The new front door: Welcoming folks online

May 19, 2020

This article is already outdated, at least in terms of the title. Long before these days of COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders, a church’s website was becoming the front door, that is, the first point of entry for many potential first-time visitors. 
A 2012 Online Congregation Survey showed that 46% of church attenders said the church website was somewhat to very important in their decision to attend their current church. This is up from 33% in 2009.  
For churches doing some form of online worship during the COVID-19 shutdown, this is your only door. Here are the critical questions: can visitors find it? AND, once there, can they get in?
Rev. Rick McKinley

A colleague told me recently she had attempted to join a church’s Zoom worship service, she entered the Meeting ID and was asked to enter a password. But no password had been publicized. The text read: “If you do not have the password, please contact a church friend.” 
What’s the unintended message? Visitors need not bother coming. 
For those of you providing an online experience, this is how you will be connecting with people for worship for the foreseeable future. Several online platforms are showing record numbers, with as much as a 400% increase in online worship attendance! 
And it’s not just the regulars who are coming. Many, many people who have not regularly attended church are checking out the online experience. 
You still need to be ready for the first-time visitor, even online. 
In thinking about that, here are a few things you might consider as you continue to develop your worship experience:
  1. Make it easy to find and easy to get into. Whether you are using Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube Live or any number of online platforms, post what you are using everywhere. Make it front and center on your website. Make it your Facebook cover photo. Put it in every email, snail mail, etc. that you send. You cannot over-communicate. In addition, if you are using Zoom for the worship experience and not simply fellowship time, “Zoom bombing” and other security issues becoming less of a problem as Zoom continues to work on making the event secure.
  2. Make the first 5 minutes or so engaging! If you haven’t noticed, online worship is potentially a much more participatory experience and those first few minutes matter even more. Even if you are simply streaming the worship experience and not using something more interactive like Zoom or Google Hangout, most platforms provide for real-time comments and/or chat boxes. Utilize those tools immediately. Invite attendees to respond to a prompt. For example, “What do you need this space and time to be today?” 
  3. Continue to create high touch moments. In addition to the suggestion above, there are other ways to keep the attendee connected. Invite them to light candles where they are, or a lamp. Guide them into creating sacred space where they are. Invite people to write prayers in the comments. 
  4. Take an offering. It turns out, in many congregations across the country, offerings are up – but primarily for churches that are taking an offering even online. This is another opportunity to engage. You can encourage offerings through the comment and chat box with a prompt, “What is it you want to offer God today? Your thanks? Your fee? Your anxiety? Your hopefulness?” And, invite attendees to make a financial contribution, either online (if you’ve set up online giving[1]), or by mailing a check (and give the address, every time.)
  5. Virtual Eucharist. Now that we are authorized to provide virtual communion, you may be wondering what resources are out there. Here’s a good article[2] with some ideas, and it includes additional links to other articles to help you create the best virtual communion experience you can. 
These are just a few ideas of many, many more that are out there. Keep experimenting. Keep engaging. But most important: tell them where you are and how to get in the “new front door!”