Thursday, May 07, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Evaluating Virtual Church [Part 1]

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

If church is a big enough part of your life that you normally go every Sunday, in all probability it will not have escaped your notice that your congregation has started meeting online after some fashion or other. Most churches I have ever been part of are doing it, and because a bunch of them are posting their virtual Sunday morning services on YouTube, it’s given me opportunity to check out the ministry of believers I have not seen personally in years.

Tom: In the process, I noticed something interesting and perhaps worthy of discussion.

Viewership on the Decline

Perhaps the best way to explain it is to chart it for you. Below are the stats for six more-or-less-random small-to-medium congregations in Canada. A few were super-organized and had a virtual service up on YouTube for the very first Sunday of the COVID-19 lockdowns. Others watched those services for a week or two, then got something identifiably their own up and running by the fourth or fifth weekend.

So, Bernie, IC: allowing for the usual ups and downs in viewing traffic that have to do with who the advertised speaker is for any given week, do either of you detect even the tiniest tendency toward an overall trend in the YouTube viewership of Sunday morning services over time?

YouTube Views Week-Over-Week for Sunday Morning Church Services

Church A
Church B
Church C
Church D
Church E
Church F
Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

Week 5
Week 6

Short version: I did not find a single, solitary example of an unambiguous upward trend in viewership as the lockdowns have worn on. Everybody’s numbers have been tailing off from week to week. I’ve got to tell you, I’m quite curious what that trend might signify about us. It might not be a bad thing, but I thought you guys might have some thoughts about what these numbers are telling us.

Bernie: Novelty often produces a crowd. This sort of a downward trend is typical of many things once the novelty is gone. Season 2 of almost any television show draws fewer watchers than season 1, the first book of a trilogy has more readers than the third. “Video church” was kinda cool on week 1. By weeks 3 and 4, it’s not novel anymore.

Tom: The Second Law of Thermodynamics applied to virtual church. Okay, I’ll buy that to a certain extent.

Immanuel Can: I confess I was entirely unaware of the downward trend. What I have noticed is that some unconventional fellowship arrangements have come into my life since the COVID lockdown. Could it be that is what the numbers reflect — that people are developing new expectations of ministry quality and exercising their options, rather than that they are simply checking out?

Tom: I think it’s distinctly possible, sure. We’re really in conjecture-land here, but that’s okay. Six weeks of no-church is something we’ve never encountered before, and everything we’re trying is fairly new to us, if not to the world.

IC: Just last night I was speaking remotely to a church that’s a couple of hours’ drive away. The distance makes them reluctant to call on me, but now they are fine with asking me to speak for them.

Tom: So perhaps people are taking the opportunity to serve and fellowship virtually with Christians afar off rather than Christians around the corner. And why not? If we are meeting online, we can meet with anyone anywhere. We’re not limited by geography or physical distance. The current restrictions give us opportunity to serve the church at large, not just locally. That’s an interesting and unexpected development.

At any rate, I’ve been batting around a number of possible theories about the consistently declining YouTube views, including the one you just floated:
  1. Don’t worry about it; it’s too early and too small a sample to take seriously.
  2. Some people may be losing interest in church, period.
  3. You can get better messages elsewhere online than from members of your own local church.
  4. People go to church for something other than preaching.
  5. We’re not using technology to best advantage.
You can probably think of more possibilities, or you may have comments on these.

Too Early and Too Small

Tom: “You only looked at six churches over six weeks!” This is a perfectly reasonable objection to making any dogmatic pronouncements about the viewership prospects of video preaching over time. Set against that, my sample was actually a bit larger than I have documented above: I limited my chart to six churches mainly because that’s what I could fit across a single blog column, but I did have a look at the YouTube stats for a few other churches just for the sake of confirming my theory. I will say that I could not find one church with YouTube views going up week over week. Not one. If anyone knows of a church with a six-week Sunday morning video trend that is heading uphill, please comment below. I’m very interested in knowing more about what they are doing differently that the rest of us. As for it being too early, let’s just hope we don’t have a 12- or 18-week pattern of virtual church to examine ... ever. Six weeks is more than enough.

Bernie: There’s also the fact that, as you mentioned, Churches D, E and F may well have been bundled into the numbers for Church A, B and C in week 1 — or something like that. Early adopters had access to the entire potential audience, so if my meeting wasn’t online, I would — naturally enough — gravitate to other gatherings that were already producing something for an online audience. But once MY group was online, I would leave the early adopter and return to my more comfortable / known group. So some degree of ‘leaching’ is to be expected.

Some People May Be Losing Interest in Church

Tom: An elder floated this second possibility by me early in the lockdowns: some people may not come back to church once the lockdowns are over. That had never occurred to me. I think it’s not all that likely, but I won’t completely dismiss it. It’s probably true that some semi-regular church-hangers-on will drop off. The question is how many. I don’t think it fully accounts for this sort of speedy tailing-off of video interest.

Bernie: Well, there was a rather generalized panic in society, which is now dissipating. Week 1 or 2, some people genuinely felt the end was near. Panic was high, toilet paper stocks were low and people were looking around and wondering what was happening. I think they were asking real questions and looking for real answers; I know at our meeting, we had many “new” faces looking in. But — in broad terms — there is an increasing sense of “Yeah, this was bad, but not as bad as it might have been and when are we getting back to normal?” The panic is dissipating and the urge to ask the big questions is dissipating with it. So, naturally enough, the audience dwindles.

Tom: Do you think there’s an serious chance the elder in question is on to something, and that a measurable number of peripheral hangers-on will not return when this is over, having gotten comfortable watching YouTube at home in their Underoos?

IC: I don’t know how we can rule that out right now. Certainly a number of people who perhaps have been held by habit are getting habituated to being at home rather than at church. If habit was all there was, then I think we’ve just lost that draw in those cases.

Bernie: On a personal note, I’ve been astonished (and troubled) to find out how lazy I truly can be. In pre-Wuhan times, I occasionally wrestled with the need to get dressed up, out to the car, drive a few kilometres, etc. If the speaker was someone I didn’t usually enjoy, that laziness morphed into resentment and it was really ONLY the fact that my family would be negatively influenced that pushed me to get moving. It’s been enlightening to realize that now that I can “attend” meeting in my shorts, show up at the precise moment the meeting starts and leave the second it finishes, and that the effort involved in attending is limited to loading up Zoom on my notebook — well, even THAT seems like a lot of effort. Video has exposed both the poverty of our preaching AND the laziness of our attendees — and I’m guilty on both sides of that equation.

There is this realization that, unlike meeting in person in a building, it is much harder to measure my attendance via YouTube. So while I might have had a call from the elders if I missed a few weeks of meetings in person, that will not happen via YouTube; there, I am simply one of dozens, or hundreds, of views. Did I attend? Maybe, maybe not. Without the possibility of approbation or judgment, motivation to actually tune in drops. The downward trend may well be people realizing their newfound “freedom”.

Tom: All good points there, Bernie. I had not thought about accountability, or rather the lack of it. That is definitely the case. How do elders shepherd virtual sheep?

Better Messages Elsewhere?

Tom: Another possibility: is it possible YouTube offers so many alternatives that local church offerings are being rejected in favor of better teaching elsewhere? I’m sure it is. The catch is, if this is the case, why are everyone’s numbers down; or at least everyone’s numbers I could find on YouTube?

IC: Better messages elsewhere? Certainly. And many may not be offered in a “churchy” context. More relevantly to the present numbers, I’ve noticed that there are many quite high-quality “sermon-type” offerings that are available online, stuff much better than the pastor-dominated local congregations usually offer — and the temptation, of course, is to go for the best; it’s becoming more difficult to say why tuning in to a local, much lower-grade broadcast is as good an idea. Last week I watched the morning message from a church some dozen hours’ drive away. It was far better than the local offering.

Tom: Not to be unkind, but there are a LOT of people making videos who could make a 45 minute message feel like 40 years in the wilderness. But here’s a thought: Why are we still doing 40-45-minute messages?

IC: Totally agree. On video, a 20 minute, punchy presentation plays well. A 45 minute “talking-head” begins to feel a whole lot like a very dry “church meeting” imposed on you at home. There are few speakers who can produce 45 minutes of value at any time … certainly not every week, and certainly not in a medium that depends on motion, such as video.

Tom: Let’s break it here. This is a big subject, and I like to think one or two of our readers may find it as interesting as we do.

Back with more on the virtual church tomorrow.

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