Best Practices for Generating Growth in the Digital World

posted on May 06

Rather than the community coming to the church, the church should go to the community.

Now more than any other time in history the church is faced with unprecedented change and opportunity. More than one billion hours of video are watched every day on YouTube. Every. Single. Day. YouTube reaches more U.S. consumers between the ages of 18 and 49 than all cable TV networks combined (see stats here).
If you haven’t included online video or streaming to your strategic plan before – it’s doubly important to do so now.
Numbers matter because people matter. Behind every number is a person that God loves. Therefore, online attendance matters because digital church is here to stay. But let’s be clear – it’s not about being data-driven, it’s about being data-informed and good stewards of the information available to you. Adding facts and data to your decision-making process is not only the smart thing to do, it’s Biblical. However, there are some guidelines and best practices to use when deciding what and how to measure online attendance and track ‘church growth.’
COVID-19 may have changed our world BUT it is not the end of the world! This is the time to look deep inside ourselves and find new ways to do mission and reach our communities. It’s much easier to give up than to lead through a crisis. Your job isn’t to react to what’s happening, but to lead people in light of what’s happening.
“To be certain of God means that we are uncertain in all our ways, not knowing what tomorrow may bring. This is generally expressed with a sigh of sadness, but it should be an expression of breathless expectation. We are uncertain of the next step, but we are certain of God. As soon as we abandon ourselves to God and do the task He has placed closest to us, he begins to fill our lives with surprises.” (Excerpt from the April 29th devotion, “My Utmost for His Highest” by Oswald Chambers, Updated Edition, Edited by James Reimann. Oswald Chambers Publication Assoc. Ltd. 1992)
Digital is here to stay! Even when we go back to in-person worship there is going to a need for a digital presence. More than just streaming Sunday services, churches need to make digital a primary platform for everything they do – Sunday School, Bible Study, Small Groups, etc. This also means the church needs to adjust their staffing (volunteer) structure to align with the new reality.  
Keep the Main thing the main thing – and let go of the rest! Evaluate what you’ve been doing (strategy, ministry and programming) and why you were doing it. In the light of cultural change, does it continue to make sense? Is it essential? Is it aligned with your church’s overall strategy, vision and mission? If not, stop doing it.
First of all, numbers matter because people matter. Secondly, as a leader, your job is to track progress (both good and bad). If you refuse to be “data-informed” by benchmarking and counting things like attendance or giving (and then taking action), you may not be as effective as you could be. And even now (especially now), in the midst of the pandemic, don’t stop counting. Numbers, whether good or bad, can help gauge what is working (or not), and should be your greatest motivator – driving you to greater action, prayer, humility, visioning and innovation – helping you to dream “what’s next.”
There are many online metrics inside apps like Facebook and YouTube. And yes, tracking them can be confusing, but you can’t keep questioning the numbers until nothing is left. That defeats the entire purpose. So…just pick a few and benchmark them.
We recommend two analytics that can help you chart the story of your church’s online ministry and will allow you to see how effectively you are engaging people. Use these for reporting your VitalSigns Online Worship Attendance.

  1. Number of one-minute views on Facebook, YouTube and LiveStream service. Eliminating the 3 and 10-second views gets rid of the people who randomly scrolled into you and left. The people who watched for one-minute or more, likely meant to watch you. [YouTube Instructions | Facebook: Where to Find Insights ~ Page Insights Guide - How to Evaluate Insights]
  2. Use an attendance multiplier. Since one computer or phone might have more than one person watching, you use a multiplier to reflect that. We recommend you use a 1.7 multiplier (number of one-minute views multiplied by 1.7).
  3. We recommend that you review your numbers (Facebook, YouTube, etc.) every Wednesday and report to VitalSigns.
  4. Be consistent – use the same analytics and day of the week.
VitalSigns Online Attendance Reporting
[In the “Note” section of VitalSigns, please note the use of a multiplier and the dates/services measured.]
Additionally, if you want to break it down and really understand your ‘view’ numbers, you can also look at “Average watch time” and “Audience retention” (available on Facebook and YouTube).
IMPORTANT: Whatever metrics you pick, use them consistently and benchmark them. That way you have a consistent way to measure trends.
While views matter because people matter, the larger goal is engagement. In the physical world, your church counted the number of baptisms, professions of faith, small group participation, etc. All those metrics in some form or fashion are signs of engagement – a decision to take a deeper step-in faith and get involved in the mission and vision of the church. That can also happen online – through engagement.
If you want your church to grow online, move beyond just trying to attract people — start engaging and responding to them. Don’t just count how many people showed up online. Engage and respond to new “guests” and help them take the next steps in their faith journey. Viewers watch (passive); engagers participate (active). Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, is the win.
Start monitoring some online engagement metrics:
  • Likes
  • Comments
  • Shares
  • Subscribes
  • Decisions (POFs, etc.)
  • Texts
  • Donations
While it can be overwhelming to track all of that, setting up a few key engagement metrics is important to seeing how well your online audience is engaged with your message and will help you track and gauge growth; adjusting and adapting when indicated or needed.
IMPORTANT: Reach is about breadth; engagement is about impact! Engagement will drive all your future church growth.
Online, when someone engages with you by liking, commenting, sharing or subscribing, you have been given an opportunity. Don’t waste it! Help people move from just consuming content to participating in and engaging a personal, spiritual journey to follow and become like Jesus.
Ask your staff and volunteers with good people skills and a willingness to work on connecting with the people who engage your online platforms, to welcome folks who ‘like’ the page, respond to comments, etc. Viewers will watch but engaged people, people who participate, are more likely to return.
IMPORTANT: Pastors who prioritize online relationships over online reach will eventually see much more meaningful growth.
Once you’ve benchmarked a few key metrics, start monitoring. All of it tells a story! Whether your numbers are increasing or decreasing: the number of people checking in, average watch times, or the number of people engaging. Don’t fudge the numbers or change the metrics so they tell you what you want to hear. Instead, learn from it and change how you are engaging your audience. Become a better communicator. (Blogpost: 5 Ways to Get Better at Preaching/Speaking Directly into a Camera by Carey Nieuwhof)
The internet is here to stay. It is growing every day and the church can’t afford to ignore that. More than one billion hours of video are watched every day on YouTube. Every. Single. Day. Don’t spend your energy trying to figure out and recreate what you used to do. Let this crisis be the incubator for innovation. Find something new and creative to connect to your audience. Video provides the platform to be endlessly creative. (Blogpost: The Top 7 Reasons Everyone Ignores the Online Content You Produce by Carey Nieuwhof)
People still want to give. Our job is to give them the opportunity to serve and/or continue to support the church financially. Make sure you provide the mechanisms and platform that provide the opportunity to serve and give.  
And when church buildings reopen, do not stop doing digital church. This is not an either/or choice but a both/and. If you stop your digital ministry once the church buildings reopen, you will lose the very people you have been trying to reach.
Now more than ever, embrace change! To stay relevant, you will need to continue advancing your digital strategy and growing your digital footprint. You’ve done the hard work of getting online and building community with new people; you’ve been innovative and creative; you’ve expanded your digital footprint – don’t stop now! You’ve just begun to explore the possibilities…

Carey Nieuwhof writes, “If you continue to behave like the world doesn’t live online, you’ll miss the very people you’re trying to reach. If people live every day in need of hope and resources to live out their faith (or to find faith), church leaders have to start coming alongside people every day. The future church (at least future churches that reach unchurched people) will no longer be in-person gatherings with a smidge of online thrown in – but churches that embrace digital ministry — becoming every day focused churches helping  people live out their faith every day.” (Blogpost: Some Awkward Questions About How to Measure Online Church Attendance (+ 5 Growth Strategies), by Carey Nieuwhof)

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