The data is in and it’s clear: the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many people exploring church online. The latest statistics out of the UK suggest that one out of every four Britons has watched some form of online worship, Alpha Canada reports that there are over 1200 online Alpha courses being hosted across our country, and I’ve been hearing from numerous pastors and priests that new people are tuning in to everything from online daily reflections to Zoom book clubs and coffee hours.
Reaching the ‘Privately Faithful’
Could it be that God is up to something? Might he be using the time during which our buildings are closed to stir up a curiosity among people who might be too shy to walk into a church building, but who are eager to listen in from the comfort and anonymity of their own homes? Perhaps the dark cloud that is this pandemic has a silver lining. Perhaps the online presence of churches is more important than it ever has been. This may be the very best time to think about your church’s website, and to consider changing its focus from simply informing present church members to addressing the questions of people who are curious about Christianity but have had little to no connection to a community of faith. They are the people that the church in North America has largely been ignoring.
In the spring of 2017, an Angus Reid poll examining the spirituality of Canadians found that a full 30% of the Canadian population are deemed ‘privately faithful’, believing in the existence of God and even praying to God, but having little knowledge of actual teachings of various faiths, and having no connection to any faith community. This represents just over 11,000,000 people! Imagine if the church in Canada could reach even a small number of those people, who the poll found were interested in questions of forgiveness, desired spiritual teaching for their kids, and were hungry for a deeper experience of God.
Using Your Church Website
How might your church website help you connect with those people who, in this time of social distancing, are exploring churches online? Here are five pages that churches can easily add to their websites and that could help them both during and after the pandemic:
1. How We Make a Difference in Our Community
That is right. Make this the first one you add, and give it prominence on your website. People who are curious about Christianity often become so because they’ve seen Christians engaging with their neighbourhoods in interesting ways that serve the common good. So tell people how your church does this. Let them know if it’s a drop-by food drive during the pandemic, cleaning up a local park, or throwing a Canada Day block party, Family Day event, live Nativity in the neighbourhood, or Christmas Day dinner for people who will be alone. Does your church work together with any local community advocacy group? Do you offer an annual new-to-you clothing swap in a local community centre or hold a quilt raffle at a local mall? Do you run a pancake supper hosted in partnership with the local Legion, or drop off skipping ropes, soccer balls, or backpacks to a local elementary school? Let explorers know what your church does to serve. Many people want to get involved, and this could be one of the most important doors in for them.
2. What We Believe
People who are curious about faith want to know what you believe. Just be careful to tell them in a language that they can understand. Invite someone new to the faith to check for ‘insider language’ that may seem completely accessible to you but may be completely mystifying to unchurched people, or people who’ve been away from church for a while or have some other denominational background. Simple creedal statements are better than lengthy doctrinal propositions. Try to convey what you, as a church, find compelling about Jesus, what you love about gathering for worship, the support you have felt from the community of faith, and the healing you have found. Give them a reason to explore deeper.
3. How We Welcome Kids
One of the great surprises of the 2017 Angus Reid poll examining the spirituality of Canadians was that a significant majority of those deemed ‘privately faithful’ wanted their children to learn about basic religious teachings from a community of faith. Pair this with the fact that most churches do offer this very thing to kids in some form. So why not make it a priority to highlight whatever you do on the homepage or under a primary banner on the homepage!
Whether you run a monthly Messy Church, a Christmas pageant, a summer day camp, a children’s First Communion training, a kids’ choir, or a Sunday kids’ program, be sure to list these and, if possible, include parent-approved photos. Does your church’s worship include kids and families doing the Scripture readings or leading prayers? Are kids given shakers, tambourines and triangles to play along during congregational singing? Include any of that information as well.
Finally, let parents and grandparents know how babies and toddlers are welcomed in the physical space. Is there special space provided for babies who are nursed or bottle-fed? Are there change tables readily accessible? Are there quiet toys, books or colouring supplies for toddlers to play with during the sermon? Is there a staffed nursery for those parents ready to part with their little ones during the service? If the children leave the service for a kids’ program, when does this happen and are parents invited to accompany them?
4. Q and A for First-Time Visitors
For this page, picture the kind of really practical questions you might have on your first visit to an event at a new venue. Is there parking available? Which entrance should I use? What will people be wearing? How far in advance should I arrive? Is there designated seating or can people sit anywhere? Is it okay to bring my kids? What about babies or toddlers? Is the space accessible if I have a physical disability? Will I see some other people like me? That last question is important. No matter how large or small, it is a strength if you are a church of varied ages and backgrounds, so be sure to mention that. Finally, let them know that if they have a question that hasn’t been included, they can contact you (listing email address, phone number and office hours).
5. What to Expect on Sunday
Let’s face it. It can be very intimidating to go to a gathering if you have little to no knowledge of what is going to happen there. If you’ve been going to church for years, you might expect everybody to know how things work and what happens. But remember, the majority of people in Canadian society have never attended a Sunday worship service. So help take some of the pressure off by walking them through the experience. Give them a sense of how people gather in your church, how the service starts and progresses, and what they will need in order to participate (e.g. books, printed order, screens?). Give them a heads up if an offering will be collected and let them know that as a visitor they are not expected to contribute. If Communion/Eucharist will be served, tell them a little about its meaning and who is welcome to receive, as well as how it is distributed. If people gather to be prayed for, explain a bit what that is about. And finally, if the service is followed by a time for chatting over coffee and tea, let them know they are welcome to attend, but if they can’t stay that’s okay too.
During the pandemic lockdown, many people explore the church and Christianity online. Let’s do everything we can to give those people the best welcome and information that our websites can offer. Let’s help them continue their exploration. Let’s take the focus of our church websites off us and focus instead on the people that God is calling to himself, through our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.