“We’d like to get more interaction in our church service.” This is perhaps the most common sentiment expressed whenever we meet with a church leader. Engagement, interaction, feedback, discussion. Somehow, this adjective is absent from church online.
This is such a sign of the times. These words that never used to describe a church service.
What did leaders and churchgoers appreciate prior to Covid? For sure, you would hear descriptions of the worship. Not just the various styles of worship, but we heard about the impact of the music selection and performance. Was it uplifting? Peaceful and calming? Powerful? Transcendent?
And the message. Was it insightful? Did it speak to me? Was it challenging?
And the readings. And the sacraments. And the corporate prayer. There are all sorts of ways to describe these elements or a church service.
But… interactive? Engaging? Did anyone ever greet the pastor or the worship leader at the end of service or Mass and say, “that was really engaging?” Did the leadership team ever meet on Monday morning and reflect how interactive the congregation was on Sunday?
Obviously, something about online worship is missing, and much of it falls under the banner of interactivity, or engagement. And, by this, everyone is thinking beyond Likes, or Shares or emojis. If that’s what everyone meant, then we’re all done, problem solved. Emojis for everyone!
Also, interactivity and engagement must mean more than direct back-and-forth communication between the leader(s) and the attendees. Sure, an occasional amen! or preach! shouted out in the chat is appreciated. But, again, if that is what people are looking for, that problem has also been solved.
Interactivity Is About Community, Not About Who's Up Front
Clearly, the interaction that people generally experienced in pre-Covid days was with each other! In increasing degrees of intimacy, people interact and engage in these ways.
- I see my people. Ever sit in the back row? Or, ever wonder what those people are doing sitting in the back row? One of the truly wonderful experience sitting in the back, or in the middle for that matter, is the feeling of being where you belong. There is something healing and wholesome about feeling among one’s tribe. It is not entirely unlike being among the thousands of fans at a sporting event or a concert, brought together, unified by a common devotion to the performers. In church, we are unified by our faith. There is something special about simply being among fellow believers.
That actually counts as interactivity, as engagement. Belonging is an engaging experience.At Altar Live, we hear from our church customers that simply seeing the full roster of attendees approximates this sense of being among the church family.
- I see my friend. For the less talkative among us, this one is a favorite. In the church building, I make eye contact with friends. It could be someone from my men’s small group, or a member of their family. A quick nod or a wink goes a long way of feeling connected, even without a full-on conversation.
One of the big absences of social-media church is that you aren't aware of a particular individual's presence online, unless they are part of the 5-10% of attendees who say something in the chat. But, even then, there isn’t really a way to give a private, quiet hello in that setting.
The ability to have 1:1 or a small group chat among friends to simply say hi and do a virtual handshake
- I’m with my group. Early on in the pandemic, Altar Live was exploring ways to connect people in small rows or groups to watch a church service together, and use videoconferencing to talk among themselves. “Why would people want to talk during the church service?” we heard over and over -- from pastors. We never heard that from churchgoers. The fact is that lots of people interact with their seat neighbor, making small observations or asking quick questions. What’s more, youth pastors would tell us that the young people were actually already talking to each other in church, but on social media on their phones.
People like to “sit with” their group online. That could mean far-flung family members or friends, or friends with whom a simple hello or a nod is not enough. Can these people find a private space to see one another face to face online? Can they form a group chat just for this event?
Now we’re talking interactive!
This kind interactivity is peer-wise, not oriented towards what is happening up front. This is a crucial difference that does not necessarily occur to many leaders at first. The interactivity that people miss and crave is not between them and the leadership, it is among themselves.
- I’m with my pastor. Okay, okay, pastors, don’t worry, people want to engage with you too! (and you with them). A recent Barna research report showed that contact with pastors and leaders was among the top things people have missed during the pandemic. For many, this means just a brief connection, some reassurance that all is well, that they are not forgotten or overlooked.
And, of course, this is hugely important for pastors, the shepherds of their flock. They want to get a sense of who is in need, or to share a celebration, or to notice if someone has wandered away. The ability to have a specific space where the pastor and congregants can meet privately after the church service is a powerful part of an interactive church service.
- I can mingle. A few minutes with the pastor, and that’s enough. It’s time to meet and greet with the gathered throng. Now, as an extrovert, I want to make the rounds a bit, and join a conversation or two. In the church building, I do this organically, spying a lone individual or a group of people whose body language suggests they are open to talking. I don’t want to be assigned to someone (and vice versa, I am sure). And, I certainly don’t want to get locked into a conversation that it’s hard to get out of. I’d like to sort of scan the room, and find an opportune way to connect.
This is a big part of what everyone understands as community. To the degree that we are looking for community online, this sort of organic connection is a key part of it.
- I can pray with someone. I have attended many churches where there were rooms close by to the sanctuary, spaces set aside where two or more could gather for prayer. I have sought out those rooms myself, sometimes when the message or worship particularly moved me, and actually more often when I was going through a particularly rough stretch of circumstances, or doubt, or grief. In other seasons, I have made myself the prayer partner. I am there for whoever is looking for prayer, usually someone I don’t know, at least not particularly well. I am simply the available intercessor.
Since Covid, I have also been a prayer partner online. Sometimes this is done over text-based chat, which can be quite effective, if somewhat unusual, and not my normal prayer posture. That definitely counts as the kind of interactivity church folks are looking for online.
I have found it much more meaningful, and, frankly, easier, to pray with audio on, and even better with the camera on. There’s a lot more communicated -- to each other -- with more senses brought to bear.
In the physical church, you would find it odd that all the interactivity, all the engagement, is centered around those who are serving up front -- the pastor, the worship team, the lectors. The 'buzz' that you hear in church on a Sunday morning or Saturday evening is the electricity among those gathered. They have come there to be together, to see and be seen, to be unified in belief and purpose, and to connect in a way that brings wholeness and belonging.
That's a lot more interactivity and engagement than can be accomplished in a chat pane online.