people to greet each other? Why do we preach? Why do we pray? Why do we sing? When you begin answering these questions, the answers for how to transpose church to online leap out in front of you. Trust your instincts.

Brady Shearer sums this up well, “Remember, your church’s mission isn’t to host a service. Don’t mistake method for mission.”

tips for moving to online church services

Adopt a winning strategy: content + interaction

Why are Facebook and Instagram so successful? Why do millions of people in every country spend hours on them daily? Because they want to.

Social media taps into the innate momentum in humans’ desire to connect. We like interesting content that matters to us, and we like to share it with people who matter to us, whether it’s a photo from a recent adventure, a good quote, or an interesting article.

Your church is more than prepared to tap into that same momentum. You have fresh content coming out weekly—sermons. You have an online network who already knows each other well—your church body. You have an entire group with multiple shared interests—the things of God. All you have to do is post.

Start simple. Post something every day, and always pair it with a question. Whether it’s a Bible verse, a sermon, a video, or a good quote, say something about your content, then ask others to share their thoughts. Post on Facebook, Instagram, your Faithlife group, or whatever platform your church uses. (And if you want more people using your church’s own platform, put exclusive content there and drive to it from Facebook and Instagram.)

By the way, this interaction principle applies just as much to your live streamed services. Make the services more of a conversation, even in the sermon.

Commit to an approach

With these two principles in place, transposition and content + interaction—you are ready to establish immediate and long-term approaches.Think of your online ministry as a whole new ministry of your church, with its own goals and mission: What path do you want people to take?

Jay Kranda, online church guru and online pastor at Saddleback Church, suggests choosing one of three different approaches:

  • Nearby approach: Engage with people locally using the internet.
  • Anywhere approach: Engage people through the internet to participate in your church’s paradigm by starting a location [online or in-person gathering] in their city.
  • Hybrid approach: Engage people through the internet to participate in your church’s paradigm by attending your church’s location or starting a location in their city.3

Most small to mid-sized churches will probably go with option one, perhaps option three, especially if they are getting started with online ministry.

With a nearby approach, you have two goals. One is to engage your active members online throughout the week by complementing your in-person expressions, perhaps through online Bible studies or classes. The other is to engage people online who are not part of your church, and encourage them over time to visit in person and eventually become an active member. This approach is basically edification and evangelism online.

Appoint a leader

In the same way every ministry of a church has someone overseeing it, so should your church’s online ministry.

Who should this person be? Your instinct may be to choose someone tech-savvy or active on social media, but that is not the priority. First and foremost, this person is a pastor. Kranda defines an online pastor as one who “guides, nurtures, and spiritually shepherds people within a digital age.” Online is simply the realm in which they shepherd.

Is this person familiar with the digital world? Absolutely—or at least they are willing to learn. But more importantly, they understand ministry. They are committed to the kingdom and unafraid to get creative.

Your online ministry will sputter or wander without someone leading it. Who will respond to comments? Who will track and analyze data? Who will organize people into online small groups and make sure tech is working for people?

The more your online expressions grow, the more they need someone to guide them. This is your online pastor.

***

This post is adapted from “From Pews to Pixels: Tips for Translating In-Person Church to Online Church” by Matthew Boffey in the May 2020 edition of Ministry Team magazine. 

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  1. Benjamin Windle, “Why live streaming is not the full answer for churches during COVID-19,” benjaminwindle.com.
  2. W. David O. Taylor, “How to Lead Online Worship without Losing Your Soul—or Body,” christianitytoday.com.
  3. Jay Kranda, State of the Online Church (ebook), with Vanderbloemen and in partnership with Pushpay.
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Written by
Matthew Boffey

Matthew Boffey (MDiv, Trinity International University) is the pastor of worship at Christ Church Bellingham. He is also editor-in-chief of Ministry Team magazine, has edited several books, and has written for several blogs and publications, including Relevant online, the Logos blog, and the Faithlife blog.

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Written by Matthew Boffey