How to Engage with Your Virtual Visitors

How to Engage with Your Virtual Visitors

With church services taking place online, you might find you are welcoming more visitors than usual. Here are some tips for how to make the most of the increase in visitors to your online services.

At Christchurch Harborough we normally try to make something of Easter Sunday. We would probably have a guest service of some kind, producing invitations for people to give to friends and family. We’d put something on our website and perhaps use Facebook to invite people. We may do some leaflet posting too.

Of course, falling as it does in the middle of a holiday, there are usually a fair few away. So any ‘normal’ Easter Sunday would probably have been down on normal numbers with a few families absent, and a scattering of extended family and visitors. We’re only a small church, but we would be delighted to see maybe half a dozen or a dozen new faces for our Easter service.

But this one, under lockdown, was far from normal. If everyone who could from church viewed our live stream we’d have had about 30-35 connections. This Easter Sunday we had many more: some stayed for the duration, some just popped in. But the most significant thing about this new normal is that – for the most part anyway – we had no idea who they were.

Visiting Christians from other churches? Maybe. Those curious about faith? Possibly. Some who had heard our radio advert, seen posters, or been sent invites? Who knows?

In all probability, all of the above. Which makes us wonder: how do we cope with virtual visitors?

It’s worth saying that this is one of the reasons we live stream on YouTube. We wanted to be as close to a normal Sunday morning as possible, which means making our services available to outsiders. Other churches may have gone for closed groups, which is fair enough; that’s their call and there’s no right or wrong.

But once you have made it possible for visitors to listen in, what do you then do? You’ve got to do something, right? It would be very odd to have an open door policy on a normal Sunday morning and then totally ignore any visitors who arrived (though that is perhaps what some churches, in effect, do). Likewise online.

So here’s a checklist of what we do. It’s not really that different from a physical Sunday, with just a few tweaks.

Set Expectations at the Start

We need to let visitors know what to expect so that they aren’t caught out and feel comfortable with what’s happening.

How long is this going to last? What elements will there be? What do we expect you do to?

Our answers to some of these questions are different when online from a physical meeting.

For example, we said: “Regular attenders are going to be singing along at home. You may find that a bit odd, in which case just sit and watch us singing. The words will be on the screen.”

Introduce Yourselves

Introduce both the church corporately and those who are taking part. If we include any videos of members, we say who they are.

This helps visitors feel less like outsiders and relate more to the church and the message you are proclaiming.

Remember That Your Primary Audience is Church Regulars

We think of visitors as ‘privileged observers’ but we don’t make it all about them. We need to shepherd the needy, hurting, isolated flock well, but neither do we make it just about believers.

We want to speak, pray, read and preach as though there are outsiders listening in so that the flock is served well yet visitors are engaged.

Think About the Service as a Whole

This is a mistake we often make in preaching because we strip out the sermon and put it online. But the preaching of the word happens in a context, and that context is the entirety of the service.

We want those who listen to the whole service to get a grasp of the whole gospel. In some services, this is best done through the sermon. In others, it needs to be integrated into the whole: welcome, music, and prayers included.

Recognise that Some People Only Stay a Short While

Since people may join and leave for a short part of the service at any time, it means we’re choosing songs, words, prayers that will stand alone for that short part.

This may sound like a contradiction to the last observation, but the point is that I want to include truths at every stage, but not feel I have to say everything at every stage.

Include a Mechanism for Follow Up

We’ve created a page on our website which has some follow up options: a prayer to pray; a book to read; an offer to read 1-2-1 or simply to get in touch; and a dedicated email address to contact.

It’s the first button you see on our home page. We mention it during the live stream and put it on the screen at the end.

This means visitors can ask questions or find out more, and we can begin a relationship with them.

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It’s all pretty normal, really.

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